Letters About Literature: Dear Sharon Draper

We continue our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. Winners were announced last month.

There was a tie for the national prize for Level 1. Following is one of the winning letters written by Jayanth Uppaluri of Clayton, Mo., to Sharon Draper, author of “Out of My Mind.” You can read the other Level 1 winning letter here.

Dear Sharon Draper,

                 I don’t have cerebral palsy. I don’t need a device to communicate. I don’t even have a photographic memory. My life is so different from Melody’s life. I can use all of my fingers to type on a computer. I can walk around the block. I can take part in a regular conversation about the St. Louis Cardinals. I don’t need an aide to help me. I have two siblings, a brother and a sister. My sister is about as free of disabilities as you can get. My brother is a different story.

                  My brother has difficulty in expressing his words because he has a form of autism. Like Melody, he tries to tell people many things, and like Melody he gets frustrated when people don’t understand him. Similar to Melody, he has a device to communicate, but unlike Melody’s, my brother’s device is quite complicated to use. On top of this, he does not always have his device when he needs it the most because the battery can fail at any time.

                  Because of his talking complications, people don’t understand him, and sadly he gets frustrated.  What’s so hard to understand about this?  If I had trouble expressing myself, I would be frustrated, too. For example, if I couldn’t tell my parents that I hated peas, and they kept giving me peas, or if I couldn’t tell them that I love eggnog and they kept offering me carrot juice…I think you get the picture. When my brother gets frustrated, he might tear paper or throw things. Sometimes, to get attention, he has even hurt himself by hitting his head or banging his chin. Before I read your book, I never understood how he could survive or how to help him.

                  Then, I read your book. Though cerebral palsy is different from autism, there are some things in common. People with cerebral palsy or autism are held back by symptoms whether it’s lack of mobility or lack of expression. Also people with autism are not dumb and the same goes for people with cerebral palsy. Reading “Out of My Mind” gave me a different perspective on things. It is the only book I have read that was from the impaired person’s perspective. I never thought “What is she crying about?” because I could vividly see what Melody was thinking.

                  Your book made me think differently about my brother and begin to put myself in his shoes. I began to help him express his feelings. For example, when I ask him a question, I give him time to respond rather than ask him over and over again like I used to. I also have learned how to interact with my brother. We wrestle together and chase each other around the house instead of doing things separately. Before I read your book, I didn’t make the effort to play with him. That was a big mistake, because seeing my brother’s winning smile when we played for the first time has made me realize that we have a very special bond that no one can break.

                  It is important for Melody to feel confident in order to succeed, and that’s very important for my brother too, just as it is for any of us. When Melody participated in the Whiz-Kids competition, her family and caregiver, Ms. Violet, supported her and helped her study, which gave her the confidence to win. It is also vital for my brother to experience success. When he brings my mom the iPad when she wants him to watch videos, we don’t overlook it. We praise him for doing it. This gives him the confidence to do better and progress. If he hides in the closet and stuffs his face with Lindt chocolate truffles without asking, we don’t scream at him. Instead, we take the bag away, tell him to ask us first…then we stuff our faces with chocolate. This doesn’t make him afraid of us, instead it makes him laugh, and it makes us happy because we get to eat chocolate (chocolate equals treasure in our house). When he flashes his million dollar smile at us as we are eating chocolate, it sends an unspoken message that words could never express.

                  Now I know that my brother can survive. When Melody was in Mr. Dimmwit’s class and everyone thought it was a mistake that she got 100% on the preliminary Whiz-Kids test, she didn’t give up. She studied very hard with Ms. Violet and then aced the final test to get into the Whiz-Kids competition. This made me think that my brother could survive all that he was going through and that people around him would realize how intelligent he is. If Melody could endure all the taunts and insults given by Molly and Claire, my brother can endure the ignorant people who don’t understand him. If Melody can tolerate not making it to the national Whiz-Kids competition, my brother can tolerate his challenges. He works so hard in his therapies, and I am confident it will pay off.

                  Before I read your book, I thought my brother didn’t understand me. Because he couldn’t talk that well, I didn’t think he could understand anyone. After I read your book, I realized something. I was wrong. He understood me. The only person who didn’t understand anything was me. Thanks for writing this amazing book that helped me to understand my brother.

Jayanth Uppaluri 

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