Have you ever looked up to see one little bird flying out of sync from the rest of her flock? Have you ever wondered why she is falling behind? And if she will find her way back?
Psychologist and author Mary Avery Kabrich explores a similar question in her novel Once Upon A Time A Sparrow, but as it relates to children with dyslexia. Kabrich wants to know, and more importantly, wants the world to know, “why some children learn to read effortlessly as a bird learns to fly, while others flap their wings until they almost break, and still end up in a nosedive.”
In Kabrich’s award-winning novel, the “sparrow” is a nine-year old girl named Maddie — a bright, dyslexic spark who is diagnosed as minimally brain damaged.
It’s 1967, and Maddie is stuck in the “sparrow” group (for slow readers) at school. She is pulled out of her favourite class for special reading instruction, which is taught in a storage closet, no less. Her teacher, Mrs. Zinc, discourages her from pursuing her dreams: “if you can’t read, you can’t write.” She is publicly humiliated by her know-it-all classmate Paulette. Her loving parents worry over her, but don’t know how to help. But there is much good to balance the bad: she finds support from a special education teacher named Ms. Ellen and strength in family, spirituality and her own imagination.
Maddie eventually learns how to read (and write!), goes to university and finds her calling as a school psychologist. It’s 2005 now, and on the surface, “Dr. Mary” has successfully overcome her challenges. But as the story reveals itself, we learn that she is still carrying the scars of her childhood struggle with literacy (that little voice in her head suggesting that once a sparrow, always a sparrow!). In her work as a school psychologist, these scars resurface every time she identifies another child who is struggling. She knows how it feels. And it doesn’t feel good.
The book is loosely based on Kabrich’s own life, who like Maddie, was harmfully labelled as minimally brain damaged — a diagnosis described by JAMA as “an all-encompassing, wastebasket diagnosis”.
Thankfully, like her character Maddie, Kabrich didn’t let this label hold her back. She got her BA in education, followed by a masters and a PhD in educational psychology. She currently works as a school psychologist in Seattle public schools where she diagnoses “learning challenges, consults with parents and teachers, and strives to bring some understanding to the unique ways children learn.” (Read more about Mary on her website). All the while, working away at her other passion: writing.
Published in 2017, Once Upon A Time A Sparrow is her first novel, and has already received numerous awards and accolades. Kabrich is now working on her second novel.
What stands out for me is that this is a very visual read (not surprising to me, given that so many dyslexics are visual thinkers). You can see, smell, taste, feel Maddie’s childhood, and what it’s actually like to try to read with dyslexia. Note to Steven Spielberg (also a dyslexic!): This would make a wonderful movie.
Importantly, every word of this novel rings true to me as a parent navigating the school system, and a dyslexic adult navigating the world of work.
And for me, it was an emotional read. It unearthed many memories and feelings that, like Kabrich, I have buried just below the surface.
In her review, Professor Maryanne Wolf thoughtfully suggests that this is a story of transformation that also has the power to transform. Says Wolf, it’s: “the story of story itself, with its power to lift us and transform our lives.”
Ultimately, transformation requires our heroine not to reject — but to accept — her inner “sparrow” with all of its dyslexic bumps and bruises: “I am newly stepping into the present, firmly holding the hand of Maddie.”
The revelation here is that contrary to what she’d been told as a child: sparrows can be writers, and writers can be sparrows. One does not preclude the other.
And what of the question that inspired Kabrich to write this book — why do some children soar and other’s take a nose dive? To me, this is the most important point of the book: with the right help, children with dyslexia can learn to fly. And better than that — they can soar. Just ask Maddie.
Coming soon: Dyslexic Library interview with Mary Avery Kabrich. Find out how much of the novel is based on the author’s real life and how much is imagined; how she hopes schools will support children with dyslexia; how dyslexia affects her as an adult; and what she would say to her childhood self.
Photo credit: photograph of sparrows from CC Public Domain; author’s portrait used with permission.