Every morning, Melody wakes to the sound of Penny asking for Doodle, a stuffed animal that Melody thinks might be a monkey or squirrel. Their mother soon comes into Melody’s room and then rushes Melody to the bathroom, because she desperately has to use the toilet every morning. We learn that Melody’s mother potty trained Melody by the age of three, despite the doctors having said Melody would need diapers, as her classmates and Ashley and Carl do.
Melody’s mother understands when Melody is sad, and can decode what Melody is trying to communicate based on gestures as simple as Melody pointing her thumb toward the ceiling. After the baby, Melody points at her mother’s stomach to insinuate that she is fat, but Melody insists she isn’t fat; she just likes to tease. Melody’s mother reads her Garfield cartoons, and Melody notes how his words float over his head in speech bubbles. Melody would like it if somebody could write over her head the words she thinks.
Melody recounts a time earlier that summer when she tried to tell her father that she wanted a Big Mac and milkshake. He didn’t understand and she nearly had a tornado explosion. A few weeks later they drove past a McDonald’s and Melody kicked and shrieked; her father understood. It took her an hour to eat, but it was one of the best hamburgers she’d ever eaten.
At the start of fifth grade, Melody receives an electric wheelchair, which she controls with a lever. The chair is heavy, meaning her parents have to buy portable ramps, but Melody appreciates the new speed and freedom the chair gives her. She compares her old chair to a skateboard, and the new one to a Mercedes. The new teacher, Mrs. Shannon, brings in books on tape for Melody.
“Inclusion classes” begin: special-needs students are brought into “normal” classrooms. Every Wednesday, Melody and her classmates are integrated into Mrs. Lovelace’s music class. Willy yelps at the top of his lungs, causing the normal kids to turn and stare. Two girls, Molly and Claire, mimic the sound and movements of the special needs kids. Mrs. Lovelace makes the girls stand up while the rest of the class gets to sit—a punishment that delights Melody. Melody loves the music Mrs. Lovelace plays on her piano, and the rich colors the music evokes. One day, Mrs. Lovelace pairs students together, and for a moment it looks as if Melody will be left alone. Melody is relieved when Rose volunteers to be her “buddy,” and from then on they sit next to each other in music class. Melody can barely sleep on Tuesday nights, knowing she will get to sit with Rose the next day. Using her communication board, Melody manages to tell Rose that she doesn’t like the scent of jazz music; Rose says she doesn’t like jazz either.
Melody powers her chair through the halls; fellow students greet her and sometimes walk with her to class. Though she likes being included, Melody is frustrated that she sits at the back of inclusion classes and has no way of raising her hand when she knows an answer—particularly because she knows all the answers.
Mrs. Shannon manages to secure funding for Melody to have a university student named Catherine work as Melody’s aide. When they meet, Melody tries to tease Catherine about her ugly purple and green outfit, but Catherine doesn’t realize she is poking fun. Melody appreciates that Catherine doesn’t speak to her in a condescending way. With Catherine’s assistance, Melody is able to take tests in Miss Gordon’s language arts class. Claire and Molly accuse Melody and Catherine of cheating, and Melody thinks it is absurd for them to be jealous of her. Miss Gordon assigns a project that involves first writing a famous person’s biography and then an autobiography. In Mr. Dimming’s history class, Melody memorizes obscure political figures. Melody is bored when she has to return to room H-5 at the end of the day; she thinks about what Rose is doing.
Melody observes that her sister spends a lot of time in front of the mirror; Penny likes to put on elaborate outfits and pretend she needs to go to work. Mrs. V wins an essay contest about the ecological importance of fish, and is awarded six tickets to the new downtown aquarium. Melody spells out Rose’s name on her board. On Thanksgiving weekend, they go to the crowded aquarium, and Melody enjoys watching the beautiful and strange sea creatures. They run into Claire and Molly, who are there with a Girl Scout group. Rose walks quickly away from Melody and her family to speak with the girls, who tease her when she admits who she is with. Melody hears Rose whisper that it’s not so bad. Claire and Molly laugh, causing Melody’s mother to ball her fists in anger. Mrs. V loudly makes a comparison between the braces on Claire’s teeth and Melody’s wheelchair. She tells Claire she is lucky that only her teeth are messed up. The trip ends with Rose thanking Melody’s family for a good time, and Melody wonders if she actually enjoyed herself.
The narrative gradually introduces details of Melody’s daily routine as a person with disabilities. The fact that Melody was potty trained by the age of three works as an example of Melody’s many triumphs over adversity: the medical professionals expected her to have to wear diapers, but she and her family proved them wrong.
Melody’s appreciation of Garfield’s speech bubbles touches on her ongoing conflict of not being able to express herself. The moment also foreshadows Melody’s eventual ability to speak through her Medi-Talker device. The time when Melody’s father didn’t understand her request for a Big Mac illustrates how, though her inability to communicate is frustrating, the eventual gratification she receives makes her patience worthwhile.
Melody’s electric wheelchair grants her a newfound autonomy, allowing her to travel through the halls of her school on her own. This development speaks to the importance of medical devices that can help make people with disabilities less reliant on the assistance of aides.
Melody’s immersion in mainstream school classes highlights the significance of providing intellectually stimulating learning environments to special needs students, who are simply happy to be in Mrs. Lovelace’s music class. The positivity and openness of the H-5 students are contrasted against the discomfort of the regular students. Claire and Molly’s mocking contempt and open bullying underscore how prejudice goes unchecked when regular and special-needs students are kept segregated. Melody’s excitement at being paired with Rose exposes Melody’s existential need for genuine friendship, and the introduction of Miss Gordon’s autobiography project sets up the premise for the novel’s eventual composition.
As with most positive developments in Melody’s life, there are setbacks to her inclusion classes: she isn’t able to raise her hand to answer the questions she knows the answers to, leading to frustration and compounded feelings of social isolation. This begins to change when, with Catherine’s assistance, Melody is able to take tests like the other students. However, even when Melody proves her intelligence, the prejudice against her physical appearance causes Claire and Molly to believe she must be cheating.
Melody’s visit to the aquarium is symbolic of her social isolation. Melody had previously compared herself to her lone goldfish trapped in his bowl; at the aquarium, this image is juxtaposed against how the fish and sea creatures swim freely among each other in large tanks. This dynamic is replicated among the humans who walk through the crowded aquarium: Melody is alone in her bowl while everyone moves and speaks freely. Melody’s isolation is made more pronounced when Rose distances herself from Melody’s family to go over to Claire and Molly. Rose’s halfhearted and sheepish defense of Melody invites Melody to speculate that Rose is, out of a sense of duty, engaging in a superficial friendship with Melody.