Happy late July, my sweet, advice-seeking gumdrops! I had planned on a "dog days of summer" column for this month, but
received so many interesting questions about reading and disability that it seemed fitting to do a Disability Pride
Month theme instead. Below, you'll find my favorite questions about books and techniques for people who struggle with
reading and focus and a breakdown of disability theory. I learned a lot while researching the answers for this
month's post, and I hope you find it as illuminating as I did.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
An 11-year-old family member has learning problems. She's reading at a second-grade level now, but still struggles.
I like to send books to the children in my family for their special occasions, but am having difficulty finding books
that not only appeal to her age but also meet her special needs.
What can you suggest?
An anxious auntie
P.S. I just enjoyed your column on graphic novels. Is there help for her here?
First, it is important to know that your family member isn't alone. According to the National Center for Learning
Disabilities, one in five children in the U.S. experience learning and attention issues and the International Dyslexia
Association estimates that 15-20% of the full population exhibits some symptoms of dyslexia, like slow reading or mixing
up similar words.
As you mention in your question, it can be difficult to find age-appropriate reading materials for children (or adults)
who struggle to read, but it is important. What self-respecting 11-year-old wants to be caught reading Ivy and Bean
(no disrespect meant to Ivy and Bean).
Graphic novels are a great choice. The graphics provide context for the text, which can help struggling readers, and
there are amazing age-appropriate options that her friends and classmates will love to share and talk about with her.
Try El Deafo
, Roller Girl
, or browse any number of amazing options here
. She might also appreciate books that feature
protagonists who struggle with reading too like Thank You, Mr. Falker
, the Percy Jackson series
(also available as graphic novels), or the
Hank Zipzer series
by Henry Winkler. Ay-y-y-y!
Technology is also here to help. Your Aunt Paige is generally a Luddite, but this is an area where a lot of positive
strides have been made. Publishers like Barrington Stoke
now print books using dyslexia-friendly fonts, layouts, and
paper. Kobo has a font called OpenDyslexic
that allows you to buy e-books that support your local independent bookstore while making reading more accessible.
Organizations like DO-IT
work to empower disabled individuals, including
those with learning disabilities, through technology.
Finally, reading aloud is an amazing way to experience a story together. See my answer below for read-aloud
recommendations. If you don't live nearby, you could also consider getting her a gift subscription to an audio book
service like Libro.fm
so that she can choose books she wants to listen to.
Please use these suggestions as a general jumping-off point, but know that not everything above will work for every
reader. Tailor your book gifts to her interests and let her tell you what she is most interested in and how you can help
her the most. Your family member is lucky to have a book giver in her life who wants her to have a positive,
age-appropriate reading experience.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
A friend who’s an activist has been trying to get me to read up on critical disability theory. I’m not into being
radical or some academic, but I do want to support her. Is this something a layman can get into, and do you have
suggestions for books I might check out?
First of all, critical disability theory isn’t some radical or outlandish school of thought, just like critical race
theory isn’t some radical or outlandish school of thought. And it’s not just something scholars and lawyers should know
about. All of us, regardless of our abilities, would do well to explore it.
As you might expect, theory
here is meant in the scientific sense: a system of ideas intended to explain
something. Traditional theory
says reality is reality, and seeks to discover what that reality is by using an
objective observer whose job is to gather data and analyze it. Critical theory
says that what we observe as
reality is actually made up of social constructs. It seeks to not only discover how those constructs affect our
perceptions and actions, but also form a critique of society and culture in order to challenge the power structures that
Simply put, critical disability theory is asking: How can we look at issues of disability from the standpoint of not
what is “wrong” with people, but what is wrong with the social constructs that cause disabled people to feel and to be
treated as other or lesser? And what can we do about it?
Now, your Aunt Paige is not a scholar, sweet pea, just a knowledge-seeker like yourself, who knows some and wants to
know more. Some books that have helped me in my own aim to better understand critical disability theory and justice work
are Care Work
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Nothing About Us Without Us
Charlton, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree
, Disability Visibility
by Alice Wong, and Eli Clare's
Exile and Pride
, a blend of memoir and theory that breaks down the "supercrip" stereotype and other ways in which
supposedly positive narratives of disability hurt marginalized people.
Critical disability theory is a wide and important subject. I’m glad your friend reached out to you about this, and that
you reached out to me. A lot of great debate, information, activism, and change has come out of its study, and I highly
recommend looking more deeply into it.
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Dear Aunt Paige,
My amazing best friend fosters children with special needs. A big part of their evening routine is reading together,
but it can be hard to find a book that is fun to read out loud and engaging to multiple ages and abilities. Can you
suggest some titles, and maybe some tips for reading out loud to kids and teens who might struggle with reading or
Hoping to Help
Kudos to your friend for making a real difference in the world, and kudos to you, honeysuckle, for supporting them.
In addition to being a proven educational strategy for improving vocabulary, sharpening focus and listening skills, and
building empathy, reading out loud builds community and creates opportunities to express love and share emotional
experiences that might otherwise be hard to communicate.
It sounds like the children your friend cares for have a range of physical and/or cognitive disabilities, and range in
age, which makes selecting a book trickier but far from impossible!
One excellent route is to select chapter books that are both funny and relatable to all kids regardless of background or
ability. Beverly Cleary's Ramona books
and Judy Blume's Fudge series
get at the very essence of childhood
in all its highs and lows. Even teen listeners will laugh at Ramona's and Fudge's hijinks and sympathize with their
long-suffering older siblings and parents. Another personal favorite is Louis Sachar's Sideways Stories From Wayside School
, the preposterous and delightful
tale of a class on the 30th floor of a towering schoolhouse, where kids turn into apples and dead rats show up for
class. And Emma Donoghue's The Lotterys Plus One
might be an especially good pick for your friend's crew. This staff favorite features a sprawling, diverse family of
seven kids, four parents, and too many pets. It's joyful and chaotic, and a pleasure to read out loud.
I've also yet to meet a kid who can resist Aaron Blabey's The Bad Guys series
. The Bad Guys is nice because although it's
technically a graphic novel series — which can be hard to read out loud or share with a group — Blabey's
work is more like a chapter book-picture book hybrid: a highly illustrative story that's a good pick for kids who have
trouble concentrating on long chunks of text but need a more involved plot. You can find more excellent book selections
in our list of kids' and teen books for Disability Pride Month
As for reading tips, it's best to read at a slow or moderate pace and to summon your inner performer. Keeping the needs
of your listeners in mind, it's always more engaging to listen to someone who's having fun! Depending on the kids'
interests and abilities, it can also be rewarding to take turns reading and acting the story out. Finally, if it's
within your friend's budget or the library has multiple copies of a title available, visual learners might benefit from
following along in their own copy while listening to the story being read aloud.
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Aunt Paige is here to answer your questions! This August, I'm looking at all things summer-related. Got questions about summer climate disasters? Body issues? Hollywood's persistent messaging that summer must be magical or else? Send them to [email protected] by August 6 for a chance to be included in my August column.