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Guest post by Shari Lapena: raising an excellent (dyslexic) reader

Yet another guest post for When Writers Read Kids’ Books — #8 by my count. Please welcome Shari Lapeña, whose most recent book, Happiness Economics, was nominated for the 2012 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Shari commented on the blog a while back, and mentioned the challenge of teaching her dyslexic son to read. I asked her to do a post on that topic, and she graciously accepted. Shari writes:

As new parents, we are always urged to read to our children twenty minutes a day. I always read much more than that to my kids, starting in infancy, and as it happened, it was a good thing, because my first child turned out to be dyslexic. It was a struggle to get him to learn to read, but by the time he was in grade five, he’d become an excellent, above-grade, reader. I thought I’d share a bit of that journey, because sometimes you need to do much more to turn a child into a reader than read with him twenty minutes a day and send him to school.

I think all children have a natural need for stories. And I worry that if you let children watch TV and use the computer at too young an age, then they will have their natural desire for stories filled by these other media, and a window might close. The chance to cultivate a great reader may slip by. Reading is an essential skill and also a great pleasure.  Not only that, I believe that reading fiction is a very good way to encourage empathy. What is reading but experiencing the world through someone else’s point of view?

I’m no expert, I’m just a mum who has always been an avid reader and is also a fiction writer, but I thought I’d share a bit of what it was like when my kids were learning to read. My sense of it was that most kids picked up reading pretty naturally—this letter makes this sound, you sound things out.  This is phonics, which isn’t necessarily taught that systematically in school. Some schools use the whole language approach, where there’s a word wall of high frequency words, and you start to recognize whole words.  Most use a bit of both. Kids seem to pick it up by osmosis. This worked fine for my daughter. But for some kids, this just isn’t enough. I have to admit that by grade three I hired an expert for my son. I simply didn’t have the skills to teach him to read. He loved stories, he loved being read to, but he needed more expertise than what I could provide. His tutor used the Orton-Gillingham method, and he learned to read, and read well. He still can’t spell. But I tell him that’s what spell checker is for.

Along the journey of learning to read, and after, it was important to find books that really captured his imagination. I think I owe my life to Dav Pilkey, Rick Riordan, and J.K. Rowling. I think they’ve probably done more to get boys to read than anyone.

“…when I find out that I’ve inspired a kid to write and draw, I feel like I’m passing the torch in a way. My dream is that a bunch of kids who were inspired by my books will grow up to be great artists and writers and filmmakers. I’d love to have as big an impact on a kid’s life as Charles M. Schulz and Ernie Bushmiller and Arnold Lobel had on mine.” Dav Pilkey in Publishers Weekly, August 2010.

I resisted reading Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books for a while, thinking it was all potty humour. But I was wrong. The books are creative, clever, and highly entertaining. They were hugely appealing to my son and my daughter—and to me. And the best thing—Dav Pilkey is dyslexic too! That’s why George and Harold spell that way. Which is something my son really enjoyed, although I had to point out a lot of the spelling mistakes to him, because to a dyslexic, “he acksidentelly dropped the majic amyoulet” looks just fine.

My son became a huge Rick Riordan fan.  He read all the Percy Jackson books, The 39 Clues (even the ones not written by Rick Riordan), The Kane Chronicles, the companion volumes, everything he could get his hands on. He couldn’t get enough of Rick Riordan.

So I took my son to see Rick Riordan when he was releasing his new novel, The Son of Neptune, at Chapters in Yorkdale Mall. The line up was a couple of thousand people long. There were security personnel. It was madness. There were actors floating around dressed as Greek gods, in gold paint.  We waited at least two hours in line for our chance to meet Rick Riordan and have him sign our copy of his latest book. But my son was happy to do it—he sat down in line and started reading the long-awaited book. I stood in line with my girlfriend and her two sons, also huge fans.

I don’t know what was more exciting for me—seeing hundreds upon hundreds of kids, mostly boys, so excited about a book, or seeing an author actually selling books and making money.  When we finally got to the front of the line, I said to Mr Riordan, pointing proudly to my son, “He’s dyslexic!”  And Rick, bless him, said, “Ah, a young demigod!”  I was impressed. My son was thrilled. (For those of you unfamiliar, the hero Percy Jackson is dyslexic and has ADHD; he is a demigod who derives his powers from his dyslexia and ADHD.)

Both my kids read and re-read all the Harry Potter books many times. I don’t need to say more about the tremendous effect they have had on kids’ reading everywhere. I still have straw brooms in my closet that I got one Halloween at Value Village. The kids wrote on them in black magic marker:  Firebolt, Nimbus 2000. I had my Swiffer 9000. We played quidditch on the front lawn.

But there’s another series I must mention—the Simon Bloom series by Michael Reisman.  Now, these are probably my son’s most favourite books of all. They are funny, action-packed books about physics. There are only two of them. My son kept pestering me to email the author and find out when the next book was coming. So I found him through his website and learned that although book three is written, he has been dropped by his publisher (despite a movie deal for the first book!) so this tells you how tough it is out there in publishing, but I digress.

My son would LOVE to have that book, so here’s hoping it finds a publisher soon. Perhaps I should email Bill Nye, the Science Guy, to get him on board. There’s an idea—he would probably support funny, action-packed books about physics.

