Aashna Shah, DYNAMIC DIYA: Dyslexia is her Superpower

Aashna Shah, DYNAMIC DIYA: Dyslexia is her Superpower

Zibby interviews Aashna Shah, a high school student and the first Indian American Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen, about Dynamic Diya – Dyslexia is her Superpower, one of the three children’s books she has written about learning disabilities (all of which she has been diagnosed with!). Aashna talks about her experiences in the pageant and describes how she is using her voice to break the stigma of learning disabilities and fight for legislative change in Florida. She also shares how she navigated the tricky self-publishing process and found a wonderful illustrator from India, ultimately turning her own struggles into beautiful picture books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Aashna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dynamic Diya and so many other things and what it’s like being Miss America’s Outstanding Teen. It’s amazing. Welcome.

Aashna Shah: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: For those of you listening, Aashna is wearing a crown and — what do you call the thing that goes across your body? A scarf?

Aashna: A sash.

Zibby: A sash, that’s it. And a sash. This is amazing. Aashna, I can’t wait to hear your entire life story. First of all, how old are you?

Aashna: I’m sixteen years old.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, unbelievable. First, start with the books. Then I want to hear everything, how you got to this place. Give me the whole thing.

Aashna: Sounds good. I’m currently a junior in high school, but I published my first book sophomore year. My books are all about learning disabilities. All three of them are about learning disabilities that I have. My first one was about dyslexia. My second one was about ADHD. Then my third one was about anxiety. I struggled a lot with my diagnosis. I was not very accepting to myself. I went through a very hard time when I was first diagnosed. Being able to grow from that point on and see that it’s not a bad thing to have learning disabilities and that it’s honestly a blessing in disguise, that really led me to publish my books. I had been journaling through therapy when I had gotten my diagnosis. I had gone into this fifteen-day period where I couldn’t get out of bed. I had the most terrible migraine. They thought there was something neurologically wrong with me, so I was getting tests done every single day. During this time, they started me on cognitive behavioral therapy. I had been doing that every single week for a year. They had told me since the beginning when I started that I need to start journaling my feelings and how this diagnosis is all my symptoms and everything. The journals had been my life for a year. Then my sophomore year when I’d finally started to see the positives of having learning disabilities and I stopped judging myself, that’s when I was able to put my journals to use and create children’s books out of them.

Zibby: Wow. How did you become Miss America’s Outstanding Teen? What is that about? How did that whole thing work?

Aashna: Basically, when I was in sophomore year — I had just gotten diagnosed in eighth grade, so when I went into freshman year, I was really low on confidence. Then I started to get a little bit more confident as I got learning accommodations. Then when I went into my sophomore year, I was kind of hesitant. I had just also been diagnosed with ADHD a little bit later in life. I had always been a very sassy, spunky girl growing up. Then being kind of down all the time, my parents were like, what can we do to boost your confidence? That’s when we found the Miss America organization. First, you compete in a local. I competed in Miss Seminole County’s Outstanding Teen. I won Wekiwa Springs. Wekiwa Springs is an island in Florida. I was able to reign over the island for a year. That is really when I realized I have the power to use my voice and talk to an entire county, an entire island about my learning disabilities, my story, and to break the stigma around learning disabilities. That’s when I really got pushed into wanting to write my books. I was like, I have this voice. It’s now or never. I want to talk to this island. I want to talk to this county about learning disabilities. This is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, being able to have a voice that can spread that far. That’s when I published my first book. Then I went and competed for Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen. When I competed for Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen, I had also published my second book.

This was another amazing opportunity to talk to an entire state. I would be able to get my voice across an entire state. That truly was amazing, just being up there on that stage and being able to talk about my story and talk about learning disabilities and talk about the stigma around it. That really was life-changing for me, honestly. I felt like I was creating an impact. That’s what I really wanted to do. Being on the Miss Florida stage was amazing. I didn’t even think I would win. Then I got crowned as Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen. A month later, I went to Miss America’s Outstanding Teen. At Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, unfortunately, I did not get to bring the crown back, but I did get a thousand dollars in scholarships. I’m really excited I get to use that towards my current college education. I also got to talk about learning disabilities and my book on that national stage and create awareness all across the nation. That truly was amazing. Now I have so many different initiatives to really spread the word and spread my books to make sure that we are getting this message across that learning disabilities are not a bad thing and that we should start underage testing as soon as possible.

Zibby: Wow. How did the publishing journey and the writing of the books go? When did you decide you were going to write a book? Did you write all three at once? How did you handle the publishing journey and marketing of the books and all of that?

