Governor Gavin Newsom has struggled with dyslexia since grade school. Now he tells his story through Ben, the baseball loving protagonist of his new children’s book who also struggles to read.
“Ben & Emma’s Big Hit,” which goes on sale Tuesday, parallels Newsom’s experience with dyslexia, which he learned in fifth grade.
The 54-year-old governor said parenting his own children, who also have learning disabilities, inspired him to work with Philomel Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, after noticing a lack picture books designed for young children with dyslexia who are learning to read.
The character of Ben is inspired by a young Gavin, who excelled on the baseball field but whose learning issues left him anxious in class, sweating at reading time and feeling like he wasn’t. was not as smart as the other kids.
Ben’s teammate Emma fakes his reading skills by dragging the “biggest and biggest chapter books,” which the governor says stemmed from his own attempts to cover up his learning problem.
The book includes other more subtle nods to Newsom’s life, such as a page illustrating the school hallway that shows class number 5902, the date the governor’s mother, Tessa Thomas Newsom, was died: May 9, 2002.
Newsom credits his mother for never giving up on him and said he now has a better understanding of the difficulty she has encountered as a parent watching her own children face learning challenges.
In the story, Ben and Emma’s teacher admits that she couldn’t hit a baseball growing up and accepts help from students in learning how, showing children that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.
The book ends with an optimistic lesson in never giving up when the going gets tough. Even the font, OpenDyslexic, is designed to help struggling young readers.
Ahead of a tour to promote the new project this week, The Times interviewed Newsom about the book, his personal experience with dyslexia, and parenting children with learning disabilities. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Why write a children’s book on dyslexia now?
Due to the experiences with my children and the experience of being a parent, I created a different framework of appreciation and empathy, not only as a dyslexic person, but also as a parent, in my case. , children with learning differences – quite a few of them.
So, it’s in that kind of relationship to that, being a parent, and then of course, having my own expression, that I wanted to communicate through the book, that led me to look for books. I was looking for dyslexia picture books and was surprised to find none, but a lot of chapter books, a lot of college books that talked a bit about dyslexia, obviously, disabilities in the sense of large, intellectual disabilities. And there are wonderful and amazing book series, all kinds of amazing stuff. But for very young children, especially those just learning to read, I was surprised that there was nothing there, and that’s what prompted me to do this. It really was in the absence of many alternatives and then just a relationship as a parent who grew up with dyslexia that ultimately led to the book’s decision.
How hard is it for you to watch your kids struggle with the same thing that caused you so much trauma at that age?
I began to understand that the trauma may be even more acute for parents. So you know I lost my mom I think over 18 years ago, actually the date is on the number on the school classroom door, the date she passed away.
You always look back, “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” all the things you wanted to tell your parents about. My mother had never been able to meet my children, but I also deeply regret that I never expressed gratitude to her. Only [her] commitment to not give up on me and, you know, fight that herself, which I just never could – you don’t think like a child, of course. And even when I grew up, as an adult, I really didn’t enjoy it until I started doing the same with my own kids. It’s just … it’s hard. And you know, you feel like you’re a failure. You have the impression that something is wrong with you. “I don’t spend enough time with them. I don’t read enough with them. I read the wrong stuff. I let them spend too much time on the media. All of these things go through your mind, and then you start to realize, wait a second, other kids this age are a little better, and if we do the same, maybe something else’s going on here. .
And so it’s, you know, all this exploration, all this emotional experience that so many parents go through, and I think what’s mind blowing is the number of parents going through it. Millions and millions of children struggle just as adults struggle. It is a lifelong problem. He’s not going away.
How has your personal experience with dyslexia helped you help your children try to read?
You think children are not listening to you at all. I remember reading to them and believe me reading to my kids is not an easy experience for me just because it is difficult to read. It is not pleasant. I do not like reading. I struggle through it. I am not pronouncing the words correctly. If I don’t physically underline things with a pen, I find it difficult to stay spatially on the same line. If I read casually to children, they prefer mom, they always say, “Where’s mom?” And I remember saying to the kids, I think it was Brooklynn, I said, “Look, daddy couldn’t read at your age, and daddy struggled with something called dyslexia.” And she was just like, whatever. You know, she just rolled her eyes.
Two months later, I hear him talking to a friend saying, “My dad couldn’t read. He suffers from dyslexia. I say to myself “What? How do you even know that? She said, “You told me that the other day.” I said, “You weren’t even paying attention.” So this is all powerful for me because it makes my kids feel good about how they are doing and that is important.
But, also, it is an opportunity for me. You know, when I meet dyslexic kids or go to schools that emphasize or discipline dyslexia, it gives me power. It’s such an amazing and very intense emotional experience to be with these kids and to connect with them, and then I will invariably run into a parent. It happens all the time when I was in a classroom talking about my experience and they come up to me, you know, kindly say, “Thank you, because my son has dyslexia. and he was in the class and he didn’t say anything. And it’s so wonderful that you said that because it made it easier for us to talk to him about it and make him feel like he’s not stupid. He’s not stupid. You know he’ll be fine. And I think for parents it is also an expression for that because as parents we ask ourselves about our children: “Are they going to be transferred quickly to the juvenile room and the penitentiary system, or will they get away with it? With academics, we’re so focused on college outside the womb, and everyone is so competitive. You know, it’s hard. So when your children fall behind, you experience a myriad of emotions about what becomes of your children, how they can thrive, not just survive, in the world.
What part of the book did you write yourself and what contribution did Ruby Shamir make?
It was like an interview. We framed it, then she put it into a plan based on our conversations. And so, we kind of created the composites and created the characters. I spoke about the importance of visualization. I feel parts and see objects and stuff, so she translated it all and did a draft, and then we just spent two to three months copying versions of the draft. So she was the rock star. She is the writer. It wasn’t a topic for her, necessarily, that she was deeply attached to, even though she knew someone with dyslexia, and that’s why she said yes to doing the book. She said, “Oh, I have a great friend who has this. It’s something that actually interests me to learn more. And then we went back and forth.
What else should people know about the book?
It is important, personally. I think this is important to millions and millions of people, including arguably millions of Californians. And I just hope that opens the door to more conversations. And also, you know, I pushed this agenda with the legislature, but I didn’t push as far as I wanted because I didn’t want to do it somehow – I didn’t want it to do it. become too much on me. But what’s really interesting over the last few years, as we’ve put more money in the budget – we’re doing these early projections and UC [San Francisco] receives funding for this early detection program – that’s how many members of the legislature speak to me and with their own children about their experiences and how many are keen to do more in this space.
I’m really excited about this kind of open space, literacy in the broad sense, and early detection. This joins [English as a Second Language] problems and links in a lot of problems. So I really hope that in the next few years we can do some exciting and transformative things in the state, and this book, I hope, will open that conversation up a bit more.