Dwarfism, dyslexia and discovering the world through books
Published on: 07 April 2016 Author: Alex Strick
Alex Strick talks to Amber Lee Dodd, whose debut novel We Are Giants is published this month.
Just to whet people's appetites, how would you introduce your book in a sentence?
I'd say it's a story about love, overcoming loss and being proud to be who you are.
How did you to come to write We Are Giants?
I'd already written quite a few plays and short stories for adults, but this is my first children's book. I suppose it seemed a logical thing to do, having worked with children.
'I met kids with a wide range of different needs, and I started to notice that these children simply 'aren't there' in books. It was really brought home to me one day when I was looking after a young disabled student and I suggested we went to the library. He shrugged and said 'Why would I want to do that?'
'When I asked what he meant, he said there weren't any books about people that he could relate to. That was when it really struck me how few books included disabled characters who weren't defined by their disability.'
How did the idea of a character with restricted growth come about?
The honest answer is that one night I woke up at 2am with an idea. It was the idea of a young girl whose mother was a little person and the girl was desperate to be like her; so much so that she wanted to shrink herself.
I scribbled it down, and in the morning, I looked at it again and thought: 'Gosh, where did that come from?' I decided to try to write it. I think I was fascinated by the idea of wanting to share in your family identity but not always being able to.
How did you research the book?
To start off with, I did lots and lots of internet research. Then my publisher also put me in touch with Sinead Burke (fashion blogger and winner of the Alternative Miss Ireland contest). She was a huge help in terms of fine-tuning the manuscript, especially in terms of things like Amy's physicality.
Thanks to that research, I was able to really understand what would have worked, and to iron out anything that wasn't quite realistic.
What fears did you have - if any?
I didn't really have any fears or reservations about including a character of restricted growth. I suppose that was partly because I didn't see it as being that unusual until I started to share the manuscript.
I did start to notice some slight hesitancy among some of the agents. I think they weren't quite sure they would know how to pitch it.
However, I tried not to get distracted or put off by anyone's doubts. I just stuck to my original idea and was determined to get it right.
Language and terminology can be something of a minefield. What did you learn about terms like little people, restricted growth, short stature, etc?
I learned that there is a really strong identity for 'little people'. Some people with dwarfism/restricted growth really embrace that, and Amy is one of them.
Obviously, I can only focus on one experience - Amy's. It would be impossible to write about dwarfism and try to represent every different view - everyone is different and would want their identity expressed in a different way. Amy uses the terms 'little person', 'dwarf' and 'dwarfism'.
It's very much a children's book, so I needed to use words and ideas that worked and made sense to the audience.
However, I did at one point have a character use the word 'midget'. We had a lot of discussions about this, but I felt it was important, as I have heard people using it without realising its negative connotations. So I used it in a moment of tension, to make people think twice about the word.
Do you have any plans to ensure future books are inclusive in this way?
'I am always going to write about diverse characters because I want to reflect the world I live in and the life I know. I also want to include people who need to be included.'
The book I'm currently working on involves some children with special educational needs within a mainstream school, as I have direct personal experience of this.
You grew up with dyslexia - how did this affect your interest in books and reading?
Yes I was very dyslexic, and I have dyspraxia too. It wasn't diagnosed for a long time, and then I was put into special education.
'I was always very aware of being the 'kid who couldn't read'. It felt like I was the last child to manage to crack reading. I think teachers despaired of me, to be honest. Then when I finally caught up, I devoured absolutely everything I could get my hands on! Books completely opened up my world.'
Writing my own stories became the only thing I was really good at. And I discovered all sorts of wonderful books about 'real' people (I especially loved the grittiness of Jacqueline Wilson's books) and the world started to make better sense.
That's why it's so important that all young people can find books that appeal to them, so books can improve their world, too.
How do you 'view' or describe dyslexia?
It means the brain works differently. It's wired up differently, but you can interpret the world in different ways. It's important to remember that every dyslexic person is different.
'I'll always remember having to judge a short story competition in a school. The entry I chose was by a boy who showed an amazing use of language and a colossal imagination.'
'There was a gasp from the audience when his name was announced. He turned out to be severely dyslexic, and proceeded to tell me he had terrible trouble with writing and had never won anything.'
However, what struck me even more was that his friend told me: 'He's a mathlete'. It's so important we don't generalise. I was terrible at maths, but this dyslexic boy was a genius with numbers.
Finally, what would you say to young people who aspire to being an author?
I think young people need to meet authors from different backgrounds and see that it's possible. I never met an author when I was a child.
I'd like to encourage all children to write and to understand that authors can come from all kinds of backgrounds. Anyone can become an author.
Disability and books
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