Aashna: I started sophomore year when I was fifteen. I think I might have been fourteen. No, I was fifteen. I was fifteen years old when I started writing them. It was because I had won that first title. When I had won Wekiwa Springs Outstanding Teen, I really realized the impact that I could have. Then with that title, I was like, okay, I need to do something. I need to make sure that I can get my voice across. That is when I started writing my first book about dyslexia. I was like, we’re just going to see how this goes. I wasn’t really expecting to write more. I was like, dyslexia is my bigger learning disability, I would say. That’s the one that affected me the most. I really want to write a book about dyslexia. I just took my thoughts from my journals, and I wrote it down. It was a crazy experience, learning how to publish. You have to get the ISBN number. We went through KDP and Amazon. It was definitely a learning curve. My mom helped me a lot. Then with illustrations, we got an illustrator from India. I was so blessed to have been able to give him this opportunity and for him to be able to help me out. We worked together, collaborated together. It was really important that I was able to work with someone that understood where I was coming from. I wanted my illustrations to show what I was feeling and really show what I had been through. At some points, he would draw something, and I’d be like, “What if we put the brain inside of the arm?” He was like, “What do you mean you put a brain inside of an arm?” Then we would work together on that stuff. It was really a learning curve. I honestly have my illustrator and my mom to thank to actually make it possible. Although I wrote the book, it would’ve never been published without them. Thank you to them.

Zibby: Your family’s originally from India also, correct?

Aashna: Yeah. I’m the first Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen that is Indian American. My family moved here before I was born. Then I was born in New York. Then we moved to Florida. It’s been crazy. I’m first generation.

Zibby: I have two teenagers who are fifteen and also two younger kids. I know what life is like for them. The fact that you have layered all this on top of regular crazy life, it’s mind-boggling to me. How are you doing all of this stuff? How much time are you dedicating to the whole Miss America Teen stuff and the writing career and then all your regular schoolwork and activities? You must be doing a million things. You’re obviously so talented.

Aashna: It’s crazy. Thank you so much. It’s definitely crazy. It is my junior year, which is the hardest year. I would definitely have to thank my planner. My planner is my lifesaver. I write down every single thing that I have to do in a day, in a month, in a year. That’s honestly how I’ve set my short-term goals and my long-terms goals. I started planning out everything from the second I won my local title. Then now as Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen, every single thing I do, I put all my appearances in my planner. I put all my homework in my planner. It’s definitely crazy, especially because I do have an entire state, so I’m traveling a lot. I have my awareness project where I’m sending books all across Florida. People get to read them. They’re being donated to libraries, so I get to make a lot of appearances at libraries and schools. Now I have an international book deal. I also have a book deal across the nation with other organizations. I’m just all over the place. Sometimes it gets a little bit overwhelming. I would definitely just say my planner has saved me a lot.

Zibby: Wow. I think I’ve said wow thirty times. I don’t usually do that, but my feeling is coming out. Where do you want to go with all of this? What is the goal here? I feel like you’re very systematically thinking about goals and next steps and whatever. Where are you trying to get?

Aashna: In my future, I want to be a pediatric dental surgeon. Right now, I’m doing everything I can. I’m taking dual enrollment classes. I’m doing AP and honors classes. I also want to make a difference. I’m working really hard right now with legislative work trying to increase the budget for ESC assistants in Florida. Right now, an ESC assistant gets paid less than a Starbucks barista. I don’t think anyone wants to have a job that you get paid less than a Starbucks barista because you can’t sustain your life like that. An ESC assistant is so crucial to the education system.

Zibby: Explain what ESC is to people who don’t know.

Aashna: The ESC department in the education system is the people that help the students with learning disabilities. The ESC department makes sure that they get accommodations like extra time or audibles if they need it, or a notetaker. They make sure that they create an even playing field for every single student whether you have a learning disability or not. They, right now, are not being paid a lot, which is why we’re lacking in ESC assistants in Florida. There are schools that don’t even have 504 plans available, which is how you get your accommodations. I have a 504 plan for my dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety, but to get my learning accommodations of my 504 plan was a struggle. We had to fight the school so much because they didn’t believe that I had a learning disability because I had gotten straight A’s my entire life. They wanted to see me fail first before they would help me. I didn’t even realize that I’m lucky to even have this fight. One in fifty schools have 504 plans in Florida. For me to even be able to have this fight, I’m so honored and privileged to have the opportunity to have a 504 plan. I ended up getting my learning accommodations. Thank you so much to the education system for finally giving me those. Now I get extra time and learning accommodations when I am taking tests or just in regular school. A lot of children and students don’t have that opportunity. I think that that’s a big problem that we have in Florida and that we need to be fixing. That’s something I’m working very hard on right now to get to legislation and make sure that we can expand that budget and help our students because I think every single student deserves to have an equal education system.

