Published in ADDitude Magazine, January 18, 2018
Here’s a story that may sound familiar to many parents. I was sitting on the couch one evening in 2013 with my six-year old son Ryan. The two of us made for an idyllic portrait – his head buried against my shoulder, the shampoo fragrance of melon and strawberry wafting from his freshly clean hair. On my lap was a book about silly animals behaving like children – a favorite topic of his. I read a few pages and then placed the book in his lap. With a smile, I pointed to the part of the page where I’d left off. “Your turn.”
Ryan nodded and placed his index finger on the first word. His voice sounded strained. He read a few words very slowly and then lost his place. His finger moved and danced around the page, almost as if it was going rogue, an instrument of its own volition. Ryan’s words followed suit. He continued to read but the relationship between what he was saying and the words in the book diminished. When I tried to bring him back, he sprung the book in the air and punctuated the clatter with a furious cry: “This is why I hate reading! I hate books!”
I’d like to say this episode was an isolated incident in otherwise blissful times, but in my household we would have just said it was a typical Tuesday evening. Or Wednesday. Or any night of the week.
At the time we didn’t know it, but Ryan’s reading troubles were caused by dyslexia. Ryan is ten years old now and he’s been officially diagnosed. Dyslexia doesn’t just mean that he reverses his letters (although he does that too). It means his writing looks like the mysterious serpentine sketching of a language even he can’t decrypt. There are swooping a’s, p’s and q’s, n’s that are indecipherable from h’s and no hint of punctuation. It means he stumbles over three letter words (was or saw? pod or dog?) and gives up entirely on the longer ones.
There are many other examples in Ryan’s life where I see his dyslexia manifest. It is a sidling creature that inserts itself into his daily routine both in and out of the schoolyard. For me, Ryan’s dyslexia means many things…but one of the most profound fallouts was the loss of the love of reading. I used to say that he came out of the womb loving books. He would place his stubby toddler hands over the shiny board book surfaces, carry armloads of books to his little table when he was awake but not yet ready to engage the world, and ask me to read the same cherished books over and over until we both had memorized them and could recite the pages in our sleep.
But something happened as soon as Ryan got older. Books became more than just opalescent picture stories. Cartoonish images were replaced by block lettering that took up a decent portion of the page. Ryan tried to learn the relationship between the symbols on the page and the words I had read aloud so many times. He tried to emulate what seemed to come so easily to his twin brother and the rest of us – and when the feat proved too frustrating, he asserted the natural human response and gave up on it.
I realized something was truly amiss in kindergarten, when I’d slipped a note in his lunch box. I love you so much. Ryan pranced home from school that day, skipping along the tawny leaves that had fallen onto pavement – my note balancing delicately between his two fingers. “It says I love you!’” he proudly proclaimed when he saw me, thrusting the paper underneath my chin. “Yes,” I agreed, “But what else does it say?” I pointed to the word so—two letters, innocuous, easy to pronounce. Ryan tried but he couldn’t decipher it. Which sound came first? How did the two letters blend together? He knew I love you because he’d seen it so many times. But the words so much were lost on him.
After this, Ryan’s father and I signed him up for academic testing…but the results were inconclusive. We were told that children this young had a broad range of reading abilities and Ryan’s issues could merely be developmental – something he would grow out of. The following year, he hadn’t grown out of his reading and writing issues and we had him tested again, with the same inconclusive results. In second grade, he was tested for a third time and the results came back – to no one’s surprise – that he was dyslexic.
During these years of testing and uncertainty, the chasm between Ryan’s desires and a preference for reading had developed into a Grand Canyon-size abyss. He didn’t want to see, try to read or be anywhere in the vicinity of books. For years, when his brothers were curled up on the living room couch enthralled in graphic novels, comics and picture books, Ryan was somewhere else – practicing a magic show, assembling blocks or drawing pictures – anywhere where the books weren’t.
When I think back to my childhood, books were such an integral part of my life that it’s hard for me to reflect on a time I wasn’t reading. I was always checked out of my immediate surroundings, nose-down in a paper bound tome, learning someone else’s story. It wasn’t always Dickens, Dostoevsky or Faulkner. (To be fair it wasn’t ever Dickens, Dostoevsky or Faulkner – unless mandated by school). I immersed myself in the lives of teenage babysitters, twin girls who lived in California, four sisters coming of age in the Civil War, a puckish New York City boy who had to contend with an obnoxious little brother…and so many more. These stories enthralled me and distracted me; they were my escape when my own life became stressful and I identified with the tribulations of their characters as if they were my own dear friends. It is a gift to be able to inhabit the lives of others; it teaches not just vocabulary and sentence structure but empathy, gratitude and kindness. I always thought my affinity for reading would filter down to my children. I envisioned a future where we’d all read the same stories during the day and dissect them over dinner. What was the author’s tone? What does this story teach us? Let’s discuss.
