On dyslexia

My recently published novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, is about a girl with reading difficulties who discovers she has a connection with the world of the fairies, and who goes on a dangerous journey with little time to spare. Fairies, dyslexia, and the great outdoors are the three big themes of the story. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the second.

When, many years ago, I first had the idea for the story, the main character, Jennifer, wasn’t even the main character. Rather, she was one of three relatively equal characters (Amy, her sister, and Simon, her cousin—both still in the story). However, by the mysterious laws (or anarchy?) of character development, Jennifer seemed to grow and grow until she not only became the main character of the story but also took over the narrative point of view.

Around this time, my mother had begun working as a teaching assistant at a special needs school. I remember one day noticing a book that she had left on our dining room table about the topic of dyslexia. Idle curiosity (or perhaps the Muses of old, who knows?), prompted me to pick up the book and leaf through it. I’d heard about dyslexia before, but didn’t really know in detail about what it was or who it affected.

I wish I remembered the name of that book—I only remember the yellow cover, and that it was relatively old, published in the early 80s. Reading it, I found myself intrigued. Dyslexia is a condition apparently caused by certain issues with brain development that causes difficulties with learning to read and write. People with dyslexia will tend to perform these tasks relatively slowly, often confuse the order of letters in words, struggle (to varying degrees) to absorb written information, and also find it harder than most to follow an exact sequence of instructions.

However, what I found fascinating is that many famous people in history have been dyslexic. In this amazing list are people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci (his mirror handwriting, remember!), Pablo Picasso, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill. The condition of dyslexia itself may not necessarily have been known about while some of these individuals were alive, but with hindsight, it is clear that many of the difficulties they expressed regarding reading and writing would today be recognised as obvious symptoms.

It is also very strange that so many modern day artists and actors are dyslexic. There seems to be some kind of link between the condition of dyslexia and a high degree of creativity. It is almost as if the same brain development pathways that cause difficulties with reading and writing also enable an individual to sharpen their creative thinking. In fact, many dyslexics will say how much more comfortable they are with images rather than words. Perhaps this is why they will tend to seek out activities that don’t require so much focus on the written word.

Indeed, there is one school of thought that regards dyslexia as a ‘gift’ or blessing in disguise, enabling a person to think in a much more holistic way, using the power of images rather than letters and words. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a dyslexic in all of us. How often have we heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”? We are all able to ‘think in pictures’. It’s just that dyslexics have the capacity (or power, if you like) to take it that one step further.

I think it’s important to state, if it isn’t already obvious, that dyslexia does not affect intelligence or actual capacity to learn. In that sense, it is very unlike autism (which can share some symptoms with dyslexia), with which it is sometimes incorrectly linked (as they are both classified as special educational needs). More specifically, according to NHS England, dyslexia is classified as a “specific learning difficulty”, rather than a “learning disability.”

I should say here that I’m not dyslexic myself. Perhaps, since I always been such a passionate reader, I had my interest piqued by a condition that causes natural difficulties with something I enjoyed so much. By the time I’d finished that yellow book, I’d made up my mind—Jennifer Brown was going to be dyslexic. I hadn’t realised just how profoundly that would alter the story as I continued to churn through the plot. In the final book, her difficulty with reading and writing is as central as it can be to the story, and her desire to overcome her problems and to find a way to be ‘just as good as everyone else’ is one of her great motivators.

Jennifer, in the second and third instalments in the Fairyhand trilogy, will begin to learn to read and write (yes, I’m giving a little tease of what’s to come!). Although there is no ‘cure’ (it is a lifelong condition), there are plenty of excellent teaching methods and support strategies that can be used to help dyslexics learn to read and write, and perhaps some of those may make their way into the books to come.

I like to think, by combining the ‘fairy’ and the ‘dyslexic’, I have in some small way created a character that helps show the condition in its best light, while highlighting the real-world issues that dyslexic people inevitably face.

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