Friday, October 30, 2020

Children's Authors with Dyslexia - Kersten Hamilton and Her Book DAYS OF THE DEAD

A few years ago, my good friend, Kersten Hamilton, did the interview below with me for the SWIDA (Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association) newsletter just before she shared her story at the 2015 Annual Conference in Albuquerque. I have since read her responses to many of my students who have found inspiration in her strength and courage. She generously agreed to let me reprint the interview this month as I wrap up my series on children's authors with dyslexia. 

Since it's Halloween, it's also a good time to mention her book, Days of the Dead. It's about a young girl, Glorieta Espinosa, living in a small New Mexico town who tries to come to terms with her mother's tragic death. The Day of the Dead is the magical holiday when the dead reconnect with the living and Glorieta desperately wants to reconnect with her mother. The book is for grades 5-8, but the complex themes of depression, suicide, and immigration will resonate with older students as well.

Now for the interview. Kersten Hamilton has written numerous titles from picture books to fantasy novels including the Goblin Wars series. She dropped out of high school due, in large part, to a significant reading disability, but went on to become a highly successful professional author. 


What kind of learning difficulties did you have in school?

It started long before I entered school. No one paid much attention to it until I was six years old.  My parents got divorced and my mother took me and my siblings to live with her brother, a doctor.  He noticed that I couldn't tie my shoes, I hadn't hit any of the developmental milestones, I couldn't learn the alphabet. I screamed a lot and woke up crying every morning.

My uncle told my mother I was mentally retarded and I should be sterilized, which was a common practice in the state of Washington at that time. Fortunately, the court system in Alaska, where we had previously been living, ordered my mother to return for the divorce proceedings. My father was granted custody, and I never returned to Washington.

My father then moved us to Albuquerque when I was in the second grade. I'm not sure what the records that followed me to Albuquerque said. I assume they said I was retarded because my teachers all set me in the back of the room and pretty much ignored the fact that I couldn't read.

What were the signs that you were struggling in school?

I would study for three or four hours for every spelling test and still receive an F every time.  "Hooked on Phonics" just didn't work for me. Nothing worked for me.

What made you want to be a writer?

I loved stories. 

My father told wonderful stories and read to us all the time—The Jungle Book, Edgar Allen Poe, the Just So Stories. I would memorize stories the stories then go back to the books and puzzle out the shapes of the words. That’s how I finally learned to read. By fourth grade I was reading at grade level, but I still could not spell. I only knew the shapes of the words. This was very confusing to my teachers.

When I went to the library, I had trouble looking at the titles of books. I would have to hold up two pieces of paper vertically so I could see just one title at a time. Otherwise, it would be overwhelming.  That makes it hard to do research in the library. Maps and graphs are almost impossible and the card catalog system is a nightmare. 

How did school change for you as you got older?

What got me through middle school was my desire to capture stories, create books. I knew I needed typing skills to become an author.  

I had to take the same typing class four times just to be able to pass it with a D. Through this experience. I’m sure the teacher winced every time she saw my name. But I learned to type the patterns of the word. I still couldn't spell the words, but I could tap their pattern.  I was not fast enough to take notes

My goal kept me in school but did nothing to help my grades. I could take information in, but without a computer, I had no way to give it back to the teacher to prove that I was learning anything.

The first semester of tenth grade I had had enough. I dropped out. 

Why did you decide to become a writer if the process is so difficult and laborious?

Stories. I believe that stories make us human, help us understand people who are different. I wanted to help people understand each other. But I couldn’t—and still can’t--do it without help and tools.

Spell checkers are essential. The internet has made research easier because I can type in what I'm looking for and it all appears in one nice column.

It is hard to look at a computer screen if there is too much information on it. If I enlarge the words I don't see too much information at one time. 

All of that technology isn’t enough, though. My husband still has to read through everything and catches the spelling errors.  I have an especially difficult time with words that have a similar shape pattern.

I know other successful writers who have reading and writing challenges. Do you have any theories on why so many successful authors with reading challenges have chosen writing as a profession?

Writing is hard for everyone, and every author encounters rejection. It is so hard and painful that many people give up. But all my life I have had to struggle. I have constantly had people telling me I couldn't do things. 

When you live like that, when everything is hard, you learn to persevere.  A few hundred rejection slips won’t stop you.

Kersten, thank you so much for sharing your story. As always, you continue to be an inspiration!

For additional information about children's authors with dyslexia, visit my previous October posts.

Patricia Polacco

Henry Winkler

Laurie Halse Anderson

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Mical - A Short Film About Dyslexia

MICAL, a short film about dyslexia (20 minutes), is the true story of a seven-year-old boy who struggles with reading and spelling so significantly that he can't even spell his own name correctly. In 1977 Bristol, England, Michael is humiliated by teachers and taunted by bullies, moved from school to school until his mother takes him to an educational psychologist to be evaluated and discovers that he has dyslexia. Unable to pay for expensive dyslexia intervention, his mother takes matters into her own hands and sets out to learning everything she can about the disorder. She then teaches her son to read and spell and sets out to help other struggling learners, eventually founding an organization called Nessy Learning. 

This film was an official selection of the Oscar/BAFTA qualifying LA Shorts International Film Festival 2020. It was created to raise awareness about the devastating emotional effects and lost potential that can result when teachers and schools don't understand dyslexia. Most parents assume that dyslexia is being addressed in the schools, but that is often not true. Go to Mical - The Official Film Site to watch the film and read about the creator's efforts to make sure that every school in the UK has a dyslexia interventionist.

See my series of posts about children's authors with dyslexia and watch the videos where these authors talk about their personal experiences with having learning challenges.

Henry Winkler - Author of the Hank Zipzer series
Dav Pilkey - Author-Illustrator of Dogman and Captain Underpants
Laurie Halse Anderson - Author of Speak and the Seeds of America Trilogy
Patricia Polacco - Author-Illustrator of Thank You, Mr. Falker and Sticks and Stones

Finally, watch another amazing video created by READING ROCKETS that contains a series of interviews with authors and illustrators with dyslexia and/or ADHD including Avi, Carmen Agra Deedy, Jerry Pinkney, E.B. Lewis, Dav Pilkey, and Patricia Polacco.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Children's Authors with Dyslexia - Patricia Polacco

Continuing with my theme of honoring children's authors with dyslexia for Dyslexia Awareness Month, this week I'm excited to discuss author/illustrator Patricia Polacco. Thank You Mr. Falker is her picture book about a girl (the author) who struggles with reading.

See the Classroom Resource Guide for the book published by the International Literacy Association.

The author, Patricia Polacco, did a video interview with Reading Rockets where she discusses her reading challenges and the Teacher Who Changed Everything. Mr. Falker was the first one to realize she had dyslexia and he even paid for her reading therapy out of his own pocket. This short (under two minutes) video is definitely worth sharing with your students.

She created another video discussing her learning challenges and the terrible bullying she endured in school. Her book, Bully, is for children ages 7-10 (grades 2-5). For younger children, ages Prek-3rd grade, she has a brand new book out just this month entitled Sticks and Stones (Simon & Schuster).

Sticks and Stones is about a year in the life of Patricia when she and two friends were bullied in elementary school. It depicts how they found strength in their friendship and in discovering their special talents.

See the video on  Patricia Polacco and Bullying. She talks about her struggles at greater length, the devastating effects of being bullied, and the importance of kindness and acceptance. She states that children with learning disabilities are geniuses. I wondered about that comment at first. Certainly, we can't all be geniuses, but she clarifies this by saying, "We as humans are all gifted, but we don't open our gifts at the same time."

Temple Grandin, the famous animal science professor with autism puts it another way, "The world needs all kinds of minds." Perhaps we all have our own type of genius. 

With that in mind, I will leave you with this thought.

