Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dyslexics, Baked Goods, and Elvis, Oh My!

Close to Famous
As a teacher of dyslexic students, we see the joy of a student who can finally make sense of the words on a page, the elation of a kid who gets his first "A", and the relief of our kids when they realize they aren't "defective". They just learn in a way no one has tried to teach them before! Working at The Kildonan School has truly changed my life, but that pales in comparison to how many students' lives have been changed on this campus. This year, after giving a student his term exam, which he earned a 97 on, and telling him he was receiving an A in my senior literature class, he said, "Ms. Hoyt, I have to call my mom and tell her! I have never gotten an A on anything before!" This place makes you beam with pride for every one of your students' accomplishments.

Sadly, there is another side to working with dyslexic students. Every single student comes to us with a story. Some came here young enough to have moved on from the time they suffered in schools where they were being shoved in resource rooms and pulled from classes for extra help. Most remember all too vividly the pain and humiliation of being in a class where their classmates could read but they couldn't. Some can even tell you horror stories of teachers who called them dumb, lazy, losers. They were labeled as "limited" and put in the "slow" classes. This is the ugly side of dyslexia we try to help our students overcome, but sadly we are all too familiar with it. It is also a side of the story teachers of all likes should know and understand. How does what they say affect their students? What body language can the students read to know a teacher is frustrated or has given up on them? How do they feel being pulled out of classes- especially the fun parts- to go to resource rooms and reading specialists? Joan Bauer's latest novel, Close to Famous, is a beautiful story about a young girl who never learned to read, but had aspirations so big no one could hold her down.

Foster McFee is 12 years old and lost her daddy in the war in Iraq. All she has left of him is a pillowcase full of his stuff and his letters- letters she can't read. But she hides that fact through some pretty powerful evasive maneuvers, including her natural baking ability that makes people forget everything and just focus on the cupcakes. Her passion for cooking came from Sonny Kroll, a food show star who has giving her hope in a hopeless world. She has learned to hide and compensate for her severe learning disability. When Foster's mom packs them up in the middle of the night and they take off, she knows it has something to do with her mom's Elvis-impersonating boyfriend and the black eye she is sporting.

They drive and drive until they end up in a small town in West Virginia called Culpepper. There they meet the kindest, most generous hodge podge of people ever. A husband and wife tow truck duo give Foster and her mom a place to stay, free of charge, a little boy named Macon quickly befriends Foster and introduces her to the infamous actress, Miss Charleena, and Foster even gets a "job" selling cupcakes out of Angry Wayne's Bar and Grill. The entire town is enamored with Foster and her baked goods, which seem to settle any bad situation and clear hostilities like magic.

But despite her work with Macon on his documentary and her time baking, Foster is haunted by two things- her inability to read and the pillowcase of her papa's stuff she accidentally left in the rush to escape Elvis and Memphis. Add to that the accident Sonny Kroll has, and Foster is left with nothing to look forward to. Then Macon gets sick and begs Foster to take care of Miss Charleena in his absence, and everything changes. Miss Charleena, although she seems cranky and cantankerous, seems to like Foster. When she figures out Foster can't read, she shares her own struggles in school with the young girl and starts to help her. The help is rocky in the beginning, and Foster has to overcome her own shame before they can make any real progress, but eventually Foster can read. When the book-mobile comes by, Foster gets a Sonny Kroll cookbook and can even make out some of the words!

But evil Elvis is still out there and her pillowcase is still gone. When her mom returns to Memphis to get the pillowcase, it leads the abusive Elvis right to them. But the town won't let anything happen to Foster or her mother- this is their home now and family takes care of family! The real tearjerker, though, is when Foster finally gets to contact Sonny Kroll. For a girl who couldn't read or write, a simple letter to her idol and his response is all she needs to be truly happy!

There are "warm and fuzzy" books that make you feel mushy inside and then there are books that just make you happy inside. I have always loved Joan Bauer and everything she has written, but I think this new one might be one of my favorites! She really captures the emotions and pain of a 12 year old who can't read without bringing down the tone of the story. She gives Foster the baking which is her true talent and displays how language skills don't stop someone from being really successful at something. Our kids come to us as amazing artists, beautiful woodworkers, chefs, storytellers, filmmakers, etc. They are really, really good at stuff, and that shouldn't be diminished by their language struggles. And that is just what Joan Bauer does with the utmost of ease- she doesn't hide Foster's language struggles, they are still important, but her strengths are more important!

This is a beautiful book that would be excellent for any middle reader. It can easily be used for older elementary students all the way to low-skilled high school students. The story is really well done, and the dyslexic character can be someone for the reader to understand and empathize with. Not only is this a great book for children, but it can be a real eye-opener for adults as well. I think teachers and parents alike would learn as much from this book as any young adult could! Brava, Joan Bauer. You are an amazing lady!

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