I was born in Canada in 1967 when dyslexia was almost unheard of and autism was yet to be classified as a disability. So although I was a child struggling with both of these, there were no neat sets of criteria by which professionals could assess, diagnose me, and try to adapt my education to suit my needs. What I did have, however, was something even better; a handful of supportive loving adults who were willing to read to me and to patiently teach me how to read to myself. A key memory is the day I managed to get my brain around the word handkerchief whilst reading aloud from Dr Suess’s book Hands, Handkerchief, Thumb. It was several minutes before I was able to puzzle it out but the circle of my mother’s friend’s who were listening to me clapped and cheered. From that day on I went to the library each week and borrowed an armload of books to read.
Another moment that stands out in my memory is when my mother realized that I had been reading under my covers at night and was actually several chapters ahead of where she had reading to me from Anne of Green Gables. Yes, I read very slowly because the letters still moved around on the page and some letters still looked bigger than others in the same word but I was reading independently, and had been since I was 4 years old.
By the time I started school I was an advanced reader, a skill which was frowned upon by the nuns at my elementary school in Quebec. They held me back and insisted that I ‘learn’ to read and write at the same rate as my classmates. They interpreted my stumbling over words and being unable to write words out correctly (though I could spell them perfectly when taking verbal spelling tests) as proof that I didn’t really know how to read and write. In hindsight I now know that all it was proof of was that I am dyslexic. Luckily I was already very addicted to reading so I ignored the nuns’ attempts to constrain my literacy and kept on reading.
Reading was a wonderful escape and a way for me to explore new things in a safe environment – books gave me a whole new world that was both more wonderful than the one I lived in and so much worse, depending on which story I was reading at the time. It showed me that every emotion and every experience is uniquely dependent on the perspective of the individual. Overcoming my personal challenges with learning to read through persistence and support from trusted adults gave me a lot of confidence. Over the years that confidence has got me through master’s level studies, full time work in two respected professions and a writing hobby which has resulted in several published books for adults and children.
A chance to work as the writer in residence for Portsmouth libraries was an ideal opportunity for me to show children how reading and writing could open the doors to a whole new world for them. I went to several elementary and junior schools to talk to children about being dyslexic, reading and writing. The feedback from the children about my visits was overwhelmingly positive and several students approached me to share that they too were dyslexic or autistic. I hope I inspired them to believe in their ability to open doors with their literacy ‘key’. During the time I was working as the writer in residence I wrote a mid grade chapter book called Realand about Max and his sister Laura, and how reading is their key to their first adventure in a very exciting new world.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 after Max and Laura have worked out how to turn their Dad’s box of broken things into a portal to another world: ‘What’s a portal?’ Laura looked confused. ‘If you read proper books instead of those dumb books for girls then you’d know, Laura!’ Oscar nudged Max with the smaller leg behind his big claw. ‘Tell Laura what she needs to know…one day you might want her to do the same for you.’ ‘A portal is like an opening into another place, another dimension or…well, y’ano, a new world like this!’ Laura thought for a few seconds. ‘So a portal works like a book in that it takes you to new places, only for real instead of just in your mind?’ ‘That’s right, Laura and all books are portals, too.’ Laura flung her hand in the air as if she was in class wanting to ask a question. ‘Is the key to book portal being able to read?’ ‘Yes, and sometimes opening the book portal with your reading key allows you to discover how to go through other portals to places like this. The box of broken things was the portal to Realand and the book of magic words had the key written inside it that allowed you to open the portal to Realand.’ ‘Are there other portals then, Oscar?’ Max asked. ‘Yes, Max, there are several other portals.’ ‘I don’t like this. One portal is enough. We should go back now.’ ‘Come on, Laura! You were quite happy to get us here.’ Max’s voice fell with disappointment. When Laura started using her sensible tone of voice she usually started behaving all boring and grown up. ‘I didn’t think it would really work, Max! We don’t know what might happen to us over here. We could get into all sorts of trouble...here and at home from Mum and Dad when they find out what we’ve done.’Click here to find out more about Realand or Click here to go to Denyse’s website
Denyse lives in the South of England in a home otherwise filled with males – husband, boys and pets – she writes to escape the testosterone. Denyse writes for adults using the name D.J. Kirkby and for children as Dee Kirkby. She is the author of Without Alice, My Dream of You, My Mini Midwife, Realand and Special Deliveries. Denyse is a registered midwifery lecturer, teaching midwifery at Bournemouth University two days per week, and a registered public health practitioner, working three days per week for her local Public Health Department. At the age of 40, she was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger syndrome, in addition to dyslexia and dyspraxia (which definitely explains a lot of things, including why she can’t read a tube map). When not otherwise occupied, Denyse can be found chatting to people on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and adding photos on Pintrest: