We told my 8-year-old daughter recently that she has dyslexia. It felt like the right time to put a name to her struggle, and her second-grade teacher thought it might be empowering. Another child in the class had recently laughed at Viv when she tried to read out loud, and we had noticed that she was beginning to get down on herself because she couldn’t read beyond the easiest of early reader books.
I had armed myself with information about dyslexia, yet I didn’t rehearse the talk. Maybe I should have. When we told her that her brain works a little differently than her classmates’ brains, she reacted with a kind of denial at first, saying she’s been keeping up with her peers. Then she went to our bedroom and cried for 15 minutes under the covers.
We are a family of stories, of books piled upon books piled upon magazines on most surfaces in our house. Of quiet breakfasts where we read news stories and the comics. My 10-year-old’s bedside lamp is on long past bedtime many nights, and my husband and I mostly ignore this because we’re in bed reading, too. I know Viv feels left out and hungry to share this part of our lives.
I was distraught and wondered if we had made the wrong decision. Was there a different way to describe dyslexia? Perhaps we should have better highlighted her many strengths as a storyteller and lover of books, of Roald Dahl and the Boxcar Children and the Penderwicks. Should we have shared one of the success stories we’ve heard? But what does an 8-year-old know or care about Henry Winkler or Jay Leno or the founder of Kinko’s, all of whom have dyslexia?
I had purchased three books about dyslexia, but I was unhappy with them — one was too clinical; one, a chapter book, was too old for her; and one, a picture book, was too negative. Her sister knew about the books and showed them to her the next day. Without thinking, I read aloud the picture book, the one I’d thought was too negative. I tried to censor as I went, but I couldn’t read around its bully narrative. The bully called the protagonist with dyslexia “dumb” and “stupid,” and I knew I was making a mistake as I read these words out loud.
My daughter erupted in tears again. “I’m dumb,” she cried. “I’ll never learn to read.”
All I could do was hold her and tell her no, no, no as I cursed myself and that book.
I emailed her teacher, who I know receives dozens of emails each week about her students. I didn’t want to make her feel bad for encouraging us to tell Viv about her dyslexia, but I did want her to know that Viv was sad.
The next day Viv brought home a big red picture book by Oliver Jeffers, “A Child of Books.” Ms. Emily had chosen it for her, and as we read it out loud that afternoon, I understood why. In it, two line-drawn children climb mountains of tiny typed words and daydream on clouds made of words. “I am a child of books,” I choked. “I come from a world of stories and upon my imagination I float.”
In the summer, three mornings a week, Ms. Betsy, Viv’s beloved reading specialist from her elementary school, came to our house to help Viv learn to read. I listened from the kitchen as Viv worked her way through sentences in early reader books, the beginning of the sentence long lost by the time she got to the end. She traced the words with her right pointer finger, as she has been taught to, but she loses her place easily. She confuses b’s and d’s. She reads “saw” as “was.” She was working to remember her sight words, or heart words, as her teacher calls them, the ones that don’t make sense phonetically, like “said” or “friend.” She’s trying so so hard, and the payoff, I’m afraid, hasn’t come yet.
We went to the library yesterday, an occasion which might as well be the county fair for my 10-year-old. In the excitement, I forget that the library is a frustrating place for Viv. It’s not just that she can’t read the titles. It’s that she desperately wants to read the chapter books her sister has been reading since she was 6. She doesn’t want to go to the early reader section, where many of the narratives are simple and beneath her level of understanding and imagination. They all seem to be about animals — not about playful, curious, active little girls like Viv. She wants a thick book that she can read herself, and she tells me this loudly. We go to the librarian, and he’s stumped, too. We try a Violet Mackerel chapter book with a bright, appealing cover, but the words are too hard for Viv. She collapses on the floor. “I don’t want to be me,” she cries. “I want to be someone who can read.” Cue the lump.
I steer Viv to the audiobooks, which is briefly distracting. I let her get everything she wants even though I know we won’t listen to them. She picks out a Patricia MacLaughlin story, “More Perfect Than the Moon,” a Beverly Cleary and a couple of Judy Moodys.
But the mood has not lifted. When we get home, Viv has a raging fit that is seemingly because I won’t let her go to a friend’s house until I text the friend’s mom, but is really about the reading situation. She wails and hits me as I try to hold her. She tries to cross the street by herself, and I have to run after her and carry her home. She says she wants to be alone, and I can hear her crying in the playhouse she shares with her sister. I try to bring her a snack, but she pushes it away.
When she finally calms down, there is only one thing I can think to do. We’re both sweaty from the fit, but she curls up in my lap as I read. “I am a child of books. I come from a world of stories and upon my imagination I float.” I make her say the words with me, and they are soft and soothing. We let them comfort us as we eat slices of nectarine. “This is your story,” I say. “You are a child of stories and you will read chapter books by yourself soon.” I am wishing, hoping, willing it to be.
Jamie Passaro is a writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. She’s getting ready to launch an obituary writing business called dear person.