Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Nothing sucks the joy out of reading more' - Children's author advises against 'snobbishness' about picture books for older kids

Liz Pichon
Liz Pichon
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Reading of a book of text is not for everyone. For some visual and creative minds, continuous text without images or pictures can feel flat and dull.

For children who are dyslexic or reluctant readers, or who have special needs, a text-heavy book can be difficult, overwhelming, and tiring. Extracting meaning from a single sentence can be an arduous task.

But a wealth of accessible books have come on stream for older children who are slow or reluctant readers. Picture books, manga, comic books, graphic novels, all aimed at the 7-13 years age bracket, are making reading more fun and achievable.  

Popular books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Tom Gates are also accessible for children with dyslexia.

“Traditionally, once you left picture books it was just text,” says Rosie Bissett, CEO of the Dyslexic Association of Ireland. “Now there’s more variety for slightly older ones where pictures are interspersed with the text, and now there are comics and graphic novels, and ebooks and audiobooks, and so many ways that you can engage with a story.”

“With books that have short, small amounts of snappy text and nice images, you’re visually reading. You’re not overloaded with too much text.”

“Hi lo” books - where the content is appropriate to the age of the reader but the text is edited to suit a lower reading age – are also growing in number.

“An individual with dyslexia struggles to learn the mechanics of how to read, it takes them longer to read, the underlying difficulties that are part of dyslexia is to do with phonological processing - how you make up the sounds and the letters and decode words and sound out words and blend them together so that you’ve enough to know what it is, and then get the meaning of the sentence and the paragraph.”

“If that’s a slow and laboured process which it can be, and it’s taking longer to get proficiency with that, that child is naturally less likely to pick up a text-heavy book.”

In the past, hi-lo readers were taught to read with junior books which would impact their self-esteem, Rosie says.

"Say you have a ten-year-old who is struggling to read, and the ten-year-old has a seven-year-old brother, and he’s struggling to read the seven-year-old's book or the seven-year-old brother is reading it better than him, it can be soul destroying.”

“Reading something the same as their friends, and not feeling like they’re different, is great for their confidence.”

“When Harry Potter came out, kids with dyslexia felt very out of the loop because they weren’t able to read it. Mum would read it to them. Now there are dyslexia-friendly versions produced by Bloomsbury. It has cream paper, larger font and dyslexia-friendly font – a font that’s well spaced out and doesn’t have lots of squiggles, so not Times New Roman - like Calibri or Ariel.”

Children’s author Liz Pichon, who herself has dyslexia, has published 15 Tom Gates books which have been translated into 43 languages and sold more than eight million copies.

“[Targeting children with dyslexia] was the last thing I thought about. My whole goal was to write something that was funny, about school life, family life... all the incidental things that happen to most children. None of the books have huge plot lines and it’s all about the characters really, and that’s why they don’t necessarily have chapters.”

The Tom Gates book have between 16,000 to 25,000 words alongside the pictures, Liz says.

"But sometimes parents will pick up a book, and because the book has pictures in it, there’s that slight snobbishness, ‘that’s not really a book’.”

“It’s very important that children read, and read for pleasure. Nothing sucks the joy out of reading more than being told what to read. The idea that ‘you’re not doing well enough if you’re still reading books with pictures’? I know so many writers that all grew up absolutely loving comics, and that did nothing against their reading ability.”

She added: “Do not worry about it, it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if they’re only reading the same book over and over. It’s so much more important that they’re reading something independently that they are enjoying.”

Liz is dyslexic herself, and though she was never formally diagnosed, when her son was diagnosed it confirmed for her why she’d had difficulties in certain subjects at school.

"My son was severely dyslexic, and he didn’t learn to read or write until he was 11, and I really mean he didn’t know how to read or write.”

“We had a long process of trying to get him diagnosed. It was during that process [that I realised]. They take a family history. I always remember not being able to spell, I was very bright and very enthusiastic, but maths went in one ear and out the other.”

“We used to have to do a times table quiz, and you were only allowed to leave school when your parents arrived if you answered correctly. My whole school day was basically sweating about whether I’d be able to get it right or not.”

But she added: “You find ways around the problems. It absolutely affects your confidence, hugely - always feeling like if you make mistakes on something - that you’re a bit thick.”

“I remember one of the first jobs I had was working in a bakery... you used to have to do the mental arithmetic at the counter. I learned off by heart that some people would buy certain things in certain quantities. I learned to bring my own calculator in, write everything down, and take my time.”

An appetite for visual learning can be a strength rather than a weakness, says Galway-based teacher and educational psychologist Yvonne Cunningham.

“Anything that’s going to get them to read and engage them and give them the motivation to read is a good thing. Very often children with dyslexia are visual learners, that can be a strength, it means they’re creative and visual.”

“Obviously there are so many different profiles [of children with dyslexia], you can’t just generalise either – dyslexia is a very broad area. It’s going to be different for everyone.”

But she added: “The content that the student is interested in – whether it’s farming, tractors, or sports results or players - if the content draws them in, that’s important.”

Tom Gates Live, based on the best-selling books by Liz Pichon, is running in Dublin's Olympia Theatre from 3rd to 6th July, and in various venues around the UK until next December.

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