Arti Sonthalia’s new book Read, Write, Race is about a 10-year-old’s struggle with dyslexia

Arti Sonthalia, who has written award-winning children’s books such as Big Bully and M-me (2015) and Best Friends Forever (2018) is back with a new title called Read, Write, Race. It revolves around a 10-year-old boy named Raghav who is diagnosed with dyslexia.

Chintan Girish Modi September 24, 2022 11:23:58 IST
Arti Sonthalia’s new book Read, Write, Race is about a 10-year-old’s struggle with dyslexia

Arti Sonthalia’s new book is about a 10-year-old’s struggle with dyslexia

Raghav is a 10-year-old boy who loves to run, and he usually stands first in all the races that he participates in. When it comes to academics, however, he lags far behind the rest. He tries with all his heart and might but his reading and writing speed never catch up with his pace as an athlete. His teachers and classmates, in fact even his mother, are oblivious of his struggles. They assume that he is lazy, and wants to avoid studying. He is reprimanded at home, and bullied at school. The constant humiliation affects his self-esteem. He is desperate for help.

Read Arti Sonthalia’s book Read, Write, Race (2022) to learn more about Raghav’s journey of self-discovery. He is the protagonist of this tenderly written story about a boy who wants to be “normal”. He is fed up of being seen as “dumb”. Neither Raghav nor his parents know that he has dyslexia until Ms. Joseph, a stern-looking teacher with a heart of gold, begins to notice his difficulties with completing homework and reading aloud in class. She invites Raghav’s parents to school for a conversation and suggests that he take a few tests with Ms Isha, the school’s “specialist”, to find out what he has trouble with and what he needs.

The author does a terrific job of taking us through Raghav’s emotional landscape. Her choice of the first-person narrative voice is perfectly suited for this book. Raghav says, “I was not fooling around! I was doing my very best! Why couldn’t anyone see how hard I tried!” Even before Ms. Joseph begins to teach him in the fifth grade, he is sure that she would not be any different from his previous teachers. He is certain that she would think poorly of him. He is petrified because Karan, the class bully, tells him that she is as tyrannical as Adolf Hitler. Raghav wants to drink a magic potion so that he can be invisible to Ms. Joseph. He imagines that she is a hungry monster who eats up children coming to class without doing homework.

This book might remind you of the film Taare Zameen Par (2007) written by Amole Gupte and directed by Aamir Khan, wherein Darsheel Safary plays an eight-year-old boy named Ishaan who loves painting but struggles with reading and writing since he has dyslexia. Tisca Chopra plays his mother. Ishaan longs for her support but gets what his mother thinks of as tough love. Similarly, Raghav is terribly hurt and upset when his mother says that he runs like a cheetah but reads like a sloth. He says, “I didn’t need anyone in the world to tell me I was a slow reader. I needed someone to help me read, if not fast, then at least like a normal kid.”

 

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In Taare Zameen Par, Ishaan’s teacher Ram (played by Aamir Khan) is portrayed as a larger-than-life character who rescues him from misery. Sonthalia’s approach is more understated. In her story, Raghav is the star. Ms. Joseph is only doing her job. She does not take up space. She does not send Raghav’s mother on a guilt trip. She examines and tweaks her own pedagogical style and assessment methods to ensure that Raghav is not left out or left behind. She knows that Raghav is knowledgeable and can perform better if he is asked to answer orally, so she creates opportunities for him to blossom alongside the rest of his classmates.

Published by Scholastic India, this book is a must-read for parents, teachers and librarians as well. Many adults run away from their responsibilities, and the excuse they use is that they are not specialists. Neither is Ms. Joseph. She does not have any specialized training to teach Raghav. While she ensures that he gets the support required from Ms. Isha, she does not stop thinking about what she can do in her own classroom to make Raghav feel safe and valued. She does not allow bullying in her class, unlike other teachers who themselves are bullies.

The gift of understanding is precious. When Ms. Joseph speaks to Raghav’s parents, he feels seen and validated. She says, “Raghav understands complex things easily in class. They are things which other students have difficulty in understanding. He always raises his hand to answer but when the same question is put on paper, he can’t do it.” Raghav is stunned to see her talk as if she has known him for ever and knows the exact words to describe his situation. He says, “Ms. Joseph was the very first person to tell me about my problem with kindness.”

Apart from Ms. Joseph and Ms. Isha, Raghav has four other amazing people in his life – his father who protects him from his mother’s jibes, his younger brother Shlok who idolizes him, his athletics teacher Mr Bolt who takes pride in his achievements and pushes him to do better, and a new student named Simran who uses a wheelchair and empathizes with Raghav. This warm cocoon of love helps Raghav deal with the hostility that he faces from Karan’s gang.

There are other similarities with Taare Zameen Par. Shlok might remind you of Ishaan’s brother Yohaan, and Simran might remind you of Ishaan’s friend Rajan. Unfortunately, we do not get to know Shlok apart from his role as an ally to Raghav. He is adorable, and the kind of younger brother everyone would want in their corner. The bond between Raghav and Simran is better developed. Simran loves reading, so she helps Raghav with that. Raghav loves running, so he helps Simran participate in a race using her wheelchair. The look of jubilation on Simran’s face is truly worth beholding, thanks to Priya Kuriyan’s illustration.

Of all the characters in this book, Karan is perhaps the most unidimensional. He seems to be there to fulfil the function of a villain. We never really get to know where his insecurities come from. Even Raghav’s mother seems like a caricature. We do not get to know how emotionally exhausting it must be for her to be unable to help her child. She probably blames herself for his difficulties. That said, this book is worth reading because of its feel-good quality and its sincere attempt to tell a story that foregrounds empathy without being preachy.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting

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