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.