Wild Things


A very long reserve queue for this book at the local library, and deservedly so. Sally Rippin is well known as a children's and YA author, and I think might be the best-selling female writer for kids in the country. In latter years she has concentrated on lively, engaging books for early readers, which have been wildly successful.

Wild Things is a very different kind of book -- both a very personal memoir of her youngest son's struggles with literacy, and a survey of the educational research and resources available in this country to help (or hinder) people in a similar situation. Not surprisingly, this is a subject very close to my heart, as my elder daughter (a couple of years older than Sally's son, in this book called 'Sam') has gone through a very similar battle with dyslexia and is still, in her third year at university, fighting to access the support she needs. Like Sally, we suffered through nightly conflicts over reading, tried various tutoring and home-based reading programs (none of which really worked), and dealt with mental health issues, including (but not limited to) severe anxiety, panic attacks, depression and low self-esteem. It seems that 'Sam' might have settled on an alternative education pathway now, but reading about his self-blaming shame and his parents' guilt was really harrowing.

At the foundation of all this suffering lies an education system that is STILL not responsive to the best research, which shows that explicit, thorough phonics instruction in the first years of school is essential to give every child the best chance of mastering literacy skills. 'Whole reading,' which basically expects children to absorb reading and writing skills through osmosis. For some kids, that's enough; for others, it simply doesn't make sense. Reading is learning a code -- from letter symbols to sounds, more or less -- which it seems absurd to expect little kids to just pick up 'naturally.' It ain't natural!

In the end (as I'm sure I've already told you more than once) what worked for my daughter was a combination of LOTS of exposure to books in the form of reading aloud and audiobooks, and becoming so familiar with the Harry Potter books that when she grabbed a volume at the age of about eleven, she was able to decode it on her own. She's always been academically ambitious for herself, and she's doing really well at university, but she still finds reading exhausting, and listening to lectures exhausting -- what works for her is watching online, where she can stop the recording and take notes at her own pace (thank God for Covid lockdowns and online learning). But it's all very hard work for her, and it always will be. It would be great if she could actually get the note-taker that the university support office promised her last year, but it looks like it's not going to happen. I hope she's going to be okay, and I hope 'Sam' will be okay, and I hope all the kids who are still being let down by our educators and politicians and the inadequate teacher training and inadequate classroom resources, will all be okay.

EDIT to add that Sally Rippin was also a Third Culture Kid, and discusses her sense of not-belonging in a way that other TCKs will find very recognisable.

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