Friday, 12 October 2012

Dyslexia Seems to be the Hardest Word

It's Dyslexia Awareness Week, and I wanted to discuss a fascinating event called "Seeing the World Differently: a Celebration of Reading and Dyslexia", which I went to last night. It was hosted by Booktrust and Hot Key Books, and featured author Sally Gardner talking about her own severe dyslexia and how it lead her to cast a dyslexic as the protagonist of her latest novel, Maggot Moon. This choice doesn't come across as preachy or worthy, in fact as Sally tells it, she wasn't even aware that her protagonist was dyslexic until her publisher pointed it out to her. She had simply chosen to tell the story in a certain way, and her character's perspective on the world was intrinsic to this. She reacted quite strongly when it was suggested to her that she write more books featuring dyslexic characters, and it was clear she didn't want to fall into the trap of becoming an issue-based writer. More than that, she clearly has a very organic approach to the creative process, and her characters need room to develop without restrictions and predetermined "labels".

By having a dyslexic voice at the core of her novel, Sally is tapping into a long-standing trend for exploring "otherness" in children's fiction. Consider, for instance, the use of autistic heroes in books like The London Eye Mystery or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Here are characters that allow the reader to experience the world through the eyes of someone utterly unlike themselves. Done well, this technique can transport the reader into a world more unusual and mysterious than any fantasy epic.

Sally has spent a lot of time collaborating with Hot Key to create a really striking electronic version of the novel for the iPad. This allows the text to be read as a linear e-book, and also with a whole host of media to enhance the story. Beautifully presented in a style that riffs on the illustrations from the print edition, the iBook allows the reader to take illustrative comprehension tests and view embedded videos that reproduce the way a dyslexic would see the book. Ever heard a dyslexic say that the text won't stay still on the page? Well here, it really doesn't!

The iBook index
A test of memory
(Click through to see larger versions of the screenshots)

Sally came across as being quite rebellious, and she wears her dyslexia as a badge of honour, even as she railed against the word itself (it's deeply ironic that dyslexia is such a difficult word for dyslexics to spell!). She certainly feels that being able to see the world in a different way is an advantage for her, and she has a visual imagination that I really envy. Although I have no trouble reading or writing, the pictures in my head are more like bad smartphone videos compared to the Full HD 3D extravaganza that she carries around with her. And this feels like the wider point of Dyslexia Awareness Week, to stress that we shouldn't feel sorry for dyslexics or to try to make them more like the rest of us. Who's to say, after all, that we are right and they are wrong? Instead, it should be about celebrating the diversity of viewpoints that conditions like dyslexia gives us, and improving the school environment so that dyslexic children are given the same opportunities as everyone else.



  1. Would have loved to have been there - thanks for sharing this Nick.

  2. Thanks for the great write up Nick, would have loved to have gone, but it was alas not to be (it's the third failed trip to see Sally Gardner - which is quite sad!) I too think visually which is great writing as I see my stories running through my head like mini-movies!

  3. Wish I could have gone, but I've met Sally before and found her inspirational.