Shorts: Sally Gardner and dyslexia
As a child, Sally Gardner was likened more to a sieve than a sponge. More information was lost than retained, and she was called a problem child, unteachable and lazy.
But there was a reason: Gardner had severe dyslexia, a lifelong learning disorder that typically manifests in reading, writing and spelling difficulties.
According to the Health Department's Child Assessment Service, the prevalence of dyslexia among children is between 9.7 per cent and 12.6 per cent. The condition in about 70 per cent of these is considered to be mild, 20 per cent to be moderate and 10 per cent severe.
Gardner's condition was considered severe. She was actually named Sarah, but she couldn't figure out whether the R or H came first, so her name was changed to Sally: S is like a snake, followed by a little A and two long lines, and a Y to catch it all. That, she could remember.
She was bumped from school to school, had few friends and eventually ended up in a school for "maladjusted" children. Her parents, both lawyers, were mystified. At age 11, she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.
Miraculously, at 14, her condition took a U-turn. "I think that ... they'd given up on me and, without the pressure, I could finally read."
Gardner, now in her late 50s, is an award-winning novelist living in London. Her books have been translated into 22 languages, and she's sold more than 1.5 million copies in Britain. She'll be in town this weekend for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival festival.org.hk where she will conduct a special Come Read With Sally Gardner event for children and parents on Sunday.
Gardner studied art at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, graduated with first class honours and joined Newcastle University Theatre Society, where she first worked as a theatre designer, then moved to costume design and illustration. She took to writing after having children.
Her first full-length novel, I, Coriander, won the Nestle Children's Book Prize Gold Award in 2005. Silver Blade, her sequel to 2007's The Red Necklace, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize in 2009. The Sunday Times called her an "idiosyncratic genius".
Just because you can't spell, it doesn't mean you can't write, Gardner says. Dyslexic people have very visual memories and make visual associations. She lists other famous accomplished dyslexics such as Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Agatha Christie.
"I think of writing like singing: everyone has a voice, and then there's Adele. If you have a voice that soars above the rest, then it will soar, whether or not you have dyslexia," Gardner says. "I do think that dyslexic people have a heightened perception of their environment, and it contributes to my creativity."
The downside is the common misconception. "Other people's misinterpretation and impatience with dyslexia has been the hardest to handle, their underestimation of my abilities, assuming that I'm stupid when I'm not," she says.
To Gardner, what needs to change are the attitudes towards the condition and the education system.
"Non-dyslexic children could benefit from education that doesn't give one answer to one question but explores many answers to it," she says. "Education should be empowering, not disabling."