Perhaps our most important job as educators is to help young people discover their unique genius.

See my blog posts on other authors with dyslexia:

Friday, October 9, 2020

Children's Authors with Dyslexia - Laurie Halse Anderson

I have always admired the work of Laurie Halse Anderson. I met her in person at the American Library Association conference a few years back and discovered that she was warm and personable as well as supremely talented. Her young adult novel, Speak, was groundbreaking in both its content and its style. Her teen novels cover tough topics like sexual assault and eating disorders (see Wintergirls).

In addition to her books for teens grades 7-12, Anderson has also written several well-researched historical books for younger students in grades 5-9 such as her Seeds of America trilogy.

For even younger children, grades 3-7, she created the Vet Volunteer series with a number of books about children saving animals from abuse. The series focuses on five kids who volunteer at a veterinary clinic. Anderson describes the series as Babysitters Club + Animal ER

Anderson actually began by writing picture books. Her first title was Ndito Runs. Her 2008 picture book, Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution involved so much research that in one interview that it took her nearly as long to write the picture book as it takes her to write a novel.

The scope and diversity of her books are impressive, but what is even more intriguing is that Anderson struggled to learn to read. This month on my blog I'm highlighting children's authors with dyslexia in celebration of Dyslexia Awareness Month, so I naturally wanted to include Anderson and her work. 

In a video for Reading Rockets, Anderson talks about receiving extra help early on for reading as well as for speech. In the interview, she tells how she cracked the reading code and became an avid reader but still struggled with grammar and spelling. Her first positive experience with writing was when her second-grade teacher introduced her to haiku. She could choose words for the short-form poem that she knew how to spell and after that experience, she was on a roll. 

I often use haiku with struggling writers. It is a simple, short form that his highly engaging and fun for kids of all ages. Watch for my fall haiku activity coming in November. In the meantime, watch Anderson's interview on Reading Rockets, explore her books, and check out last week's post about Henry Winkler and his Hank Zipzer series.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Children's Authors with Dyslexia - Henry Winkler

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month and I'm raising awareness about children's authors with dyslexia. They are a tremendous inspiration to struggling young writers. My students love reading their stories and watching YouTube interviews with the authors talking about their learning challenges. This week I'm sharing two series by Henry Winkler co-written with Lin Oliver, Executive Director of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. 

Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever, is a series of middle-grade novels based on Winkler's own experiences with dyslexia. Hank is smart, resourceful, funny, and creative, but he struggles with the many ways dyslexia can impact everyday life. The series is for grades 3-7, ages 8-12 with a reading Lexile of 610. The Here's Hank series is based on a younger version of the same boy in second grade and is written for ages 6-9 with a Lexile of 540-660. 

In a 2019 NPR Article, Henry Winkler talked about his experiences with dyslexia. The comedian/actor didn't find out that he had dyslexia until he was 31. Like many adults, he discovered that he had a learning disability when he took his son to be tested.

Winkler spent most of his youth being treated like he was stupid or lazy and he felt like an underachiever. He was grounded through much of high school because of his poor school performance. When he discovered that he had a talent for acting, he had difficulty reading scripts impromptu. He used memorization, improvisation, and humor to make it as an actor on the hit TV show Happy Days. One of the hardest challenges for him was the emotional impact of having a learning difference and facing what he described as feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment. He says that he had "no sense of self."

Reading Rockets has a video interview with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver on their website. They also have a video hosted by Henry Winkler called Reading and the Brain about the neuroscience of reading. 

Although Winkler reported feeling stupid for most of his early life and adulthood, he was actually quite intelligent. He earned a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University. 

His work reminds me of another author with dyslexia, DAV PILKEY, author of the Dog Man and Captain Underpants series. See my August POST about Dav and his books. Dav's stories are also filled with humor.

On a separate but related note, the International Dyslexia Association will be featuring a 24-hour virtual event on October 17, 2020, called Go Red (Reimagining Education for Dyslexia.) Go to their website for more information.