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Afoma Umesi: Learning Challenges: What to Read when Reading is Hard

The first time I heard about dyslexia, I was about 13 and it was on a Nigerian TV show whose title I can’t even remember. The character with dyslexia was a top bank executive, but also implied that she struggled with deciphering text. As a child who loved reading, I remember being so concerned for this character and her difficulty processing text the way other people did.

It would be much later in life that I actually understood what dyslexia means. Experts define dyslexia as difficulty recognizing speech sounds and processing or decoding letters and words. However, nothing has helped me grasp the challenge that dyslexia poses -- or the emotional issues it can trigger when handled poorly -- as well as books have.

In this list of books about dyslexia and learning difficulties, I’ve included five that I’ve read and loved. This is far from an exhaustive list, but rather a list of books on the topic that have touched me personally. Each of the highlighted characters struggles either with dyslexia or with a specific learning difficulty.

Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019)

Tiffany D. Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming is the story of a teen whose friend goes missing. Readers follow Claudia as she tries to find her best friend, Monday. However, we also get a close look at Monday and Claudia’s relationship — specifically Monday’s central role in helping Claudia hide her dyslexia. While dyslexia is not the book’s main plot, the author does a fantastic job of portraying the shame that these smart kids may feel about brains that simply work differently. She also shows that with support, people with dyslexia can reach their full potential.

Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt (Puffin Books, 2017)

Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree is a bestseller for a reason. Ally’s story is heartbreaking. She’s sure she’s incurably dumb because she can’t read as well as others in her grade. Homework takes ages to do and she causes class disruptions because better to be known as disruptive than dumb, right? But when a substitute teacher, Mr. Daniels comes in during her teacher’s maternity leave, he’s the first to recognize Ally’s challenges and help her see the power in thinking differently. Unfortunately, Fish in a Tree shows how easily teachers and even parents can misinterpret children’s behaviors. Thankfully, there are a good number of Mr. Daniels around.

The Humiliations of Pipi McGee by Beth Vrabel (Running Press Kids, Sept. 17, 2019)

Beth Vrabel’s forthcoming release follows young Pipi McGee who is working to reverse all her embarrassing school faux pas. The book, an ARC of which I was privileged to read, addresses a few important themes from bullying to teen pregnancy to embracing one’s unique self — faux pas and all. But Pipi’s best friend is the focus where dyslexia is concerned. Tasha is a bookworm through and through, despite the fact that she has dyslexia. So she’s devastated when a highly anticipated release isn’t in audio. Her friends support her by reading to her and she receives a lot of love from her librarian.

Up for Air by Laurie Morrison (Abrams, 2019)

Annabelle in Laurie Morrison’s wonderful upper middle-grade novel finds learning difficult. Pretty much everything is hard for her. She’s not dyslexic, but needs more time to complete tests and struggles with nearly every subject. But when Annabelle’s in the water, she’s a star. Annabelle’s story is more complex than school struggles, but this book showed me that children who struggle with learning need other outlets. Everyone needs at least one thing they can be a star at.

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, by Susan Tan (Square Fish, 2018)

This illustrated early middle-grade series features a spunky biracial character. Cilla is sure she’s destined to be an author, but how can you be an author when you can’t read your favorite book? Cilla’s frustrations with reading lead her to a “special reading class” where she gets help to process words and letters in a way that makes sense to her brain. While dyslexia isn’t specified, Cilla definitely has some reading difficulties and support made all the difference.

What I’ve learned from reading these books about dyslexia and learning difficulties is the value of providing support. Whether it’s Tasha’s friend Ricky reading to her in Pipi McGee or Mr. Daniels in Fish in a Tree, kids with learning difficulties need support. They need teachers willing to try different learning methods and be patient when they process slower than others.

And to the authors to tell stories about with kids with dyslexia, we are so grateful for the wonderful mirrors and windows.

Afoma Umesi is a freelance writer and editor with a voracious appetite for children’s books. She’s passionate about literacy and freelancing and shares book lists, book reviews, and freelancing resources on her website.

Can you recommend other stories that portray a child dealing with a learning difficulty? Let us know in the comments below.


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