LOCAL AUTHOR MOVES MOUNTAINS FOR CHILD LITERACY

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By Kelly Kayne

Many of us dream of changing careers and pursuing a passion project, Williamstown local and reading advocate Susan Spelic has done just that, leaving a long-term job in literacy teaching to become an author of children’s books.

“I was raised in large family in West Footscray and am passionate about kids and their learning, but once I tried storyboarding my books, I felt switched on and knew it was time for a new career where I could explore my creativity”.

Based in Altona North, The Reading Mountain launched and published five titles in 2017, with audio books, braille and Mandarin versions all in development. Hand illustrated by local designer Cassandra Storm, and another Sydney-based illustrator, Kaytlyn Skye, the first set of books are for all readers aged four to seven. Special focus has been placed on making these books engaging and to be a useful learning tool for parents and teachers, when teaching kids to read.

“The Reading Mountain was borne out of a passion and desire to provide all children with an empowered reading experience. After thirty years in the classroom, I have seen young children fall through the cracks when they struggle to read in the classroom or at home, and this can negatively impact them for the rest of their lives”.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 44% of Australian adults lack adequate literacy skills for everyday life and one in five children has dyslexia or a learning difficulty of some kind with language and reading. This can lead to social disadvantage or stigma in day to day life, that can have an ongoing negative impact.

“A big issue is disengaged readers and children who aspire to read but just can’t. Some kids need evidence-based, early intervention when it appears they’re not keeping up with their peers in class. A chapter book is helpful for children as it segments a story, and guides them to learn and understand a story in a narrative structure. This is how critical literacy skills are developed, which is an important step in the learning process”.

Whilst the books are for all beginning readers, The Reading Mountain uses selected simpler vocabulary, clear word spacing and soothing colour palettes in the graphic novel format, to help support ‘reluctant readers’ – those who experience difficulties with reading or are disengaged with reading.

Reading is a complex process, the Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity says that “It requires our brains to connect letters to sounds, put those sounds in the right order, and pull the words together into sentences and paragraphs we can read and comprehend”.

Spelic says “our phonics books are for those children who are still decoding sounds and are experimenting with how sounds are represented by letters or, groups of letters. It’s OK if they can’t yet read all the words, it’s important that the child applies what they learn about sounds and letters and attempt to figure them out. To decode sounds is to be able to read. It’s important that we give kids books, with sounds and words that they have learnt and can read. Confidence is key”.

In 2017, The Reading Mountain took home an award for Best Start-up Business at the Hobsons Bay Business Excellence Awards.

“It was such a surprise but nice to receive such positive feedback after so much hard work. It’s a big learning curve going from teacher to company director. It’s a challenge.”

Upon deciding to ‘get serious about it’, Spelic describes the whole creative process from inception to book launch was eighteen months full-time for five titles. Others are in the pipeline.

“Coming up with the characters, stories and then the storyboards was the easy part. They are all relatable and include kids, animals or different types of families, and kids find them funny and interesting”.

So what tips would Susan offer parents who want to empower their child’s reading experience?

“The last thing parents want to hear is read to them more, but it is a huge help. Read in front of your kids (showing that reading is important and enjoyable). Go to the library – Hobsons Bay library has our books for borrowing and a huge number of other beautiful books. Variety makes reading a fun experience. Screens and audio-books are fine – if your child wants to read on an iPad, let them! It’s what they know and if it encourages them to read and develop different vocabulary and concepts, then that’s great. Mix it up. Let your child choose the book – reading is about enjoyment and shouldn’t be onerous. They won’t come back to reading if they don’t enjoy it”.

And what advice would she give to those seeking a career change?

“Just try it if you can, and do what you love. I know it sounds corny, but seeing the look on a child’s face when they have a breakthrough with their reading, or receiving a message from a happy parent, makes all the hard work worth it. I didn’t want to look back on my life and still be wondering if I could/should have. . . . In this new role, I am still helping kids and their families”.

The Reading Mountain books are currently published in eBook form, large books for classrooms or group reading, as well as home readers. Schools and teachers purchasing sets, will have access to complimentary teaching resources.

Books are available online at www.thereadingmountain.org. Susan also visits schools and libraries.

For more information, email read@thereadingmountain.org or visit The Reading Mountain at 26 Lobelia Drive, Altona North.

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