I’ve spoken mostly about my son, because he is dyslexic, and because boys are sometimes seen as more of a challenge when it comes to reading, especially when they hit a certain age, at about grade 7, when reading may not be viewed as “cool”. (Thank goodness, then, for The Hunger Games—which I’m supposed to be reading for my book club next week, but which my son has now swiped—because I think it’s seen as “cool.”)  But my daughter is a huge reader as well, and loves horse books, especially the Canterwood Crest series by Jessica Burkhart. She also adores the Magic in Manhattan series by Sarah Mlynowski.

There’s lots of excitement building in our house these days, because a new title from Rick Riordan—The Serpent’s Shadowand a new Jessica Burkhart—Popular—are being released—on the same day! The kids can’t wait!

It’s important not just to teach kids to read, but to keep kids reading—it’s not something you put twenty minutes a day into when they’re little and then think your part is done. Keep looking for books they’ll love, and do them the favour of making them lifelong readers. It will make it a bit easier to keep them off the computer.

And make friends with your local librarians and booksellers—they know what kids are into, and because you’re a parent, your kids probably don’t think you’re very hip.

photo of ShariShari Lapeña worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She is a graduate of The Humber School for Writers, where her mentor was David Adams Richards. Her first novel, Things Go Flying, was shortlisted for the 2009 Sunburst Award. She won the Globe and Mail’s Great Toronto Literary Project contest, and was shortlisted for the 2006CBC Literary Awards. Her second novel, Happiness Economics, was published in September, 2011. She lives in Toronto and is currently at work on her third novel.

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The harry scaries

At long last, we’ve found ourselves in the magnificent world of Harry Potter, with its moving photographs, talking hats, invisibility cloaks, nearly headless ghosts, flying cars, magic-less muggles, and wizards. We’re on book two, and N is addicted. She pays close attention to the fine details — notice above how she’s drawn patches on Ron’s clothes to illustrate that the Weasleys don’t have much money; and how Harry’s scar forms a lightning shape on his forehead. Hermione, ever studious, holds a pencil and paper.

We whipped through the first book in record time, and then watched the movie. N, following the advice of her auntie, who traveled the Potter road with her son years ago, viewed many scenes through the holes of an afghan, as if that barrier could protect her from the likes of  Severus Snape, Argus Filch, or the evil Lord Voldemort, who lurks who knows where — maybe everywhere. Her auntie, alongside us for the show, was as excited as we were, partly because it’s such a good story, I think, but also because of the memories she has of moving through the Potter series with her son, who’s off to college this fall.

This is something I’ve noticed when I mention these books to parents with children of a certain age: they absolutely glow when they recall reading them with their kids. One friend recently wrote that her daughters were a perfect age for Harry Potter when the first book appeared.

“Since the books usually came out in June or July, we would take them up to the cottage with us and I can remember reading aloud for hours during long summer afternoons and evenings, none of us wanting to stop the wonder and excitement of the story or the warm relaxed feeling of connection as the three of us sat cuddled together…. Reading and long lazy summers, and my girls. My version of heaven.”

As a writer, I have mixed feelings about phenomenal sensations like Harry Potter. The books are really good, but it’s frustrating to see how such successes put everything else in shadow. Wikipedia states that, “The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, became the fastest selling book in history, moving 11 million units in the first twenty-four hours of release.” Those sorts of crazes rub me the wrong way — not just for books, but for Cabbage Patch Dolls and Silly Bandz. But nonetheless, here I find myself, a Muggle, totally absorbed in this magical world.

The books are especially intense for N. I have to regularly remind her that “He’s probably going to be okay. There are five more books, after all, and he’s in all of them.” Still, when reading, we have to follow up with a chaser of Ivy and Bean or Clarice — “to take the Harry Scaries away.” I understand the books get increasingly dark as the series goes along, so I’m not sure how quickly we’ll move through them. Just last night, we had to stop reading altogether because, along with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, we were rushing past flaming torches down a Hogwarts corridor and we came upon Argus Filch’s cat Mrs Norris hanging by her tail, “stiff as a board, her eyes wide and shining.” An ominous message had been scrawled on the wall: “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware.”

It was too much for N; she needed a break. As we closed Harry and opened Clarice, she whispered, “Good thing Harry doesn’t die. Because there are five more books, right?”

Yet it’s obvious we’ve entered a different phase, and though from a writer’s point of view the stories we read are becoming increasingly complex and exciting, from a mother’s point of view, the transition is bittersweet.

Recently we were visiting my mom, and on the first night we settled in with Harry to read another chapter. We laid in the bed facing the dresser, which held all the things it has always held: a tiny candle; a silhouette picture of me from Disneyland; three sets of children’s books each contained in boxes.

These are the stories we’ve always read at Grandma’s house — AA Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Mother Goose; fairy tales and abridged versions of Dorothy and Alice. There’s something about boxed sets that N loves. I suppose they feel like little gifts; the stories themselves are elevated, somehow, by this special presentation.

Just as I opened Harry Potter, N interrupted me and said “Wait!”

She jumped out of bed, rushed to the dresser, and grabbed one of the book sets, easing a book free. She opened to a random page, held the book to her face and breathed in.

“Mmmm,” she said. “I love these books. Smelling them gives me old memories.”

How wonderful to know that at seven, she already has a cache of memories about reading. It reminds me of Rosemary Wells saying, “Reading to your little one is just like putting gold coins in the bank. It will pay you back tenfold.”

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