In new picture book, B.C. poet Jordan Scott helps kids see stuttering as something natural

Award-winning Canadian poet Jordan Scott joined Q's Tom Power to discuss his first children's book, I Talk Like A River, about a boy who feels isolated and unable to fit in because of his stutter.

Scott’s first children’s book, I Talk Like a River, is based on his own childhood struggle with stuttering

Jordan Scott is a poet based in Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, B.C. His award-winning first children's book is called I Talk Like A River. (Andrew Zawacki, Penguin Random House Canada)

As a kid, when Jordan Scott was experiencing a "bad speech day" his father would take him out to either the Fraser River or the Coquitlam River near their home in British Columbia.

"These were wonderful moments for me because we'd just sit in silence," Scott told host Tom Power in an interview on CBC Radio's Q. "I didn't have to talk. And one day he pointed to the river and he said, 'You see how that water moves? That's how you speak.'"

Those trips with his father would help Scott learn to accept his stutter as something that was natural, like the river, rather than something to overcome.

"There was such a moment of solidarity for me when my dad said that," explained the award-winning poet. "I began just looking around me and trying to find everything that moved like my mouth — like any kind of leaves shivering in the wind or things like that — because there's a real profound sense of belonging in that."

Fluency is a fiction

In his new picture book, I Talk Like a River, Scott explores the poetics of stuttering through the story of a boy who feels isolated and unable to fit in because of the way speaks.

Throughout the book, the boy names the sounds of words that get stuck in the back of his mouth, making it difficult for him to communicate.

"P for the pine tree outside my bedroom window," writes Scott. "C for the crow in its branches. M for the moon fading in the morning sky."

LISTEN | Scott reads from his book I Talk Like A River:

The New York Times listed I Talk Like A River, which is illustrated by Sydney Smith, as one of the best children's books of 2020 and last month it won the Schneider Family Book Award, which celebrates a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience.

Scott said he intentionally didn't use the word "stutter" until the very end of the book because he's conscious that disfluency is something that we all experience at one time or another.

"[It's] this idea of fluency actually being a fiction," he told Power. "And that when we all speak, we all have these stops and gaps, you know, and hesitations."

A page from Jordan Scott's book, I Talk Like a River, illustrated by Sydney Smith. (Penguin Random House Canada)

Helping kids and their parents find their voices

After publishing five collections of poetry, Scott said he wanted to explore children's literature  because he remembers his own early experiences of reading picture books like Where the Wild Things Are and Alligator Pie, which he credits for helping him develop his poetic imagination.

"I just love this genre because it shares so much with poetry in terms of brevity, power of sound and image," he said about children's books.

Scott also wanted to give his own kids, who are seven and nine years old, a way to understand how their dad speaks. Almost every day, he said he receives messages from kids and their parents who express how much I Talk Like A River has helped them find their voice.

When the kids message me, it's quite beautiful. They sometimes message me with small little poems about other things in nature that they speak like.- Jordan Scott

"It's hard to describe as an author what that means," he said. "And oftentimes parents who have children who have speech disfluencies, they'll message me to say that they have found a way to talk to their children, as well as … a great way to understand their children's speech."

"When the kids message me, it's quite beautiful," he continued. "They sometimes message me with small little poems about other things in nature that they speak like. So that's been, I mean, what can you say? That's it."

Hear Tom Power's full conversation with Jordan Scott near the top of this page.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Cora Nijhawan.