Luminaries Steven Spielberg, Barbara Corcoran and Albert Einstein are among the scores of smart, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who have struggled with dyslexia, a disorder that distorts a person’s perception of letters and numbers, making word recognition and math equations a formidable challenge. Dyslexia affects as many as 17% of the U.S. population and is one of the most common causes of reading difficulties in school-aged children.
In “My Name is Layla,” a new book for middle grade students [TouchPoint Press, Jan. 19], author Reyna Marder Gentin, a Scarsdale resident, captures the frustration and charged emotions of an intelligent, likable teenage girl coping with dyslexia. Struggling to make sense of her schoolwork, the words on the page hop around, letters change partners and “spellcheck is a total fail, because even the computer can’t figure out what I’m trying to say.” With each assignment, Layla grows more defiant, acting out in ways she’ll come to regret.
‘My hands are shaking, and I don’t know if it’s anger or frustration or some emotion unique to me that doesn’t have a name. All I know is that I want this feeling to go away — I need to do something to change this afternoon so that Mom won’t find out I’m a loser.’
“This novel is really a story about one girl’s challenges,” said Marder Gentin, “both with the learning difference and perhaps, more crucially, with getting the support she needs.”
Marder Gentin says her experience as a former public defender and juvenile rights attorney has made her sensitive to the complexity of human dynamics.
“I’ve seen how the motives behind actions are not always straightforward and even when a person’s impulse is to do the right thing, other factors can take over,” she said.
“In ‘My Name Is Layla,’ the protagonist struggles with dyslexia and reaches a breaking point. It’s a moment of desperation, frustration and hopelessness that causes her to make just the sort of choice that would have landed my clients in court as juveniles or adults.”
Touching on family relationships, loyalty, communication and learning differences, “MNIL” is targeted for upper middle grade readers and their families. It is the second novel by Marder Gentin, who gave up practicing law in 2014 after years of representing indigent defendants who were convicted of felonies. She currently volunteers with the Pace Family Court Legal Program, obtaining temporary restraining orders for victims of domestic violence.
Her first novel, “Unreasonable Doubts,” a romantic legal thriller, was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Star Award, and her short stories and personal essays have been published widely online and in print. On a solid path as an author, she enrolled in a course at Sarah Lawrence College on writing for youth.
“I tried to remember the emotions from that age and stage of life, about the ups and downs of the friendships, crushes on boys, frustrations in algebra, and, perhaps most critically, when my father had a heart attack when I was 14.”
Though Marder Gentin did basic research on the novel, she is quick to point out that she is not an educator or reading specialist. However, she said, it is not surprising that many juvenile delinquents and incarcerated adults are either illiterate or dyslexic.
“Not being able to read is hugely incapacitating in terms of functioning in society and holding a job, as well as being a devastating blow to self-esteem,” she said. “I have no doubt that many children who suffer from learning differences and don’t receive adequate services to address their needs may resort to behavior that gets them the attention they lack. I’m not suggesting that kids who have trouble reading are ‘bad’ kids — rather, kids who need extra help may resort to poor behavior to be noticed.”
Marder Gentin said her own misconception about dyslexia had been “that it was a purely visual, perceptual deficit, characterized by letters being seen backwards or switching places. I understand, now, that dyslexia has to do with phonetics, involving how the brain connects the visual to the sounds that letters make, allowing one to sound out words. Another misconception is that people with dyslexia are not intelligent, when in fact many are highly creative, smart, and out-of-the-box thinkers.”
She hopes that readers will take away from her novel that everyone has challenges, and we need to be sensitive and accepting of each other’s struggles.
“Layla has dyslexia, Sammy [her classmate] has an executive functioning deficit, someone else may have a mental health issue or an eating disorder or a family member dealing with a chronic illness. Some issues are more visible than others, but, as I like to say, ‘Everyone has something.’ It’s humanizing to remember that and to try to help.”
“My Name is Layla” can be preordered at Bronx River Books in Scarsdale.