When Ely asked me to participate in Disability Diaries, I couldn’t be more excited or grateful. You may all be thinking: “Jolien, I didn’t know you had a disability?”. I don’t. At first I thought this would make my participation less valid, because I can’t speak from experience, nor am I an #ownvoices person in his topic. Then I thought about how many able-bodied people out there, including me, have no idea how to address disability or what it means to be disabled (in any way there is). So I think it’s important for able-bodied people to go out and look for books on disability. That way we can learn, become more educated and hopefully never say something (accidentally) rude again.
*warning: there may be a slight Six of Crows spoiler ahead, as I’m talking about Crooked Kingdom*
As you may have guessed from the title, I’m talking about dyslexia today. If you aren’t aware, dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Next to dyslexia, there are also some other “similar” disabilities, such as dyspraxia (which affects fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults) and dyscalculia (which is a learning ability that makes it very hard to make sense of numbers and math concepts, it makes them difficult to grasp, understand and apply).
When I took a look at my shelves, I could only find 2 books I had ever read that featured a character with dyslexia. So I’m talking about them today.
For those of you who have read Six of Crows, you know that Wylan is dyslexic. Wylan is an amazing chemist, creating his own fireworks (kind of), bombs and artillery. He’s also the son of a nobleman. During Six of Crows, you find out that Jan Van Eck, Wylan’s father, has been sending him letters often which makes you think that he cares for his son. In fact, his father knows that Wylan can’t read. He sends the letters as a cruel reminder of the fact.
Here’s a quote from Crooked Kingdom, talking about Wylan’s dyslexia:
Jan Van Eck was three kinds of fool for the way he’d treated his son, but Jesper could admit he was curious about Wylan’s supposed “affliction”. He wanted to know what Wylan saw when he tried to read, why he seemed fine with equations or prices on a menu, but not sentences or signs.
I was pleasantly surprised at how Leigh Bardugo wrote about Wylan and his dyslexia. He wasn’t just his disability. He was an amazingly interesting character first: a wonder with explosions and chemistry, a shy guy who blushes when Jesper flirts with him, an incredible friend to Kaz and his crew. And he has dyslexia. I think it’s important to talk about disability, of course, but also to not reduce the character to only their disability.
I found it interesting to see how Wylan had built a life to avoid exposing his dyslexia. He memorized books when people read them to him –I’ve also just discovered that memorizing is an encouraged way of learning in an alternative manner for people with dyslexia. He sought hobbies and passions that didn’t require him to read, only to work with numbers.
To me, that is both interesting -and a tad worrying. It’s interesting and good because it allows him to develop other skills. It shows that he is an intelligent person, as dyslexia has no correlation to intelligence whatsoever. But it’s also worrying because dyslexia is not a disability that is curable, or will go away. Is it good to truly avoid reading? People with dyslexia can learn to read! They may use different reading tactics than our “normal” education offers, but with help and patience, they can learn to read.
Overall, I found the representation of dyslexia in Crooked Kingdom very interesting, and it gave me a lot to think about. Such as how to best help children with dyslexia now? How to nurture their possible love of books in a different way? What must it have been like for those with dyslexia throughout history?
*Note: I am not dyslexic. I have done my best to analyze the representation in this book objectively, but obviously I could have gotten a lot of it wrong. If you are dyslexic, I would really appreciate it if you could enlighten me about the representation in this book. If you have found a review or talk about this book from an #ownvoices point of view, let me know!*
The only other book on my bookshelf, and my initial Goodreads search, that includes a character with dyslexia is the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. I’ll talk about how horrifying that is later. First, let’s talk about Percy Jackson.
I think there are both positive and negative aspects of the representation of dyslexia in this book/series.
What are the positives?
First of all, this series is incredibly popular not just with young adults, but children as well. This means that more people will read about Percy who is dyslexic -and thus the learning disability becomes more widely known. Hopefully, some kids will recognize the descriptions Percy gives of his reading experiences and know they are dyslexic. On a lot of websites about dyslexia, I’ve read that lots of kids believe they are stupid or that their brain is defect because they don’t know about learning disabilities or dyslexia. So this could help kids realize that they are neither defects nor stupid in any way.
