By Rachel Bosworth
Billy Baldwin doesn’t like to write. He doesn’t like to read. It’s not fun for him, it never has been and likely never will be. But the Sag Harbor children’s author loves creation and storytelling, and says it’s worth every bit of grammar work and writing to achieve his goals. Why doesn’t the author read or write himself? Baldwin is dyslexic, and it’s a lifelong challenge he has been working around for nearly six decades. Through this he has created three books, the most recent of which is titled “Wipeout the Wave,” the tale of a rogue wave searching for others like him — a theme Baldwin can relate to.
As a schoolboy, both Baldwin and his teachers simply did not realize his struggles had a name — dyslexia was not something many people knew about in the 1970s. “I failed every English class I ever took, and libraries were places I would never go,” he explains, adding he attended boarding school. “I was very good at math though, and was probably fairly smart, but didn’t know it yet.”
Recalling the humiliation of having to read in front of a classroom, Baldwin shares the similarities between dyslexic children include low self-esteem, frustration, and anxiety. During the formative years, these characteristics can often carry over into adulthood. Today, dyslexia is a very common condition that affects someone’s ability to concentrate on reading and writing, with more than 3 million cases in the United States each year. For Baldwin, his breakthrough came in college when he met Dr. Gertrude Webb.
Dr. Webb first gained an awareness of learning disabilities while teaching in the Boston Public School System in the late 1930s after a student was unable to translate his many bright ideas into writing. Upon meeting Dr. Webb, Baldwin’s father asked if she could help him with his learning disabilities, and she said no. “She said, ‘I can help him with his learning abilities,’” Baldwin remembers fondly, a statement that was life changing for him. “Dr. Webb said we were going to find my strengths, build confidence, and reduce frustration.”
Baldwin learned reading techniques that allowed him to move around and do things, learning that everything is an advantage that just needs to be tweaked and learned in a different way. He went from dreading exams to being able to take timed tests and do better than some of his classmates. Eventually, Baldwin and Dr. Webb cofounded Webb Innovation Center for Dyslexia where her methods have been helping both the affected and their loved ones.
In the creation of his children’s books, Baldwin shares that he is not a crafted writer as that will always be a challenge for him, but that he is skilled at identifying a big picture concept and arching out his stories. “One of my strongest points is that I come up with a lot of creative ideas,” Baldwin shares, saying his disability in gives him an ability to see things other people often miss. “But my mind spins a lot.”
Like his other books, “The Last Leaf” and “The Cookie That Saved Christmas,” Baldwin drew inspiration from Wipeout the Wave from a simple observance. Describing a place where two currents come together over a sandbar at the beach, the author says he noticed a wave every now and then that would make a big splash, almost like a rogue wave. “It doesn’t matter who you are, follow your passion and believe in yourself,” Baldwin says of the story about a misunderstood wave that travels the Seven Seas to find others like him. “If you keep on following your path the best you can, something good will happen.”
Many of Baldwin’s books and short stories are old, things that he has worked on and then set aside for a year. Saying his favorite thing in the world is a piece of paper and a pencil, the author creates rough pencil sketch, and then works with an illustrator to art direct the project until they have something that makes sense. For his children’s books, Baldwin worked with South Africa-based illustrator Liesl Bell. “We make a pretty good team, she’s very good at what she does,” Baldwin says.
As is typical for him, Baldwin has many projects in the works, including a visual novel with 110 pages of illustrations. While continuing to promote his latest children’s book, Baldwin says he will continue to communicate his message through his highly visual creations. “Emotions are a big part of everything, but I can’t let them dictate how I do something,” Baldwin shares. “My stuff is all misfits and underdogs. I’ve never told people that I am actually good at writing or creation, but I am actually very proud of the books.”
Wipeout the Wave is available at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor and Main Beach Surf and Sport in Wainscott.