Joanne Sarginson has been working with us since September as People Intern at our head office in Liverpool. She writes for The Reader Online about her own personal experience of reading being shared within her family – particularly with her brother – and the significant impacts it can have.
My brother was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of eight. I was ten at the time and had recently discovered the Harry Potter series. As a result, I thought that ‘dyslexia’ sounded like a spell everyone’s favourite boy wizard would utilise in order to disarm an aggressive Death Eater.
Dyslexia had a significant impact on my brother’s relationship with books and the way in which he perceived reading in general. In the years following his diagnosis he visited a series of specialists, almost all of whom recommended that he read for at least an hour per day with one of my parents. The idea was to make books more accessible. By reading aloud, my brother was forced to engage with the writing before him. The words were no longer a cluttered mass of letters on a page and were instead clearly verbalised, allowing him to establish a greater connection both with the characters in the book and message that the author was trying to convey.
However, although he was making progress, a sense of obligation soon began to develop around the idea of reading. Every time that my brother picked up a book, he did so under the impression that there was something wrong with him – that he had ‘special needs’ and that he was reading in attempt to fix himself. As a result, reading quickly became an activity that he associated with pressure as opposed to pleasure. He was increasingly reluctant to read. Eventually, my mum was forced to entice him into his daily reading sessions under the condition that she would reward him with a Curly Wurly at the end.
On a couple of occasions, my brother asked me why I liked reading. I like to think I gave the following response:
“For me, one of the best things about reading is the sense of shared experience. It is comforting to establish a connection with a character, to visualise an element of yourself within them, something which enables you to think ‘that’s what it’s like for me’.
In reality, it was probably much less eloquent and more along the lines of ‘sometimes, I feel the same as the characters’. Hoping to engage his interest, I asked him if he had ever experienced a similar connection with a fictional character. He frowned for a moment and then said:
‘I guess I connect with Captain Underpants.’
Captain Underpants is a children’s book series in which two mischievous school children hypnotise their headmaster, compelling to remove his clothes and perform heroic acts in his underwear. I asked my brother in what way he felt related to Captain Underpants. Was it the idea of a lack of control, the feeling as if he didn’t have total authority over his own actions?
‘I wear underpants too,’ he said.
I read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with my brother when he was fourteen years old. Before this, my attempts to read with him had been largely unsuccessful. I did not possess the natural authority of a parent figure and, unlike my mum, did not have access to a supply of coveted Curly Wurlys. As a result, my offers were frequently met with a range of responses, including ‘no’, ‘nope’, ‘no way’, ‘nah’, ‘not going to happen’ and ‘books are gay’. My brother’s lack of interest in books frustrated me and I would often moodily contemplate what gave him the right to so forcibly reject my noble and selfless sacrifice of my time, let alone comment on the sexual orientation of a piece of literature. On the rare occasions that he did allow me to read with him, his focus would be erratic and he would rapidly become disinterested.
Initially, it was a similar experience with The Curious Incident – the same shifting eyes, small sighs and restless fidgeting. However, this changed when we reached p56 of the novel and read a passage in which the main character, Christopher, who has Asperger’s syndrome, comments on his perception of special needs:
‘Everyone has learning difficulties because learning to speak French or understanding relativity is difficult and also everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.’
(The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon, p56)
My brother was completely still. After a few seconds, he opened his mouth and quietly said:
‘that’s kind of a little bit how I feel too’.
Over the course of a month, we made our way to the end of Haddon’s novel. A few weeks later, I found my brother reading The Hunger Games. There were no Curly Wurlys involved. He had volunteered as tribute.
You can read more from Joanne over on her blog: https://joannesarginson.wordpress.com/