by Sue Ann Rybak
Zivia Avelin, of Mt. Airy, is only 10 years old, but she has already helped illustrate and write “Spell Shaper,” a book designed to help kids with dyslexia or other kinds of reading disabilities. Sarah Aghajanian, of Fairmount, wrote the book with Avelin’s assistance.
“Zivia Avelin, who has dyslexia, is an amazing writer and artist,” said Aghajanian, Avelin’s former teacher at The Miquon School in Conshohocken. Dyslexia is a neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain. According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.
People with dyslexia often have difficulty processing and manipulating sounds. Dyslexia has nothing to do with a person’s I.Q. or how ambitious he/she are. In fact, some of the most creative and successful people have had dyslexia including Jennifer Aniston, Jay Leno, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Whoopi Goldberg, Muhammad Ali, George Washington, Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie, Henry Ford and many more.
“Zivia is one of the most creative students I have ever taught,” Aghajanian said. “She is amazing. She is the kind of child who will spend the entire weekend working on her art. She can understand any middle school level book. She has listened to every audio book I could have imagined, yet she is very dyslexic. When she looks at a page, it’s just a jumble.”
Aghajanian, 32, who has a Masters in Education and is a reading specialist, said she noticed that there was a lack of interesting and compelling books for older middle-aged school students that were “fairly decodable.” While there are a number of great introductory chapter books such as “The Magic Treehouse” or “Junie B. Jones,” there are very few high-low chapter books. High-low stands for “high interest” and “low vocabulary.”
“Right now, when most books are given a reading grade level, people usually only look at how many words are in each sentence,” said Aghajanian, who self-published her book through Amazon. “They do not even care what words the authors use. This means that even some picture books are very hard to read and even harder to understand. As a reading teacher, this is shocking to me.”
She wanted to write a book about a character who was not only dealing with a “learning difference” but also had many of the traits of someone with dyslexia. “A lot of kids with dyslexia tend to be amazing with spacial acuity,” said Aghajanian, “so if you give them something to do like build an airplane they will do it the quickest in the class.”
She explained that those same traits make it difficult for people with dyslexia to decode, which is the process of sounding out words. People with dyslexia also have trouble with reading comprehension.
“I didn’t want the character to magically have his learning disability cured,” Aghajanian said. “This is something I see a lot in books that have characters with learning differences, and it frustrates me. Most students with learning disabilities must learn strategies to overcome their reading difficulties. It’s an ongoing struggle.
“My goal was to write a chapter book that would be fun for anyone to read but that would have tools for older children with dyslexia. Zivia read over the book with me and helped me make sure that most of the words were either words children could sound out (like ‘mishap’) or were sight words (like ‘thought’).”
Avelin also decided what all the characters in the story should look like. “She drew two of my pictures, including Finn, the main character of the book,” said the teacher/author. “My partner teacher at The Miquon School, Sara Slaybaugh, drew the rest of the characters based on Zivia’s ideas.”
Avelin said Finn is an elf boy who has difficulty learning magic. “I hope kids feel like they can connect with Finn’s difficulties because everyone has their strengths and weaknesses,” she said.
Aghajanian added that Finn hates everything about school, except lunch and free time. “He has been trying his best to cast a spell for years but has not been able to get even one to work,” she said. “His little sister, however, is the perfect student. Yet what Finn does not know is that his problems with magic will bring him hidden gifts. And with a lot of hard work, he will discover he has powers that no one ever thought possible.”
Aghajanian is having a book reading and signing on Saturday, June 20, 2 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy. Copies of the book will be available for purchase. The book is also available on amazon.com for $7.99.
More information about this event or the book at www.bigbluemarblebooks.com/events.html.
This article erroneously stated that Zivia Avelin is 11. It was updated on June 22.