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Finding A Voice And Coming To Terms With A Stutter In 'I Talk Like A River'

Neal Porter Books

Right now, just down the hill from my house, our creek is almost out of its banks, and in town the Appomattox River has flooded the streets, stores, and homes, having risen eight feet above flood stage. Bridges in and out of town are closed. Two days of very heavy rain leftover from Hurricane Eta have left a lot of destruction and mess, and the rivers, creeks, and streams are unpredictable and flowing fast. They are churning so much that two kayakers had to be rescued.

And I have just finished Jordan Scott's I Talk Like a River.

I have never had a stutter, at least not that I can remember. My kids did when they were little, and the doctor told us it was because their brains were thinking faster than their mouths could say words, and that sooner or later their mouths would catch up. And boy, have they. I honestly haven't thought about their stuttering for a while, but now I remember that time as incredibly frustrating for them, and I remember how I worried.

I've said it before, and I am sure I will say it again: Being a kid is hard. It doesn't take much to make it harder.

I've said it before, and I am sure I will say it again: Being a kid is hard. It doesn't take much to make it harder.

I Talk Like a River is Jordan Scott's own story, the story of a one day in his life as a child with a stutter. It's just a regular day of waking up, eating breakfast, and going to school. But regular days are also tough days. And regular days are quiet days. No matter how much sound there is, no matter what he wants to say, the young narrator stays quiet.

"Quiet as a stone."

But there are words. Words, words, words. Scott, who has a stutter, is a poet, a master of language, and the words are there, stuck. The young narrator is full of words growing "roots inside (his) mouth," tangling his tongue, sticking in the back of his throat. So he says nothing, not a single word.

It's a regular, ordinary day. A day of hoping he doesn't have to talk.

But of course, he does have to talk.

Sydney Smith's remarkable watercolors illustrate the young narrator's descent into fear as he hides in the back of his classroom. When the teacher asks him a question, the room becomes blurry and stippled, classmates faceless, yet somehow the weight of their stares is unnerving. And the image of pine roots, growing, growing into the narrator's head and mouth as he faces those stares is gut-wrenching, but it's the page where the narrator blurs himself into oblivion where the magnitude of a regular, ordinary day feels the most poignant.

Jordan Scott said he didn't want I Talk Like a River to be heroic. He didn't want it to be about a solution or overcoming. He's tired of the "regime of fluency." In the end notes, Scott recalls his speech therapist used to say that "to stutter is to be dysfluent; and fluency ... is the ultimate goal."

Not so, says Caitlin Frank, clinical educator and instructor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) department at Longwood University. "My job as a speech therapist is not to 'fix' a stutter," she says, even though that's what most parents come in asking her to do. "I tell them it's my job to help a child with a stutter communicate effectively and efficiently, and to help them understand there are many different ways to be fluent." Scott agrees. Fluency can be working to achieve what most of us take for granted: ordering a cup coffee without stumbling, saying one's own name with confidence, and yes, being allowed to stutter.

Which brings us back to the river.

If you've ever seen the Canadian comedy series The Red Green Show, you can picture Jordan Scott's father in your mind, at least that's what he laughingly told me (or at least, he laughingly agreed with me when I made the comparison). A big man with a pork pie hat, and a pipe constantly held in his teeth, when Jordan's father took him to the river, he was not on a mission to fix his son's stutter. In fact, it was the opposite.

"He took me to places where I didn't have to talk, and that was enough of a gesture to let me know it was okay," Scott says.

And when Scott's father told him he talked like a river, it wasn't to share a profoundly philosophical thought. As a matter of fact, Scott doesn't think his father even knew how profound his words were. It was just a little moment, an ordinary moment in an ordinary day, that changed the way Scott thought of his stutter.

Again, Sydney Smith's illustrations do the impossible: They show how the narrator feels about his stutter.

'I Talk Like a River' is a bold book, a defiant book. 'I Talk Like a River' is not a book in which the stutter is the main character; actually, there is no stuttering in the book at all.

The images of the narrator at the river have lost the blurriness and sadness of the classroom, they are clear and bold, unlike the narrator's thoughts of himself. There is churning, crashing water to drown the sounds of his giggling classmates, there is a father's arm around a shoulder instead of isolation. And instead of the darkness of pine roots growing into the narrator's head and mouth, there is light, illuminating his head and shoulders. Instead of hiding, the narrator immerses himself in the river, immerses himself in his stutter.

I Talk Like a River is a bold book, a defiant book. I Talk Like a River is not a book in which the stutter is the main character; actually, there is no stuttering in the book at all. As a matter of fact, even the word "stutter" doesn't appear until the final page, and then, it is with great and deliberate ownership.

The creeks and rivers around my house will recede. They will return to the safety of their banks, but the water will churn and bubble still, sometimes quietly, sometimes with great fury. Undoubtedly another flood will come, overwhelming and scary. That's the nature of rivers.

"Even the river stutters. Like I do."

Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juanita Giles