Insights from a Wimpy Kid

Good Evening!  My 11 yr old and I just returned from from a trip to the Sydney Opera House to hear Jeff Kinney, the author of the comic/novel series Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Jeff was a surprisingly warm, engaging and funny speaker.

He began with the story of how he wanted to be a cartoonist from a young age but finally realised that he couldn’t draw well enough.  In his words, he decided “maybe I should act like I’m drawing like an 11 year old on purpose!” and thus the idea of Diary of a Wimpy Kid was born.

His is an interesting story of knowing where you want to get to in life but taking a slightly unexpected path to get there. First, he wanted to be a pure cartoonist, and when he realised that way was unlikely to work out, he thought about combining the words of a 11 year old with his 11 year old style cartoons.  Next, he thought his book would be for adults, reminding adults of what it was like to be a kid, and was initially dismayed when it was suggested that it would be more suitable to a younger audience.

Jeff is one tenacious guy.  When he decided to write his book, he spent 4 years sketching out ideas in a notebook, and then another 4 years on his first draft.  8 years in preparation!  This guy deserves his success.  On the plus side, having published 6 books, he is still working through the ideas he sketched out many years ago.

Jeff appears to remember his childhood in uncanny detail and obviously draws (literally!) from it in his books.  One of the questions from kids in the audience tonight was “How do you know so much about what kids are like?” and his answer was essentially that he remembers it.  He loves how kids create their own myths, describing a piece of cheese he recalls left on a playground when he was at school and how no-one would go near it or move it, as if it was cursed.  This cheese went on to become the first scene he ever wrote/drew for Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Tonight’s last note for the audience was the answer to a question around the best thing about being an author: “proof that I created something”.  Perfect.

And for anyone with young fans out there, he is working on his next book – it’s about Valentines Day, based around Greg trying to get a date for the high school dance.

“I judge you because you can’t spell”

My first post!  I think you’re supposed to have the blog before you start sending your articles off to others these days, but as with most things in my life, I’ve muddled things around a little.  I sent this article to Mamamia and they published it this week, very exciting.  It’s sitting on 310 shares on Facebook and 198 comments so it has definitely resonated with a lot of people.  Here it is…

When I joined Facebook back in 2007 one of the first groups I “liked” was called something along the lines of ‘I judge you by your spelling and grammar’.

And this was true.  I completely and utterly judged people’s intellect by their use of written language. I did this from a young age: I was the spelling superstar at primary school.  To this day, typos jump out of a page at me.

This makes me cringe now. Why? My third daughter appears to have dyslexia, or a phonological disorder as her speech pathologist calls it. The simplest definition of a phonological disorder being a problem connecting the sounds in words to the symbols they represent, i.e. letters and words.

Do you remember learning to read? This magical thing where you start looking at the alphabet and by 3 or 4 some of these letters mean something to you, and when you start school you are given home readers to take home every night.  Somehow you go from reading along with your mum or dad “Here is the sun. Here is the bee.” and one day it all starts to click and you can do it by yourself.

For my first two daughters it was exactly like this, a magic process where suddenly they could read! Woo hoooo!

For my third daughter, no such luck.  My third daughter aged 6 is bright and bubbly.  A natural leader with a formidable spoken vocabulary.  However by the middle of the year in Kindy I knew something was wrong.  She recognised the letter P (which her name starts with), the letter T, and the letter S.  And that was it.  There was no way she was going to start to read when she couldn’t even recognise the alphabet.

I would sit at home with her for half an hour and say, here is the letter E.  Let’s draw it.  What starts with it? Let’s draw it again!  The next day, she’d look at an E like she’d never seen it before in her life.

I spoke with her teacher who said she was in the normal spectrum for her age. I didn’t buy that and forked out for an assessment with a speech pathologist which revealed her phonological disorder. Her school teacher subsequently sat one on one with her and realised she wasn’t in the normal spectrum, but that’s another story for another day.

For the last 9 months we’ve been seeing a speech pathologist every week and, every single night, practising connecting the letters of the alphabet with the sounds they represent (A makes three sounds, the a of apple, the a of age, and the ahhhh of afternoon), amongst a host of other exercises.  She’s made huge progress,  and can now sound out words but it’s hard work and she’s got a long way to go before she comes a fluent reader.  Her confidence in the classroom has however grown immeasurably and she no longer states as a fact to me “I’m dumb, mum.”

Is she stupid? Hell no.  I’m not by any stretch suggesting my daughter will be included in such a list (though it would be wonderful), but famous dyslexics include Einstein, Da Vinci, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie and Richard Branson.  The different brain wiring which results in dyslexia certainly appears to have benefits.  Although I do wonder if simply having to concentrate so completely and apply yourself so rigorously at such a young age gives you a tenacity and ability to focus which the rest of us don’t learn until much later, if ever.

So why do I write this? It’s simply a message of judge not.  Judge not your peers who have trouble spelling or pronouncing words that are unfamiliar to them.  Judge not the kids at your children’s school who take an age to complete a comprehension test or can’t write or read a simple sentence when others kids are flying ahead.  It doesn’t mean they’re dumb.  On the contrary, they may have some of the sharpest minds around.

And if you’ve got a child who is having trouble learning to read, early intervention is best. I think the best first step is to talk to your GP although I went directly to a speech pathologist who was recommended to me and that path has worked well for me.