Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book to facilitate this review. As always, all opinions are my own and are not influenced in any way.
As I mentioned in my last post, “10 Reading Comprehension Tips“, middle and high school students are living in a text heavy world. They need to have strong reading skills to navigate reading textbooks, emails, writing lab reports, etc. But, what happens when a student is a struggling reader?
My Name is Layla, by Reyna Marder Gentin, is a realistic depiction of a dyslexic middle school student.
Layla, or ‘munk to her mom and older brother, is an eighth grade student who struggles with reading and writing assignments. Her best friend Liza and her neighbor Sammy, help Layla through the ups and downs of middle school life.
Like all middle school students, Layla wants to fit in. She worries about what she wears on the first day of school, what the popular girl thinks, and she worries that her teachers think she lacks intelligence. She envies Sammy, whose family sits down for dinner together every night, since Layla’s mom is a nurse who works the night shift and her dad has been out of the picture for 12 years.
On top of all this, she has a secret that she doesn’t share with anyone. It takes her a long time to read. “The words hop around like any good bunny should, refusing to stay still so I can get a grip on what they mean.” (15). The pressure to read quickly in class and get through homework each night is a lot for this thirteen-year-old, and she is used to low grades. For writing assignments, she struggles to get ideas from her head, through her fingertips on a keyboard and in an email to her English teacher, Mr. McCarthy. Through her frustrations, she has learned how to cope by watching movie versions of books to assist her in getting through assignments.
As a middle school English teacher, I can honestly say that the depiction of Layla is incredibly accurate. She avoids reading aloud in class or participating so she doesn’t bring attention to herself. She will submit gibberish writing out of pure frustration and she relies on her best friend to help her navigate projects. Layla’s emotions of anger, confusion, fear, and self-doubt resonate with readers on multiple levels as the school year progresses.
I really enjoyed the multiple layers happening in this book. The main conflict is Layla’s reading difference, but there is also a fair share of minor conflicts as well. As with any teenager, there are internal conflicts about her mom working and her dad not being present (until later in the book), problems with friends that involve trust, and the innocent buds of a potential first romantic relationship with a boy. Teenagers take everything to heart and can be very sensitive to change, as readers see when Nick suffers an injury in basketball. This book touches on all of the important themes in a young adult’s life: family, friends, relationships, and self-image.
Theme of Family
Today, families come in all shapes, sizes and forms and I really like that Marder Gentin chose to focus on a non-traditional family structure. Readers see Layla’s mom work overnight shifts, catching some sleep during the day to just repeat the routine again. She takes on extra shifts whenever she can in order to provide for her children, yet she will show up to basketball games and the first day of school when her children need her support. While Layla and her brother do have freedom after school, neither one of them takes advantage of this and continue to do homework, go to basketball practice and socialize with friends without getting into trouble. This maturity and self-reliance teach readers that being independent is important in life.
While no family is perfect, readers can empathize with Layla’s desire to have more family around for holidays, like Sammy’s. Or to have a mom that is very actively involved in her school life, like Liza’s mom. However, through her interactions with her friends, readers are reminded that each family has their own problems even if the outside world does not see them. For many teens, this nugget of wisdom is important because they don’t realize others may feel the same way they do.
Theme of Friendship
Friends are without a doubt the most important aspect of a teenager’s life, according to them. Establishing and maintaining true friendships takes time and effort on all parts, along with honesty. Typically, in YA books I find that there is often a backstabbing or betrayal between friends that causes a conflict. That doesn’t happen in My Name is Layla. In fact, Liza is an incredibly kind young lady (I hope my daughter has a Liza for a best friend in middle school). Liza knows that Layla struggles, but instead of ignoring this, Liza offers assistance to her friend wherever and however she can. From reminding her what class they have, or being partners for an in-class assignment, Liza takes Layla under her wing and supports her friend. There is never any negative comment made and Layla always feels comfortable.
Sammy. Ah, if there was ever a character I wanted to hug for being a good kid, it’s Sammy. His obvious crush on Layla isn’t the normal teenage kind. He truly likes Layla for who she is and wants to help her in his own way. I LOVE that he has the courage to ask Layla on a date to the basketball game and doesn’t leave her side when Nick gets injured. He mentions the Learning Center at school in the hopes of giving Lyla support in English. Through it all, Sammy is right there to help his neighbor (and girlfriend!).
Learning Differences and Dyslexia
Every single child learns differently. Some students show their struggles more than others, which is why there are always those that manage to “get by” in elementary school and part of middle school, but at some point someone notices.
Mr. McCarthy was Layla’s someone. He saw past her coping mechanisms and reached out to his school’s administration and helped create a plan for Layla (after a MAJOR plot twist that I refuse to mention). There were clues along the way that McCarthy was onto Layla, but she continued to plug along just “getting by”.
As I said before, teenagers worry about what others think of them. They never want to be “different”, especially at this stage. Layla is no exception to this because she cringes at the thought of going to see Mrs. Hirsch in the Learning Center.
What I LOVE about this book is the realistic way Marder Gentin has captured a teenager’s feelings when dealing with a learning difference. Readers experience the incredible emotions and thoughts that students cope with on a daily basis. As adults, we are reminded that these feelings need to be addressed when offering help to students. Anxiety and fear are incredibly consuming at this age, yet we need to provide the proper support.
Teachers like Mr. McCarthy and Mrs. Hirsch literally change lives.
Free Curriculum Guide
As always, my teacher heart gets insanely excited when there are resources to extend themes and learning in books. I will admit, I’m very picky with curriculum guides for my middle school learners, but this one is absolutely perfect! Not only is it aligned to the Common Core, it hits on all major teaching points for middle school English. There are plenty of discussion questions that can be used in small groups or whole class, it includes a few different activities for students (even some writing ones), a character chart with adjectives and practice with textual evidence and making inferences and drawing conclusions! AND, it’s also *FREE* on the author’s website! Pure perfection!
Never have I read a young adult book that hits on so many real-life issues for teens with so much accuracy. I highly recommend this book for parents and students in middle and high school, especially those with learning differences. Students will find comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
To purchase this book head over to Amazon.
Little Reading Coach is a certified Teacher of English (K-12) and Reading Specialist (P-12) offering online reading, writing and home-based learning support tutoring services for students in grades 6-12. For more information head to my website.