A big part of the problem, says the Australia-based Laffar-Smith, was that Joshua couldn’t find books that matched his interests. “A 10-year-old struggling reader may have 6-year-old ability along with 12-year-old interests,” she explains. “There aren’t a lot of books that tackle ‘big kid’ topics with language Joshua could read.”
When Joshua was in fourth grade, Laffar-Smith decided to start homeschooling him. Like her son, Laffar-Smith has dyslexia. But as a professional writer and editor, she’d found a way to love and embrace books, and she hoped she could do the same for her son.
A ray of hope came from her son’s love of penguins. Laffar-Smith wondered if she could use his interest in penguins to get him reading.
Eager to try, she and Joshua, along with his older sister Kaylie, began to create stories revolving around penguins. They started to brainstorm and plan a storybook as a homeschool project. They even hired an illustrator and designed the book to make it more pleasant to read, with a crisp font, big images and lots of spacing for text.
And that was how P.I. Penguin was born. It’s a children’s book featuring a private investigator penguin who solves crimes and mysteries for his animal friends.
The process of thinking up stories and creating the book helped spark Joshua’s interest in reading. All of a sudden, he wanted to read about how P.I. Penguin would save the day. He wanted to follow P.I. Penguin’s adventures.
The plan was to print just a single copy of P.I. Penguin for Joshua to enjoy. But then Laffar-Smith began to think other kids might also benefit from the book. After all, from her own experience, she knew there was a need for age- and interest-appropriate books for struggling readers.
Laffar-Smith had also self-published other books, including a science fiction novel, so she understood the business. Children’s book publishing seemed to be a natural next step.
To get her plan moving, she founded Aulexic, a small publishing company. The company focuses on books for early readers with language difficulties. The company’s name is a play on the word dyslexic, with the dys (or disadvantage) replaced by au, its opposite. After Aulexic was founded, Joshua was also diagnosed with autism, and the family embraced au as having a second meaning. And some local readers like to think the au stands for Australia.
The first P.I. Penguin book sold a number of copies, which Laffar-Smith found encouraging. So the family—mom, Joshua and Kaylie—continued to write. There are now four P.I. Penguin books, with more in the works. The stories are written under the name “Bec J. Smith,” a combination of their names.
“I needed to bring back Joshua’s love of stories and break down the barrier to embracing reading,” says Laffar-Smith. “P.I. Penguin was the answer for us. Reading, learning and writing have become a way of life in our home.”
Today, Aulexic offers picture books and short chapter books. Each story is filled with rhyme and rhythm. To help kids connect with the stories, words are concrete and images are vibrant. And the text and formatting are simple and free of distractions.
Many parents have told Laffar-Smith that their kids with dyslexia are learning to love to read thanks to P.I. Penguin. “Joshua is also so proud of the books,” she says. “His ideas and opinions help shape what we publish.”
Now 12, Joshua wants to read and continue to create more books. Coming from a child who once hated reading, she says, this is a “true milestone.”
The family is pleased to see the changes they’re making in the lives of those with reading issues. Laffar-Smith says, “We're hoping Aulexic will continue to grow and flourish in the years to come.”
Check out books for reluctant readers in preschool to grade 2 and in grades 3 to 5. You can also watch a video of children’s book author Andrea Davis Pinkney sharing tips for encouraging reluctant readers.
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Melissa A. Kay is a writer, editor, and content strategist in the areas of family, health, employment, beauty, lifestyle, and more.