Of course, so many of our childhood yearnings don’t become actualized in adulthood and this is a prime example. At the end of the day, my kids and I didn’t have literary ponderings over the dinner table. But by 2014, at least two of my sons had a deep fondness for books…and I realized that I had to take action if I wanted to remedy the intense dislike for reading that befell my other son.
How to cultivate a child’s love of books? My first stop was the public library. This had been the asylum of many an existential childhood crisis; surely Ryan could find some refuge here. One step inside the St. Louis County Library headquarters and it’s hard not to fall in love. The main room is bright and spacious, colorfully arranged with a musty vanilla scent. There are books of every genre and category carefully arranged throughout. The first time we went, I tried to coax Ryan towards the children’s section of I Can Read! books but he rebuffed my attempts and instead wandered into the section of family movies. When I finally steered him into the children’s section, he wandered nomadically for a bit and then played on the computer until it was time to go.
Not one to be deterred, I repeated this trip every week – and every week we ran through the same ritual of wandering (him) and steering (me) until something different happened. One afternoon he emerged from the stacks of brightly colored children’s literature with a book in his hand. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I looked down at the cover and saw Harry’s body suspended as he took flight, a look of bewilderment on his face as he waved a wand in one hand, his black shock of hair tousling in the breeze.
“He kind of looks like me if I had glasses,” Ryan said. I nodded and turned away so he couldn’t see the tears at the corners of my eyes. Ryan had both brought me a book and could identify with the main character – simple phenomena to most parents that felt like a revolution to me. I opened the book and started to read. This time, I didn’t ask him to read along with me or figure out where I was in the page; I just wanted him to listen. It was our first reading session without a battle in a long while – a tiny victory that we managed to repeat in subsequent visits.
With every trip to the library, we checked out at least thirty books of differing genres, authors, subjects, and lengths. Many of the books were beloved stories from my childhood – and I tried not just to read them but to explain what they meant to me when I was younger. Sometimes my kids got bored very quickly (teenage girls with boyfriend woes were a particular bomb) but sometimes they paid even closer attention. I could see Ryan trying to match the woman next to him to the girl who was once his age – glassy-eyed and curious, much like him. These books became a common source of discussion between us – a thread that connected his childhood to mine – and as long as I was reading aloud to him, he was interested.
A friend once told me that the best way to foster a child’s interest in books was simply to have them around, so that’s what I aimed to do. Back at our house I surrounded Ryan with them. I placed them on shelves in his bedroom, in the hutch in our kitchen and in our living room. Occasionally I found Ryan leafing through the books – fingers rakishly turning the pages, eyes darting over the words and images. I suspect he was skipping over most of the words, but he was absorbed in the story – able to combine the context provided by the pictures with the words he was able to read. This was progress – however slight.
The biggest breakthrough happened the following summer during a long road trip through Kansas’s flatlands. At times the road seemed to stretch on endlessly, the sky a pale blue with no clouds to imagine into shapes. We’d run out of songs to sing and topics to talk about, so I dug into the trove of CDs in our car and pulled out the only remaining CD we hadn’t already listened to: George Orwell’s Animal Farm. With the pastoral landscape of America gliding by our window, we listened to a heavily accented narrator describe the tale of two pigs who architect an uprising on their farm.
Ryan’s interest in the book, his focus on the evolution of characters, his ability to understand nuanced plot points made me realize that even though his reading ability wasn’t at grade level, his cognitive abilities certainly were. When we got home I found my way to the audiobook section of the library and took out e-books I would have previously considered too advanced for him. Since that summer, our car rides have been transformed.
These days, if you took a snapshot of our living room, you would likely see one child reading a graphic novel, one child reading a book about baseball and one child on his iPad, headphones wrapped around his hears, listening to a text-to-speech app that reads his favorite books to him. Like many dyslexic children, Ryan has become an avid ear-reader, and we’re lucky that modern technology has made audiobooks so accessible to him. (I still read to him most nights as well).
Ryan doesn’t yet read most books on his own, but I’m confident that he’ll get there eventually. He currently attends a special school with an individually tailored curriculum developed for kids with dyslexia. In the meantime, I’m no longer trying to coax him into reading traditional books in the traditional way. What started as way for me to impart some wisdom on my child ended with my child teaching me a valuable lesson: There’s more than one way to love a book.