Dyslexia and other learning disabilities can be hard for anyone to navigate. But for people who are still developing their learning and social skills, the challenges can seem insurmountable. And learning disabilities are relatively common — according to the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, 4.9 percent of kids between the ages of six and fifteen have one.
As awareness of these challenges increases, accommodations that level the playing field are being made. Nova Scotia-based publisher Formac Publishing is addressing the need with their new early reader series, called The Secret Games of Maximus Todd.
The series, written by L. M. Nicodemo and illustrated by Graham Ross, incorporates a number of dyslexia-friendly features, like cream-coloured paper stock, which is easier for kids with dyslexia to read. They’ve also used a special font called OpenDyslexic, which features letters that are thicker at the bottom, making them easier to process without flipping or interchanging them. And there’s special attention paid to the layout as well — images and generous amounts of white space is used to break up the text, making the words easier to absorb.
In each of the books (Hyper to the Max, Frantic Friend Countdown, Big Game Jitters, and Flu Shot Fidgets), Max experiences The Super Fidgets, which Max describes in Hyper to The Max as a “ruckus” in his head. He’s “fidgety, jittery. Bouncing off the walls.” Here’s how he explains it:
“On weekends or during summer holidays, it was no big deal. But when it happened on a school day — that was a real disaster. After all, what kid could stay out of trouble if he was as jumpy as popcorn in a microwave?”
Max fights The Super Fidgets by making up games that keep him distracted from whatever worry or situation has him feeling fidgety. In Big Game Jitters, he has to do 10 jumping jacks every time something flies overhead. And in Flu Shot Fidgets, he has to make an animal noise each time he hears someone mention an animal in conversation. And the incentive to win is always high. If he doesn’t do the jumping jacks, for example, he’s committed (to himself) that he will announce to all of the other players that the neighbourhood bully is the best soccer player in the group.
Although Nicodemo simply set out to write a believable, engaging character, as a reader with an anxiety disorder, I notice characteristics of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Other readers may recognize their own “quirks” in Max as well.
These kinds of books are important for all children. Studies show that books with diverse characters help children relate to and feel empathy for people who are different from them. And all children need to read characters they can relate to, and that reflect a variety of perspectives and experiences. Because when children see themselves in a positive fictional character, it not only helps them process the world they live in, but it also raises their self-esteem.
And of course, we can’t ignore the impact on literacy. Create more engaging characters and remove barriers by accommodating different learning abilities, like this series does, and ultimately more kids will enjoy reading. We’ll have happier, more literate children.
And who knows, they might even learn a thing or two about managing their own Super Fidgets.
The Secret Games of Maximus Todd (series)
L. M. Nicodemo, Illustrated by Graham Ross