"Find the Right Book"

Chapter 10_edit
I was recently introduced to Sarah, a local educator and author of the new book Spell Shaper, which she wrote specifically with kids with learning differences/dyslexia in mind. 

GGC: Let's talk Spell Shaper. Can you tell me a little bit about your book and how it came to be?

Sarah: I had been teaching in the middle and upper elementary grades (2 to 5) for several years in some wonderful schools where parents were just as passionate as we teachers were about encouraging their children to love literature.  Of course, our children don't always develop according to all our plans, do they?  

It turned out that every year I had several students I affectionately referred to as my "wanderers," because of the way they meandered through our classroom during reading time - going to the bathroom, poking other kids with pencils, and namely doing anything but reading. Some of Girl's Gone Child's readers may have one or two in their homes: these are the children whom you have to bribe, cajole, assign, and otherwise nag to open a book and turn a few pages.  They can even insist on being timed during the whole experience, and when that alarm goes off, the book is slammed shut with a dramatic thud.  Some of my "wanderers" had learning differences like dyslexia, but others were just navigating a tricky transition in their reading development.

Since I am also a trained reading specialist, my families looked to me for guidance.  In virtually all cases, I found that these children were reading books that were just plain too hard for them. They were reading classics and huge exciting fantasies and books that their well-meaning had parents remembered fondly and passed on.  The solution was simple: find the right book.  I had seen it so many times before, and studies have confirmed it: when children  find books that are engaging and "just right" for them, they finally get lost in a book and realize what all the fuss has been about.  I just needed to find That Chapter Book!  

Easy peasy, right?  Except not.

So I decided to write what I hoped might be That Chapter Book. Spell Shaper is a fantasy story that traces the journey of a young elf boy named Finn from helplessness to empowerment.  At the start of the story, he bitterly resents his magic-based learning disability, as well as the fact that his younger sister is an amazing spell caster.  Over the course of the story, as he devotes himself to improving his skills, he realizes that the very learning differences that make some things so challenging also make him special in ways he could never have imagined.

GGC: What was your process like while working on the book? 

Sarah: Originally, it came to me very quickly and organically as a kind of tribute to my students.  Over the next year or so, I read my class sections and revised with their feedback to model authentic ways that writers revisit and alter their work. Then I put it on a metaphorical shelf, but when I found myself pregnant last year, I realized that if I wanted to publish the book, this was my chance.  
spell shaper front cover
GGC: Can you tell me a little about your co-editor and illustrator? 

Sarah: When I met my student Zivia Avelin, I immediately knew that she would be the perfect person to bring Spell Shaper to artistic life, since she truly embodies so many aspects of the main character.  Like my protagonist, Finn, Zivia has a learning difference that has often frustrated her deeply: in her case, dyslexia.  When I met Zivia as a third grader, she announced matter-of-factly, "I can't read." This is a child, by the way, whose parents own a bookstore and whose spoken vocabulary far eclipses mine.  And yet, also in parallel to the main character, Zivia's learning difference and unique brain wiring also gives her many cool abilities.  

One of them is that she is an amazingly passionate artist, and so was eager to design all of the characters based on her vision.  At the same time, she functioned as a readability editor for the book: when we came to a particularly difficult word, she and I brainstormed how to communicate the same idea using a more accessible word or phrase.  Zivia lives one of the book's messages, which is that we all struggle with something, but that these "flaws" don't need to hold us back from being our best selves and coming into our own power.  

Zivia and I are really clear that Spell Shaper isn't a "book for struggling readers."  In fact, children who are "advanced" readers have still loved the story and didn't realize at all that we put so much time into the readability.  Some children identify with the learning differences theme, others with Finn's journey from a resentful and jealous sibling to one who really learns how to appreciate and care for his sister.
GGC: Do you have any advice or insight to share with parents who may have a child that is struggling to read?  

Sarah: Reading problems crop up at different times, sometimes even for early readers and children you wouldn't expect to struggle.  I would say the number one mistake parents (and even teachers) make with elementary-aged children is to try to rush reading development.  I always tell parents that reading is so much more than pronouncing words.  In the middle grades some children can "read" just about anything you put in front of them, and at this age they often want to impress others, so they may lug around thick tomes and proudly pronounce all the words, only to come away with a hazy understanding and little enjoyment. 

Basically, my rule is that if they aren't reading for pleasure, if they aren't actively seeking out books on the weekends and during the summer, things should be tweaked so that they find That Book. Do whatever you need to do for that to happen.  Get them graphic novels, magazines, whatever. It may just take just one perfect match, or may take a few, but eventually, those experiences will transform them.  Check bookstores, libraries, flea markets, and hey, while you're at it, check out Amazon. I would be thrilled if Spell Shaper is That Book for your child, or even just a Really Good Book.

Sarah has three copies of Spell Shaper available for giveaway. To win, leave a comment below and I'll pick three winners next week! Happy Friday, everyone!