Allison's Book Bag

If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi? by Barbara Esham

Posted on: October 9, 2012

Four years ago, at the unsettling hour of four o’clock in the morning, Barbara Esham had an idea for a series. Her youngest daughter was struggling to read and spell, leading Esham to seek out resources. In her search, she discovered a lack of inspirational resources for children which provided realistic examples of “triumph over difficulty”. Moreover, of those which existed, none covered the integral relationships between child, parent, and teacher. Esham saw a need for a series about everyone involved, not just the child with the disability. And so The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses series was born. Over the next four days, I’ll review all available books in the set.

Esham’s heart is in the right place with the series. In her Note to Parents and Teachers, she writes: “These fun stories are an easy way to discuss learning styles and obstacles that can impede a child’s potential.” However, I don’t particularly care for the series title, Everyday Geniuses, or its focus on people at the extreme upper limit of intelligence and success. The idea is that “a lot of people who have trouble with reading and writing go on to become great things: actors, artists, athletes, presidents, doctors, lawyers, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and even teachers.” Some examples of “everyday geniuses” are: Dr. Skoyles, a neuroscience researcher; Archer Martin, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize; and Helen Tausig, who discovered a new way to help babies born with heart problems. The upside of these examples is that they make the point that having learning disabilities does not make one dumb, and that many very intelligent and successful people struggled with reading and writing when they were children. And yet the downside, I worry, is that struggling students will be led to believe that they can reasonably expect to become geniuses. And when a child realizes that this goal is unobtainable, what then? I just wish that in addition to citing real geniuses as evidence that learning disabilities do not make one dumb, that young readers of this book were also offered the realistic goals of graduating high school, going to college, and obtaining a well-paying and fulfilling job. Kids with learning disabilities can grow up to be perfectly ordinary (just like kids without learning disabilities), and there’s nothing wrong with that.

That’s the pragmatist in me speaking, but I realize I am perhaps being overly picky. I enjoyed the lighthearted approach to the first entry in the series. In If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi? Katie brags about her dad being the smartest person she knows. Then she talks about how she likes to observe, which is why one day she noticed an unusual situation. While practicing for a spelling test, she asked her dad how to spell Mississippi, and he had a startling response, “I’m not sure. Go ask your mom.” This confused Emily. How could someone as smart as her dad struggle with spelling words? That’s when she discovered that just like one of the students in her classroom, her dad had worked extra hard in school as a kid but still earned only Cs on his spelling tests. This discovery led Katie to the library, where she read about other smart people who also struggled in school. And about all the people who help struggling students such as parents, teachers, and kind classmates. And learned the secret to her dad’s success: “Do every day or two something for no other reason than its difficulty.” There is an incredible amount of positive insights about learning disabilities in this humorous entry in the Everyday Genius series.

For that reason, I’m thinking of bringing the set to school to share with my students. All of them struggle with learning disabilities. Although the vocabulary level is too high for my students to independently read the If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi?, I could see them appreciating the cartoon-like pictures, laughing at Katie’s cute observations, and feeling inspired by the message that they can succeed. Despite the title, the series is a welcome endeavor!

To read more about author Barbara Esham, check out her biography.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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