In this breakthrough story, reminiscent of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, from multiple Coretta Scott King Award-winner Sharon Draper, readers will come to know a brilliant mind and a brave spirit who will change forever how they look at anyone with a disability.
As a special education teacher, I love the idea of a book with a protagonist with special needs, and as I read the book, I couldn't help but get wrapped up in the story. While I was reading it, I loved it, but after I finished and had a moment to think about it, my enthusiasm for the story diminished somewhat.
How is it that a student with cerebral palsy, in the early 2000's (kids mention MySpace and the first iPhone), is still in a self-contained classroom all day and using only words taped to her chair table to communicate? No one considered assistive technology prior to this? Her mother, who is a nurse and a fairly strong advocate for her, didn't research it? Where is her IEP? By law, she should have had an IEP and specially designed instruction provided by a special education teacher. By law, she should have spent at least part of her day interacting with her non-disabled peers. The fact that the Melody's school just piloted an "inclusion" class is alarming. Like they had been completely immune to the inclusion moment that started in the 1950's and hit it's peak in the 1980's.
If the story hadn't taken place in the 2000's, I might have been able to let it slide, but factually speaking, the school Melody attended would be hard pressed to dispute claims of major violations of IDEA and ADA. It was these little inconsistencies that drove me crazy, and in the end, diminished my opinion of the book as a whole.
On a side note, I also didn't see the point of the accident involving Penny, Melody's sister, that took place towards the end of the novel. I don't want to give too much away, but it was also something that was inconsistent and unnecessary to the greater picture of the story. It felt like it was thrown in at the last minute to provide a touch of drama to the story line. I saw it as an unnecessary distraction, but I digress...
I thought that Melody was a well developed character, and I found her to be endearing, sassy, and lovable. For all intents and purposes, she was a typical teenager, and I think that many young readers will be able to connect with her, even if her vernacular seem somewhat off for the times. However, some of the other characters where somewhat flat and stereotypical. There were of course the horrible teachers who believe that students with disabilities (SWD) do not posses any level of intelligence and treat them like pets; the students who lack any real understanding of SWD due to lack of expose and education, who make fun of them; the teachers and students who mean well, but still see SWD as "other," and the strong advocates for SWD who go to battle for them every day. The full spectrum of perspectives was present, albeit shallowly.
What happened to Melody in this book, probably would not have happened in today's world without some serious legal ramifications. Unfortunately, some of the things that Melody endured still do happen today. There are still teachers out there who, through a lack of education, compassion, or willingness to put in extra effort, complain about teaching students who have learning difficulties. Students, disabled and non-disabled, still get made fun of for their differences and are, at times, ostracized by their peers. It was easy to judge, and in many cases, condemn these characters for their thoughts and actions. But reality is so much more complicated. It would be easy to say that perhaps the author kept things simple because of the target audience. But I wonder if in doing so, we do the audience and YA genre a disservice. I think that young people are far more capable of understanding complex issue than we give them credit for.
I read an article recently about how studies show that people who read have a greater capacity for empathy than people who do not read. It argues that through reading, people are able to experience things and perspectives vastly different from their own in an objective way. This in turn, makes it easier for them to put themselves in the shoes of others and see their perspectives objectively. While many of the characters in this novel are simplistic and stereotypical, the fact is that every stereotype has a basis in truth. While there are many problems with the story's plot, I wonder if focusing on them deters from the real purpose of the book.
I wonder if the real purpose of the book is to see the world through the eyes of someone who faces challenges many of us take for granted. I wonder if children who read this book might develop greater empathy towards those who are different from them because they have the chance to experience what life is like for Melody. I wonder if reading this book might make them think about how they see and judge other people and perhaps change a thing or two. I can almost forgive the short comings of the finer plot points if I look at the story through this lens. While I find fault with the story because of its unrealistic and underdeveloped plot, I cannot find fault with it for using a protagonist like Melody to educate and bring even the smallest amount of understanding into the world. After all, the only thing that can drive out ignorance is education.