The second positive aspect is one that I only really realized when reading these as an adult. It makes me realize how severely our education systems are lacking in dealing with learning disabilities. In this story, we are told that Percy goes from school to school and that most teachers think he’s a bad student. There has only been one teacher who believed in him:
But Mr. Brunner expected me to be as good as everybody else, despite the fact that I have dyslexia and attention deficit disorder and I have never made above a C- in my life.
The fact that students with a learning disability have so little support in education systems around the word makes me incredibly sad -especially because a fair amount of the population actually suffers from them. As an adult, this makes me realize I need to educate myself on how to best support children (and adults obviously) with a learning disability, instead of making them sit through the same curriculum and methods as everyone else and watch them withdraw or feel awful about it.
But there is also a negative aspect to the dyslexia representation in this book, I think. In this series, it’s all about being a half-blood. For most half-bloods this means dyslexia, a common disability they all share. However, it’s being explained as their brains being hardwired for Ancient Greek, not English. I feel like in many ways, this is a cop-out. In Greek, they’d have almost no problems reading anymore? I know it’s a way of adding more to the half-blood persona, but it would have been even better, in my opinion, if these kick-ass half-bloods had just sought out ways to help each other with their learning disability instead of explaining it away.
So what have I learned, when looking for dyslexia in my books -and reading about it?
I have learned that this learning disability, which apparently up to 15-20% of the population shares in some degree, is sorely underrepresented in literature. I could only find two books I’d read that feature it, and one book that has gone onto my TBR immediately: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
I have realized how little I knew about helping those with dyslexia. Now I know that there are several other ways to help them: for example, audio-books. This could be very useful both in fiction and with textbooks. Or use apps with voice recognition software to let your child dictate their ideas.
I have realized that I want to actively help more -and maybe see whether my local library has a program to help dyslexic children to read more.
I have realized that our current educational system sorely lacks the knowledge and resources to help children with learning disabilities. We could do so much for this children through listening, memorizing, letting them sit closer to the teacher to filter background noise out more easily, reading to them and encouraging them. But we don’t. Instead, we have one “normal” educational system for young children. At least in Belgium, children all have the same elementary school education (except for children who have been diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome, and a few other disabilities). But children who have dyslexia can only truly realize this when they start their journey of reading, which happens in elementary school. Then, they are already stuck in this educational track that is the same for everyone. And not being able to read as fast, or grasp the numbers on your piece of paper, quickly gets these children the label of “stupid” or “lazy”. We need to make teachers aware of the symptoms of these learning disabilities, and give them tips on how to help these kids.
I have realized that the problem with dyslexia starts with the diagnosis. Not only do we not make enough of an effort to help children and adults who have been diagnosed with dyslexia/dyscalculia/dyspraxia, we also don’t make the diagnosis accessible enough. In some (I don’t know whether this applies in every country, obviously) it is too expensive to get a formal diagnosis on these disabilities. It can even be hard to find a psychologist who provides the diagnosis. If we don’t even make an effort to diagnose these children/adults, how will we ever be able to help them?
In my effort to understand dyslexia more, I tried this “Through Your Child’s Eyes” simulator. It allows you to kind of see what it’s like for your child if they have a learning disability. I took the experience of a child having trouble reading, and it’s honestly the hardest thing I have ever done.
That’s what I learned this week. By opening my eyes and LOOKING for representation, I have found myself disappointed in our education system, and willing to actively help and understand more.
If you are a person with dyslexia, I would love to hear your thoughts on representation. Or if you know someone with dyslexia. Would you have any books to recommend? Any representation issues I may have missed? Any tips on helping those with dyslexia? Talk to me, people.
Here are some of the resources I used:
Simulator Through Your Child’s Eyes: https://www.understood.org/en/tools/through-your-childs-eyes