Author interview: Mary Avery Kabrich

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When I’m writing, I usually listen to one song on repeat. Working on this interview with psychologist and writer Mary Avery Kabrich, I have been listening to “Chosen” by Rose Cousins:

“Give me a sign, a photo, a map
Something to go by
How am I supposed to know
What I’m supposed to look like”

Mary’s novel Once Upon A Time A Sparrow has become that sign, photo, map for my own dyslexic journey. As a child, I didn’t have any role models who struggled to learn, let alone a novel with a dyslexic female heroine like Maddie. As Mary says in our interview, “I knew something was wrong with me,” but I didn’t know quite what it was. That is changing for our children, and it’s partly because we are bravely telling our stories.

I was thrilled to compare notes on dyslexia with Mary: how it has impacted her reading, her education, her career, and her mental health; how she has overcome challenges to become a psychologist and an award-winning author, and ultimately to simply believe in herself. Drawing from her extensive experience with the school system, she suggests a better way to teach children with learning differences. I encourage you to read her book — Once Upon A Time A Sparrow.

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Book review: Learning to fly in Once Upon A Time A Sparrow

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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.

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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.

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Ask the expert: Maggie Snowling and the history of dyslexia project

percy word blind

Poor Percy F.

Diagnosed with “congenital word blindness” in 1896.

What happened to Percy? Did he ever learn to read? Did he have a happy life?

Why don’t we know more about him, and all the boys and girls who have struggled to read the written word?

The history of dyslexia, and people with dyslexia, is fascinating. And yet, it remains largely untold.

It’s important to document our history: to see how we have been labelled and mislabeled, treated and mistreated; how far have we come in understanding and accepting dyslexia, and where we need to go.

That’s why I’m so excited about Oxford University’s History of Dyslexia project. They are tracing the origins of dyslexia (primarily in the UK) – the early advocates, pioneers and researchers who got us where we are today. They are also collecting histories of people with dyslexia.

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