Christopher Brantley, a recent UNCW graduate, says he believes being unique and different is something to be embraced and celebrated—not feared or frowned upon. To prove it he’s releasing his first comic, “Phonetic Boy,” in time for October’s National Dyslexia Awareness Month.
Written and illustrated by Brantley, “Phonetic Boy” was conceptualized in his professional writing class. It asks two things of its readers: What does it mean to be a kid in 2019? More importantly, what does it mean to be a kid who is dyslexic in 2019?
The graphic novel centers around a fifth-grader named Derek Hillis who discovers he has the power of dyslexia. Eventually, but not without first battling through many internal and external struggles, he becomes a test-conquering, bully-defeating, mystery-solving ace of The Decoders. Soon enough, he goes from average kid to Phonetic Boy! Think Sherlock Holmes—where he can slow down time and break apart each piece of action to its most finite point, in order to maneuver through the world better. Only Phonetic Boy does it more efficiently. But there’s something more to the superhero: Phonetic Boy is deeply personal.
The book features many of the same challenges Brantley faced in reading and writing throughout his entire life. “I hated reading,” Brantley admits. “I couldn’t comprehend fast enough for my grade level and I had to go through extra tutoring just to keep up with the other kids. I had so much fear being called on to read aloud. One day I was taking some tests. I found out I was doing so poorly, and next I was being pulled out of class in front of everyone. I was told I had to relearn specific things or I would fail. I remember how alone I felt and how stupid it made me feel that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ for my grade level.”
Not officially diagnosed, Brantley joins over 30 million adults in the United States who have gone formally undiagnosed for the specific learning disability. One in five individuals (making up 15%-20% in classrooms) are affected by it.
But what is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is the most under-diagnosed, under-recognized, and most common language-based learning disability worldwide, according to The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. It is indiscriminate and affects just as many women as it does men across all ethnicities. Eighty percent of children with an IEP have reading difficulty; 85% are indeed dyslexic.
“There’s a misconception of dyslexia and it perpetrates the issue,” explains Donna Gargett, the state leader for Decoding Dyslexia North Carolina. The grassroots parent movement seeks advocates to help create stronger legislation in North Carolina.
“Dyslexia is a processing issue that truly goes beyond just phonics,” Gargett continues. “It affects learning and the breakdown of putting sounds together. So, when dyslexic children begin to learn to read, they’re missing important cues. When we look at dyslexia as a whole it’s not just the language, it carries over to writing. A lot of times people with dyslexia have poor spelling and a lot of times this gets misconstrued as poor comprehension. When children are in school it’s important to begin looking at the warning signs—how are they developing their language?”
Gargett is the founder of Blank Canvas Awareness Art, a nonprofit organization assisting Brantley with his release. Gargett is dyslexic, too, and wanted to found an organization to provide resources for those with dyslexia and ADHD through tutoring, educating, advocating and mentoring.
During elementary school, Gargett was held back and lacked proper remediation to learn phonemic awareness. If she had received it, she says she believes her life would look different.
“I probably wouldn’t still need it today,” she says. “Parents and educators just aren’t informed enough about dyslexia. This is where Chris’ comic comes in. It’s a great way to think outside the box and help spread awareness about multitude struggles those with dyslexia and ADHD face but don’t often talk about.”
Feelings of inadequacy.
And those are only a few of the internal struggles dyslexic children and even adults silently endure.
Gargett met Brantley as a guest speaker at a professional writing class. Since then, the two have become great friends. The two hope to help others through Brantley’s comic. This medium is one of the best vessels to spread educational strategies, promote literacy, self-acceptance, and induce confidence on a large scale, all while being digested in small, manageable bites, according to Brantley.
While he didn’t face too many hurdles through his creative process for “Phonetic Boy,” it was hard for Brantley to give himself permission to get into the head of his protagonist. This “method writing” pushed Brantley to enter a truthful mindset and confront hard emotions he felt as a child. He had to acknowledge Derek Hillis was more than just a main character; it was Brantley as an elementary school kid.
“From that point I was able to complete the voice for ‘Phonetic Boy,'” Brantley tells, “and write with the thought in mind of what I wished I had: a friend to tell me it’s OK. Once I did that, the course of the art, dialogue, narrative, and even the style suddenly came naturally.”
The Northeast Library will celebrate Brantley’s comic release, and there will be activities, information, and swag tables hosted by the creator of Milk and Honey Comics and Apparel. Giancarlo D’Alessandro, along with members of The Hill School of Wilmington, will be on hand as well. The first 100 people will receive a signed copy of “Phonetic Boy.”