Harrogate writer overcomes dyslexia to inspire youngsters

Harrogate poet and illustrator Sue Hardy-Dawson. Picture by Adrian Murray. (1701302AM2)
Harrogate poet and illustrator Sue Hardy-Dawson. Picture by Adrian Murray. (1701302AM2)

An acclaimed Harrogate writer whose dyslexia is so bad she had a nervous breakdown as a young girl hopes her success will inspire others with the condition.

Having been published in countless anthologies for more than a decade, Bilton's Sue Hardy-Dawson has just had her first solo collection of children's poetry published by a mainstream publisher.

Published by Otter-Barry Books, Where Zebras Go, has been hailed as "funny, warm, and full of charm" and is already book of the week on The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education's website.

It's another feather in the cap for this member of Harrogate Writers Circle whose long road to success will be complete when she signs copies of her exciting debut collection this Saturday morning at Waterstones bookshop in Harrogate.

An artist and illustrator as well as a poet, fiftysomething Sue has also been involved recently in the In The Land of Illustrations project, a collaboration between the Quentin Blake Gallery and the Prince of Wales's Arts for Kids Foundation.

But, despite her status as "a new voice in children's poetry", none of the signs were good for this mother-of-three in her early years as a young girl in the late 1960s.

For anyone battling with dyslexia these were less enlightened times.

Such were her struggles at school, Sue ended up in hospital the age of just eight.

Sue said: "I was very bright and articulate at school but I was in trouble all the time because my handwriting was bad.

"I didn't even know I had dyslexia, it wasn't recognised as a condition then, really.

"The teacher was convinced I was stupid or just being a pain. When I got something wrong she'd make me copy sentences over and over again on the board in front of the rest of the class.

"I also had poor hand coordination because of having dyspraxia, too.

"It wasn't the teachers' fault, though. They didn't understand that sort of thing at the time.

"I was put with the kids who were disruptive. I ended up not wanting to go to school. At eight I had a nervous breakdown and ended up in Harrogate Hospital for a time."

Holder of an Open First Class Honours Degree in Creative Writing Literature and Supporting Teaching and Learning, Sue likes to visit schools with her writing workshops, including St John Fisher's School in Harrogate which has been very supportive.

It's something she's volunteered for over the last decade or so, keen to encourage reluctant readers and writers, particularly youngsters with dyslexia.

Sue was a lover of literature from a young age and started writing aged eight.

Her great inspiration was her dad, a steel worker who also had dyslexia, though it was never talked about.

Sue said: "My dad was very cultural. He used to recite poetry to me like he was an actor. He would do long pieces as a party piece. He was brilliant.

"But he never admitted to having dyslexia. He never talked about it but he had it. The world changed too late for him."

Sue herself was eventually diagnosed with the condition but not until she was 16.

It all happened by accident through a friend's mum who was a teacher who recognised the signs.

But, such was the obscurity of the condition in the 1970s, Sue's parents had to take her to Sheffield University to do the tests which confirmed what they already suspected.

Aftewards, her mum, clearly as quietly determined as her daughter, spent two years teaching Sue how to read and write.

The system of "multi-sensory overlearning" enabled Sue to reach about 80% of people's normal spelling ability.

It's a system she still uses to this day, though it leaves her struggling with punctuation and homophones, two or more words having the same pronunciation but different meanings or spellings.

The digital age has proven a godsend in her long quest to be successful as a writer.

Sue said: "Computers, dictaphones, mobiles phones have been brilliant for me. Technology is the wings with which I fly."

Sue's writing came to a halt while she got married and raised three children, working part-time as a teaching assistant.

Ironically, the road to her current success began when he own son was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was six-years-old.

Sue said: "He was really upset. He didn't want anyone to think he was stupid like me.

"I realised this was all unfair. I had to make him realise having dyslexia didn't mean you weren't clever or you weren't any good.

"Through that I realised something about myself and my writing. I'm a naturally shy and nervous person but when I talk about poetry I light up. It's who I am."

Sue's decision to throw herself into writign again was strengthened when one of her two daughters was also diagnosed with dyslexia.

By 2002, Sue was celebrating seeing her first poem published in an anthology.

Since then she has written several thousand poems but it has taken fully 15 years to achieve her first solo collection.

To avoid the perils of self-publication, as Sue has always done, talent alone isn't enough, she says. Neither is determination, though both help.

The secret, says Sue, is having the patience and persistence to develop a distinctive style that belongs to you.

Sue said: "You have to make sure you write and write and keep going back to it and read everyone else's poems til you find your own style.

"You need to know what actually works and do it differently."

It's two years now since she found out her solo collection was going to be published by amn imprint belonging to Janetta Otter-Barry, formally editorial director of children's books at Francis Lincoln, a "real honour", says Sue.

Since then there has inevitably been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about how the book was going to end up in advance of publication.

To her delight, Sue was allowed to create the illustrations for Where Zebras Go.

Still, nothing can surpass that moment she got that phone call from her publishers while sitting in the back of her daughter's car.

"I was like a three-year-old who'd just been told they could go to Disneyland. I was bouncing on the bed, metaphorically speaking.

"At one point I didn't get anything published for a few years, not realising there was a general crash in the publishing of poetry."

Hailed as a "poet to watch" with a fresh way of looking at and describing family life, school life and the natural world, Sue's concern is as much to inspire other dyslexia sufferers to succeed against the odds.

"I feel that my story is one that should be told and might well help inspire and encourage children and adults with dyslexia and other similar conditions.

"What I care about is when children with dyslexia think they're rubbish and think they can't do anything because of the condition.

"If I can make them realise that if you've got good ideas, there's no reason why you can't succeed. There's no reason why they can't follow their dream."

Harrogate Writers Circle was founded in 1951 and meets fortnightly on a Wednesday night at Harrogate Community Centre, East Parade, Harrogate.