Spotlight On: Dyslexia
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that arises due to difficulty in parsing out and manipulating the different phonological elements of written and spoken language. It is quite common; some estimates indicate that as many as 17% of people may be dyslexic (note: we will use both identity-first and person-first language here to acknowledge the diversity of language preferences within the dyslexic community). Though this neurologic difference does often pose problems for people with dyslexia, it also helps them excel in a wide variety of fields, as indicated in the Dyslexia Project's strengths-based “re-definition” of dyslexia:
“Dyslexia is a specific learning ability, neurobiological in origin. It is typically characterized by strengths that may include creative expression, athletic performance and scientific discovery. The individual with dyslexia often exhibits strengths in big-picture concepts, thinking outside the box, making unexpected connections and demonstrates an intuitive sense of understanding of people and navigating the natural world. Secondary strengths include a unique learning style that may be visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, the ability to demonstrate knowledge other than with the written word, and a canny sense of entrepreneurialism that may lead to great innovations and financial success.”
As booksellers, dyslexia is something that's often a consideration for us, especially when recommending books for young readers. Whether it's helping kids gain confidence through text-light, context-heavy graphic novels or providing books with fonts and layouts designed to be more in tune with dyslexic brains, we're always happy to do what we can to help young people succeed and find joy in reading. But children with dyslexia need more than just good books to to reach their full potential and thrive. They need support and resources, and organizations like The Dyslexia Project, Dear Dyslexia, and the Dyslexia Resource Center can be a great place to start. As with any other disability, children with dyslexia deserve stigma-free diagnosis, accommodations, instruction, and support. They also deserve role models who can show them that their dreams are not out of reach, even if they hope to make words and language their vocation. As dyslexic author PJ Manney writes, "We are the born storytellers, and nothing should prevent us from writing. We just need a little help."
If your young reader is looking for dyslexic author role models, here are some we love!
Dav Pilkey, author of the Dogman and Captain Underpants graphic novels, was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a kid. His teachers found his behavior so disruptive that he was frequently sent to sit in the hall. As Dav's website points out, "Luckily, [he] loved to draw and make up stories, so he spent his time in the hallway creating his own original comic books—the very first adventures of Dog Man and Captain Underpants." See Dav's video message to kids with learning differences here.
Best known for her work as a Hollywood actress, Octavia Spencer's critically acclaimed performance as Minny in the DreamWorks feature film The Help won her a 2012 Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe Award, a SAG Award, and a Broadcast Film Critics’ Choice Award, among countless other honors. Her first book, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective, was released in 2013. Spencer is outspoken about how dyslexia affected her life, both as a young student and now as an actor and producer for film and television. “I was a dyslexic child and am a dyslexic adult,” she said in a 2017 interview. “That doesn’t really mean that you’re not intelligent—it just means that your brain functions differently.”
Growing up in the 40s and 50s, negative attitudes toward dyslexia posed a problem for Avi that he did not even discover until adulthood. He was regularly criticized as a student for having "sloppy" writing and poor spelling skills. Tests showed that Avi exhibited "symptoms of dyslexia," but due to the stigma attached to such a diagnosis, his parents opted to keep that information from both Avi and his teachers. They did, however, enroll Avi in a school with an intensive focus on reading and writing, and also helped him get additional tutoring. This fostered a love of reading that inspired Avi to become a writer; he has gone on to write dozens of books for both young readers and adults, earning numerous honors including a Newbery Medal.
Henry Winkler is an accomplished actor, producer, and director best known for his role as "The Fonz" on the American sitcom Happy Days. In 2003, Henry added author to his list of achievements as he coauthored his first series of children’s books. The Hank Zipzer series was based on Winkler's own experiences with undiagnosed dyslexia and the difficulties it caused for him as a young student. Winkler and his writing partner, Lin Oliver, continued to explore themes of learning differences and feeling like an outsider in a number of further books and book series, including the newly released Detective Duck: The Case of the Strange Splash, illustrated by Dan Santat.
An award-winning illustrator, the late Jerry Pinkney was outspoken about the obstacles he faced as a child with dyslexia, as well as the ways in which it encouraged him to explore his talents. “I truly believe dyslexia made me the achiever I am in my art," he said, "and it made me who I am as a person.” The condition posed problems for him early on; of grade school, Pinkney said, "I was working so hard at being okay...I needed the accomplishment...to mask this sense of inadequacy." Compensating for his perceived inadequacy with words, Pinkney doubled down on his art, creating ever more vivid pictures and developing the incredibly expressive imagery for which he is known. In fact, the book for which he was awarded the Caldecott Medal, The Lion and the Mouse, is completely wordless.
Want more? Here are some of our favorite recommendations for books with dyslexic characters:
Looking for helpful resources for parents, teachers, and dyslexic adults? Check out these resources recommended by the University of Michigan's Dyslexia Help Center: