If you’ve been following this blog you know that I am reviewing books that deal in some way with a character who has a learning disability. Please see previous blogs Eleven: Another Look at a Reading Disorder and CELEBRATING JOEY PIGZA for further reviews. I’m doing this as part of the research for my second book, tentatively titled The Science Project, featuring a middle grade boy with Dyslexia and ADHD.
Joan Bauer earned a Newbery Honor Award for Hope Was Here, a heart-wrenching story of a cast-off teenager who works as a waitress in the diner where her aunt is the cook. Bauer has a gift for delving into the dramas big and small that define the working class struggles in small-town America. In Close to Famous, we meet sixth-grader Foster and her mother Rayka, as they flee Rayka’s abusive relationship with Huck, who likens himself to Elvis.
Foster loves to cook, she’s exceptionally good at it, and cupcakes are her specialty. A food network star is her idol and she dreams of hosting her own program one day. But she has one huge stumbling block that she keeps secret, at least until a couple of astute observers find her out, and that is her inability to read. Bauer slips this in so subtly that you could miss it in the beginning if you aren’t looking for it.
“Mama reads to me a lot. My brain closes up when I open a book. I almost flunked sixth grade because of it. My second grade teacher told Mama I would grow out of it, but it feels more like it’s grown all over me.” (p. 37)
“When I’m famous I’m going to have people around me who do the reading.” (p. 74)
Typically in real life, struggling readers can cruise along using an excellent memory and good guessing skills until a crucial need generates a crisis. Such is the case with Foster. When a newfound friend asks her to help with a documentary project by taking notes for him, Foster’s defenses begin to crumble.
“I’m not stupid, I told myself. There’s all kinds of things I can do. But enough of me must be stupid if I’m twelve years old and I can’t take notes.” (p. 80)
Even more than yearning to write, Foster wants to be able to read a cookbook. Miss Charleena, an aging movie star in seclusion, confronts Foster about her inability to read. After divulging her own struggles in school—“Learning how to read just about split my brain open but it was worth it”—she gains Foster’s trust, and Miss Charleena begins teaching Foster with her own version of phonics one recipe at a time.
Miss Charleena marks a turning point in Foster’s struggle, but not without some false starts, tears, and haunting memories of being called “stupid” by other students, and labeled “limited” by her teachers. One essential ingredient in Foster’s breakthrough is her own attitude and readiness to face the problem head on. “I’m ready to do this now….I’m not going to run away.” (p. 159) The other key ingredient is the awareness that she is not the only one facing a struggle. Her close friendship with a boy who has been taunted by students and teachers for being uncommonly short thrives on the encouragement they lend each other.
Most reviews of this engaging book never mention the reading issue. The book jacket points out the big dreams of the colorful characters who all end up in the tiny town of Culpepper. Rayka hopes to be a headliner instead of a back-up singer, Miss Charleena longs to return to Hollywood stardom, Macon (the short one) yearns to make documentary films, and Foster dreams of having her own TV cooking show.
But I think the understated triumph of cracking the code into the world of reading is the best dream come true in this book. For her efforts Miss Charleena presents Foster with a “reading diploma with honors.” For Foster,it’s just the beginning, and you can’t help but cheer her on with this attitude: “The funniest thing happened with my reading. I started telling people I was working hard at it, and instead of laughing, they said ‘How can we help you?'” (p. 202)
Note to parents of children with a reading disability: Read the book once through by yourself. Laugh, cry, and take a deep breath. And then read it with your child and have an open-ended conversation about the particular set of circumstances you are facing. Who knows? It might spark the beginning of a dream.