Bookmonger: The challenges and pleasures of learning to read

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 19, 2014 

Those of you who look at this column regularly probably love to read. It may be hard for us book-lovers to conceive that many others, however, do not enjoy reading as we do.

In some cases, it is simply a habit, a sort of literary muscle, that never developed in childhood - we'll get to that in a moment.

In other instances, it has to do with a learning disability of some sort or another - short attention spans, dyslexia and other situations that make it hard for the brain to comprehend the words on a page.

"The Boy Who Learned Upside Down" is based on a true story - the plight of Portland author Christy Scattarella's dyslexic son. This children's picture book describes what it was like for young Alex when he tried to read and write - letters seemed to wiggle and squirm before his eyes.

He is sent to a special ed class and dreads his first day, but when his new teacher entices him with the prospect of winning a stuffed toy rat with glow-in-the-dark eyes, Alex is determined to do what it takes to bring that prize home.

His teacher tells him that he can earn it by being courageous - and indeed, it takes a lot of fortitude to overcome his learning disability. But even when things are at their most difficult, Alex has the unconditional love of his dog, Shadow.

This book shows real insight into the shame and pain experienced by dyslexic kids and other students with special learning needs. In the end, Alex not only succeeds in conquering some of his own learning problems, but also thinks of a way to share his winning strategies with others. The narrative perhaps stretches on for too long, but it does deliver a hopeful message.

Fanciful illustrations by Portland artist Winky Wheeler include letters that skip, slither, parachute, bicker, and get into the peanut butter - great fun!

I'd like to move on to something new from Sasquatch Books, which this spring is launching a new children's imprint, Little Bigfoot. The publisher promises to expand its children's publishing program, which is generally good news, although the books on their roster are an odd mix of Alaska-based books, the commercial "Larry Gets Lost" city series, and some books with more literary appeal.

"S Is for Salmon" is the latest in a string of alphabet and counting books published by Sasquatch over the years, beginning with Andrea Helman's wonderful "O Is for Orca" nearly two decades ago.

Seattle artist Hannah Viano has produced cut-paper illustrations for this new alphabet book. Although her designs may not be as detailed as those of other Northwest cut-paper artists such as Aki Sogabe or Nikki McClure, Viano's compositions convey our region's flora, fauna and geography with pleasing simplicity and her written definitions are a nice combination of natural history and whimsy.

A delightful book like this can help to develop the literary muscle I mentioned at the beginning of this piece - it's good to start young!

THIS WEEK'S BOOKS

- "The Boy Who Learned Upside Down," by Christy Scattarella

- "S Is for Salmon," Hannah Viano

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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