How Heroes of Self-Reference Can Help Struggling and Dyslexic Readers

Photo of a boy striking a heroic pose while wearing swim trunks, swim goggles, and a swim cap. He has a towel tied around his neck like a cape. Heroes of self-reference in books help kids change how they believe in themselves.

The term “heroes of self-reference” may be an unfamiliar one, but it’s important to know and understand. Why? Because in children’s books, such heroes can be pivotal in helping the dyslexic or struggling reader see themselves in new ways, with new possibilities and potential.

What’s the basis of this understanding? To get to its root, we have to take a trip into systems theory. Don’t stop reading, this is simply a technical term for something we can all relate to. This is worth your time, I promise. Systems theory has at its core the idea of self-regulating systems, in other words, the human ability to self-correct based on feedback. Niklas Luhmann was a key thinker in systems theory, and he observed that hero narratives have the power to change our conscious belief systems—especially our beliefs about ourselves and what we are capable of doing. (La Cour, Anders, and Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos. Luhmann Observed: Radical Theoretical Encounters. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.)

When the hero of a story has characteristics, feelings, or struggles like our own, we identify with him or her. We recognize that we are not alone in our experiences and that there are others out there like us. Once that reader/hero bond is established and we see our hero accomplishing things we never dreamed we could, we can begin to be curious and hopeful about our own potential. According to the reference work mentioned above, “through exceeding expectable achievements,” the hero is “able to fulfill his socializing-educational function.” The reference concludes, “The hero can do things differently than they have previously been done; he can do them better; and he can do both provided he finds some felicitous balance between originality and exceptional skill.”

An adult businessman leaps into the air with his arm stretched out like he's about to fly. He wears a tie and carries a briefcase but also wears a red superhero cape. Heroes of self-reference help kids grow into their potential.

Dyslexic kids have very few heroes of self-reference. As struggling readers, they belong to a group that has been judged harshly both by themselves and by traditional educational systems as unmotivated, stupid, slow, or lazy. However, nothing could be more untrue. Many dyslexic children grow up to be successful adults who bring their own unique and original methods of getting things done to whatever their particular field may be.

Sadly, doing things differently is rarely recognized as a strength in current educational norms. Therefore, “expectable achievements” for dyslexic students are often low. This is something that can be changed in society by cultivating awareness. It can be changed for individual students by helping them find heroes who have weaknesses and strengths like themselves. The often unrecognized exceptional skills of dyslexia can include dogged determination, an ability to see the big picture, and a talent for thinking outside the box.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce Reggie Stork (below, left), one of the main characters in my new novel for middle grade readers, The Lost Castle Treasure. Reggie represents all of us dyslexics. He is our hero of self-reference. He struggles with reading and writing, but through his determination and different ways of seeing things, he plays a crucial role in finding the missing treasure and solving a few mysteries along the way.

dyslexic book character

Although learning in the Middle Ages was very different than it is today, formal learning still involved books, reading, and writing—in other words, dyslexic kryptonite.

dyslexic book character2

Reggie goes through all the same feelings of unworthiness and uses the same avoidance tactics dyslexic students do today. He tries to get by on his wits by interpreting stories via available illustrations, avoiding writing whenever possible, absenteeism—you name it. Dyslexic students and struggling readers today will identify with Reggie and his vexing relationship to books, writing, tutors, and the shame of his secret. They will also be encouraged to develop new beliefs about themselves through seeing Reggie discover his strengths. As Reggie learns to view himself as a valuable part of a team of remarkable young boys, young readers can also learn to see their own value and their immense potential for a full, meaningful, and satisfying life beyond their dreams.

Thanks for reading about the importance of heroes of self-reference. For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Don M. Winn Amazon author page for more information.


  1. floridaborne says:

    The knowledge that we’re not alone is so important!
    I wish the educators decades ago understood the truth in your words. I had to learn to compensate the hard way. Thanks for writing a way for people with dyslexia to embrace their different-learner.

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      Thank you for that lovely comment! I know exactly what you mean about learning to compensate the hard way. I started school in the 1960’s, and dyslexia inserted itself intrusively into what had been a happy carefree preschool life. My preschool life and life after First grade couldn’t have been more opposite. In my youngest years, I seemed, (and more importantly, felt) just like everybody else. But suddenly, despite my hardest efforts, I felt stupid and unable to learn. An inner environment rife with shame and brokenness precludes any sense of possibility about ourselves. But we dyslexics are among the most tenacious people in the human race, and gradually we discover not only that we have strengths, but that they are great ones.

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