Out of My Mind

Draper,Sharon M. (2010). Out of My Mind. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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Sharon Draper and her books have won more awards than I can possibly list. Out of My Mind itself spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller’s list and has been translated into no less than ten languages. Draper, whose writing I was not familiar with before Out of My Mind, (probably because most of her works are classified as young adult, and my favorite books to read tend to be middle grade fiction) is a five time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and won the Jeremiah Ludington Award for her lifetime contributions to children’s literature in 2012.

Not only is she an excellent writer, Sharon Draper is also a former National Teacher of the Year. This entitles her to speak honestly about the good and not-so-good special education and inclusive regular education teachers. As the parent of a child with a developmental disability she has experienced in a personal way the joys and the heartaches that occur in the lives of families with special needs children. As a special education teacher and parent of a child with a disability myself, I wholeheartedly agree with her perceptions. It’s no wonder teachers everywhere are including it in their required reading lists.

Eleven year old Melody has cerebral palsy. She isn’t able to express herself, walk, or take care of her personal needs. Most people assume she is intellectually as handicapped as her body is, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Melody has a photographic memory, loves words, and is a keen observer of the world around her. Her mother, sitter, and classroom aide can see the intelligence in her eyes. When Melody points to a classmate’s new laptop, they realize she wants a computer herself to communicate. When she finally gets one, it opens a whole new world- but will the other fifth grade students and teachers finally see beyond her physical limitations?

I’m not exactly sure why Out of My Mind is marketed as young adult fiction, and not middle grade. Perhaps Draper’s other works are more appropriate for older teens. But my twelve year old is loving this title, and the book itself is recommended for ages 10 and up. It’s a thought provoking story, and a wonderful way to teach your kids not only about disabilities, but that they are loved for who they are, and not simply for what they are able to do.

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Mockingbird

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Erskine, Kathryn (2011). Mockingbird. New York: Puffin Books.

After more than a quarter of a century teaching special education, my favorite population to work with remains those kids with “autism spectrum disorder”. Over the years the American Psychiatric Association has redefined exactly what this includes, and with the publication of the DSM-V in 2013, Asperger’s syndrome was no longer its own, separate category. While similar to autism in many ways, I personally find its characteristics to be different enough to warrant its own diagnosis, and anticipate that some day in the future, it will have this once again.

In Mockingbird Kathryn Erskine weaves two circumstances close to her heart into a memorable story for upper elementary students: Asperger’s syndrome, which her own daughter was diagnosed with, and in memory of the Virginia Tech massacre, school shootings. Told in first person narrative by ten-year old Caitlin, who has Asperger’s, the story is propelled forward by her search for closure after her older brother is gunned down in his middle school. With the completion of a project her brother had started she, her dad, and the entire community step closer to the healing they so desperately need.

Aspergers is characterized by a disconnect in emotional understanding and consequently, social skills. Caitlin has difficulty “stepping into someone else’s shoes”. She is extremely literal and likes her world to be well-defined. Even when drawing, which she does exceeding well, her pictures need to be done in black and white. Very bright, Caitlin is in a regular fifth grade classroom, preparing to transition to middle school, learning to make friends, and coping with extreme sensitivities to sensory stimuli.

Reading as Caitlin can be a little tricky if Aspergers is new to you. When she speaks there is usually less inflection than other characters in the dialogue. While suitable as an independent reader, reading aloud the first chapter or two may help give your kids a firmer grasp on her characterization, and will provide an opportunity to discuss the two issues Erskine is addressing more directly.

This National Book Award winner is a valuable book for teaching about perspective, disabilities, and empathy.