Out of My Mind is a young adult novel written from the perspective of Melody Brooks, an eleven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. Though Melody cannot walk, talk, or feed herself, she has a photographic memory and a witty personality. Melody’s intelligence is mostly unrecognized by society at large, because of ableist prejudice that makes people assume her physical impairment must also affect her mental capacity.
In the beginning of the novel, Melody reveals she has never spoken a single word. Though most people in Melody’s life underestimate her abilities, Melody’s parents can see the intelligence in her eyes. Mrs. V, Melody’s neighbor and after-school caregiver, also recognizes Melody’s brilliance. Mrs. V motivates Melody to achieve more than society expects of her. Together they build a more complex set of vocabulary words for Melody to point to on her Plexiglas communication board.
When she is five years old, Melody and her mother consult a specialist to determine if she should begin kindergarten. After the specialist, Dr. Hugely, administers flawed and biased tests, he determines that Melody is severely brain-damaged and mentally retarded. The doctor recommends that Melody’s parents put Melody in a care facility so they can get on with their lives without the burden of raising her. Melody’s mother tells the doctor off for his insensitivities and enrolls Melody at Spaulding Street Elementary.
Melody spends the next five years in the special needs classroom, room H-5. Though she had at first been excited to enter school, the lack of intellectual stimulation in the segregated special-needs class disappoints her. When Melody enters fifth grade, she receives an electric wheelchair, which gives her greater autonomy over her mobility. Melody’s teacher Mrs. Shannon starts an inclusion program to bring H-5 students into main-school classes. Having noticed Melody’s intelligence, Mrs. Shannon secures funding to hire an aide for Melody named Catherine, a university student who helps Melody take tests and participate in main-school classes. With the help of her support system—composed of Mrs. V, Catherine, and Melody’s parents—Melody receives a Medi-Talker, a communication device that enables her to speak.
Despite her newfound voice, Melody remains socially isolated. Even when Melody achieves a perfect score on the Whiz Kids practice quiz, Mr. Dimming, her history teacher, and her classmates Claire and Molly are skeptical of Melody’s participation. Despite the adversity Melody encounters, Melody trains for the qualifying test and achieves another perfect score, earning her a spot on the Whiz Kids quiz team. Though she falters with math questions, Melody proves herself to be an equal contender and helps Spaulding Street Elementary to win the southwest Ohio regional competition. Because of her disability, the news reporters at the competition lavish attention on Melody. Melody is confused by the idea that she is a media sensation, and she correctly predicts that her teammates will be jealous. Melody wishes she was treated as any normal kid.
On the morning of the Whiz Kids national finals in Washington, D.C., Melody’s family learns that their flight has been canceled due to a late-winter snowstorm. It is revealed that the rest of Melody’s team came to the airport early and managed to leave on the last flight out. Melody learns they had been together after having eaten breakfast as a group; Melody had been excluded from the breakfast because the group worried she would slow them down. Even though Melody overcame multiple barriers to help bring her team to Washington, the team’s continued prejudice against her disability means she is unable to attend the final. The equality Melody has sought remains elusive.
In an effort not to feel sorry for herself, Melody decides the next day to attend school to see Catherine. In the chaos of trying to leave the house, Melody’s sister escapes out the front door while Melody and her mother are in their SUV. Without her Medi-Talker, Melody attempts to get her mother’s attention by kicking, shrieking, and scratching. Melody’s mother misunderstands the meaning of Melody’s outburst and reverses the vehicle until she hears a soft thud. In the accident, Penny suffers a broken leg and requires surgery.
When Melody returns to school the following Monday, her classmates are glum. They attempt to assuage their guilt for having left her by giving her the tacky ninth-place trophy they received in Washington. Melody laughs at the gesture and knocks the trophy to the floor before rolling out of the classroom. The novel ends with Melody reflecting that, despite the obstacles her developmental difficulties present, her existential needs are not so dissimilar to those of most fifth graders. The narrative comes full circle when Melody begins composing her autobiography, the first lines of which comprise Out of My Mind’s opening chapter.