Raleigh Teens’ Books Reveal Strength in Tackling Adversity
From Death to Dyslexia, Teens Write From the Heart
Raleigh resident Aidan Colvin, pictured above with comedian Jay Leno, is the author of "Looking for Heroes: One Boy, One Year, 100 Letters."
Photo courtesy of Liisa Ogburn
Life can throw children heart-wrenching obstacles — the death of a parent and dyslexia, for example — but two teens with Triangle roots have reached deep into themselves to share stories of how they faced these trials and move forward to embrace their future. Their books, written with brutal honesty and published this year, offer hope to other children and parents who are trying to cope with similar difficulties.
“Steadfast,” written by Raleigh native Isabella Pirola, is a children’s book that tells the story of an oak tree that suffers but remains caring and kind, offering protection to a family of birds until its death. Illustrations by Hilary Tucker accompany each page of text, revealing the sadness of the birds, the depth of despair during the storm that ravages the tree and the grief that follows its death. The story is an allegory for the death of Pirola’s own father, John, who suffered for years through searing neuropathic pain as a result of a brain stem tumor, and over several years, underwent more than 10 brain/skull-based surgeries. I came to know Isabella when she was in kindergarten with my son and became — and remain — friends with her mother, Liz.
Photo of Isabella Pirola courtesy of Liz Pirola
After John’s diagnosis, when Isabella was in third grade, the family relocated from North Carolina to Michigan, then later, on to New York and Minnesota as John underwent surgeries to remove tumors, implant pain pumps and reconstruct parts of his skull. Each time they moved, Liz, Isabella and her three siblings tried to adjust to a new school and new place. Each time, we prayed and hoped. Each time, we were disappointed, and his terrible pain persisted. I kept in touch with Liz, but was surprised to learn this year that Isabella had written a book despite all she had gone through. Since I bought a copy, I read “Steadfast” every now and then — although it is a children’s book — because it reminds me that strength comes in many shapes and through difficult times and because, in the end, I see that the family, though grieving, remains as one.
Responding to my request to write about their story, Liz said yes. “Isabella wants others to know that there is a way to bring positive light to a very dark situation. In the moment of the storm, it does look dark and scary, but in the end, the message is far lighter and brings warmth to the heart. Her book was a testament to her love for her father, but also his storm brought him home. And the ultimate message: love never dies. He lives on through them forever.”
Turning Dyslexia on Its Head
“Looking for Heroes: One Boy, One Year, 100 Letters” by Raleigh resident Aidan Colvin with his mother, Liisa Ogburn, is a funny, hilarious, inspiring true story of how one Raleigh boy turned a “disability” — dyslexia — into a creative “ability.”
Impossible? Read the book to understand how Aidan grows along the way after coming up with the idea of writing to famous dyslexic people for advice on how they became successful. The charm of this story is that we clearly hear Aidan’s voice throughout and come to love this short, skinny rising 10th grader who struggles at school, likes to eat hot dogs at Snoopy’s with his grandfather in downtown Raleigh and is teased relentlessly by his sisters. We follow along with amusement as he wrestles with his own adolescent thoughts until he comes to the point where he puts his questions on paper and jumps on his bike to mail his letters. A waiting game follows, interrupted by letters from famous people every few months, disappointments and, finally, a visit and talk with Jay Leno, himself a dyslexic.
With each letter, Aiden discovers something about his “hero,” which points him on the path he needs to follow. From Dr. Delos Cosgrove, CEO and president of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic, he learns these nuggets: “Dyslexia is an advantage in the fact that it makes us think more creatively” and “hard work will get you there.”
Along with his letter, Cosgrove sends a book. The book offers no secret shortcut to success: Cosgrove reveals that in order to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, he had to work hard to get into medical school and keep working while his classmates were playing in order to succeed. He tells Aidan he was only accepted to one of the 13 medical schools he applied to, but that one acceptance was all he needed.
Aidan receives insight from many notables — Princess Beatrice of York, Arctic explorer Ann Bancroft and novelist John Irving, to name a few — but Aidan’s “tips” sprinkled in boxes throughout the book are no less insightful and very entertaining. By the end of the book, Aidan comes to learn something wonderful about himself: “Look what can happen when we realize that the very things we think are holding us back instead turn out to be the key to worlds we would never have imagined.”
If you are the parent of a child with dyslexia — or who has a special need — consider reading this book to understand the untapped potential of your child and to discover that achieving “success” can come in unusual and creative ways. Being different can be an asset.