Sally Gardner is an award winning children's writer and illustrator and advocate for people with dyslexia. Sally shares with us some of the ups and downs of having dyslexia in childhood, the workplace and relationships - AND what she hopes for in the future!
Below is an edited transcript from an interview done over the phone, if you prefer to listen rather than read, there's a full unedited audio version of the interview just here (quality is of a phone call).
Hi Sally! You learned to read when you were 14. Can you tell me a bit about what the world was like for you before you could read?
So much of this world is about reading and writing. And the way we organise life in words and clocks. So if you can’t make these things work, you really are in trouble.
When I was small, I remember being taken to look at the words “Coca Cola” at Piccadilly Circus and thinking it was one of the most beautiful words I had ever seen. I began to see words as these unreadable gorgeous objects.
How does it feel to be able to stand in the glory of being a writer after it being such a challenge?
For me, it is unbelievable. I have won quite a few prizes and I have been told repeatedly that I am very good at what I do.
I think I have got more used to being a writer now, I have been doing it long enough. I am beginning to understand what I want to do with my writing. I think before I was just trying to keep my balance.
You’ve created characters that demonstrate sides of dyslexia that show more than just bad spelling, I’m thinking of Maggot Moon. You show the complexity. So, who were some of the characters that you identified with growing up?
It was Fairy tales that really saved me, not for their characters but more for how they look at the world. How they could transform a difficulty into a success. I don’t think dyslexia is all about not being able to spell, I’ve always thought that was just the tip of the iceberg. It’s what was underneath that sunk the titanic. And we never look at the underneath; we haven’t really done much research into how dyslexics see the world.
The other thing I love about fairy tales is that they deal with the psyche. It helped me as a child work out that I wasn’t so strange, there were other strange little people who went onto do rather great things.
You also illustrate your books?
I used to. I started out as an illustrator and then I discovered that you could paint such vivid pictures with words and I never felt my illustrations were as good.
Was illustrating the steppingstone that allowed you to start writing?
Yes it was and I was so unbelievably lucky, I met an amazing woman named Judith Elliott who was a wonderful editor. She discovered some of the top children’s illustrators and writers back in the 80s. She said to me ‘You’re a writer’, and I said ‘Well I’m so severely dyslexic I don’t think I can be that.’ And she said ‘Rubbish, you can be a writer, there’s nothing to stop you.’ I sent in a book that I had written in exercise form. I was so terrified, I had someone help me get it from dyslexia English to English. She phoned me up and said ‘I knew you could write but I didn’t know you could write.’ I always liked that one.
How does Dyslexia effect your relationships – family, friends, partners?
I think the scars of how I was bought up and what I went through has effected me. I prefer, if I’m honest, to be on my own. I like my own company; I don’t feel worried about that. I think it depends how dyslexic you are and what sort of background you’ve experienced, but I’ve always felt like somewhat of an outsider. A bit like Standish in Maggot Moon - not particularly understood. But I have been very lucky in my life to have had three incredible children, a granddaughter as well as amazing friends who have made my life immensely rich.
You describe dyslexia as another way of looking at the world – how would you like the world to be different? What do you think needs to shift for people with dyslexia?
I think we are beginning to accept diversity in sexuality; but we do not accept diversity in the brain. We expect all our children to be magically and robotically the same, jumping over the hoops of education. I wish we would put more emphasis, not on academia, but on valuing emotional intelligence, empathy and visual intelligence. Allowing our children to play and not throttling them with exams and hanging failure around their necks before they are eleven.
What advice would you give to a young person with dyslexia?
Not to despair. I do think that the education system in the UK is the worst place they can be in, and by that I mean our school system, with school routines that mean absolutely nothing to us. They don’t register in our brains and seem meaningless. I would just say hold on. Try not to get expelled too many times, try not to get too naughty, just survive until something clicks.
Every kid that goes to school gets a parcel and most of them get to undo it by the age of seven and they find they can read write, do maths etc. Whether dyslexic people seem to have been given a parcel that has been wrapped in hundreds of layers in paper and tape, dipped in cement and wrapped again. Most of us are very lucky if we have unwrapped it by the age of eighteen. But when we have, we have a great gift, one worth waiting for.
Thanks Sally, is there anything else you’d like to add?
When I stand up and give talks, people say ‘Oh it’s amazing you’ve got such an incredible imagination, where did you get it from?’ And I think, ‘well I had it all along, what’s amazing is I never lost it, and it was never taken from me. That’s the most amazing part about it, not my imagination.’
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