Zibby: If you were getting straight A’s and all of this, how did you know you had a learning disability? What was the process like getting it diagnosed?

Aashna: It was, honestly, crazy. I had grown up in an Indian American household. Anything less than a hundred percent is obviously not good enough. Growing up, I was that straight-A student. I always got the A honor roll. First of all, science is my favorite subject. I absolutely love science. I was in an accelerated science program. In eighth grade, I was taking high school science. This science class was really difficult for me. I was understanding the concepts, but I was still getting bad grades in the class. It wasn’t until I got — I think I got a D on a test, or an F. It was like my family just shattered. It was like, oh, my gosh, Aashna just failed a test. What is this? This has never happened. I have the most perfect older sister. She’s in medical school right now. She obviously has never gotten a bad grade on a science test. It was just crazy. Then that ended up leading us to get me tested because my parents were like, this is crazy. There has to be something wrong with Aashna if she’s getting bad grades. Then we tested. I was like, oh, my god, you guys are crazy. You’re totally overreacting. I just didn’t study hard enough. I don’t have a learning disability. That’s crazy. That’s crazy talk.

Then it came back that I have dyslexia and anxiety. My parents didn’t even tell me at first. My mom sat down and did science homework with me one day. She read it out to me. Then she had me read it out. I was like, this is so weird. Why is she helping me with my science homework in eighth grade? Then COVID shut down everything. We were sitting on the couch one day. She was like, “Hey, we got your results back from your testing.” I was like, “Oh, my goodness, no way. Is it perfect? Am I perfect? What do you mean?” She’s like, “Actually, no. You have dyslexia and anxiety.” Then she actually played me a TED Talk. The first thing I said was, “Is there a cure?” She was like, “That’s actually not how it works.” Then she played me a TED Talk, and I understood a little bit more. I was heartbroken. I was shattered. I thought there was something wrong with me. It was very hard for me to deal with this. Then I had gone into an anxiety migraine period where I was in bedrest for fifteen days. That’s when they started putting me on cognitive behavioral therapy to really start accepting the fact that I have learning disabilities. How can I work with them to be successful?

I really have my parents to thank because when I was going through all this, they were fighting for me to get my learning accommodations. They were my voice when I didn’t have a voice. That’s why I push so hard to advocate for those with learning disabilities because I want to be the voice for someone who doesn’t have their voice right now. I want to make sure that every single child has a chance to gain their voice. I know that without my parents, I would never be up here right now speaking to you about my learning disabilities. I struggled so much with my diagnosis. There’s no cure for dyslexia. There’s no cure for anxiety. You just have to live with it and cope with it. That was when I was first diagnosed. Then later on, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I recently got on medication for that, which has also been life-changing. That’s a little bit about my diagnosis.

Zibby: Tell me more about the three books and the titles and where people can find them who are listening and want to get a piece of everything that you are doing.

Aashna: Honestly, my books, they’re from my journals, but the idea behind it was that I didn’t realize that my learning disabilities were actually my superpower. Each of my books are turning my learning disabilities into a superpower. My first one is Dynamic Diya: Dyslexia is her Superpower. It talks about what dyslexia is. There’s a prologue for the parents in front to see how to watch out for dyslexia in your children and where you can catch symptoms and when you should get them tested if you do see symptoms. Then through the book, it explains what dyslexia is in a child manner, so a way that’s easy for a kid to understand. I have a six-year-old little sister, so I would practice on her and make sure she understood what I was talking about. Then I would write it. Then there’s also a section in the book where it has successful people who have dyslexia. A lot of times, at least for me, I thought that once I was diagnosed, I just didn’t have a successful future anymore. I was just destined to not achieve any of my goals. Being able to see that there are so many famous people or successful people that do have dyslexia really boosted my confidence. Making sure that I put that section in, it was really important for me. That’s a little bit about my first book.

Then there’s the ADHD book where, same thing, it has the prologue. Then it talks about what ADHD is in a kid manner. The best part about this book, the one that I like about Amazing Adriana: ADHD Is Her Superpower, is at the end, there’s a section where I talk about the coping mechanisms that I’ve used with my ADHD and things that I’ve seen that have helped me. It’s called The Superhero Manual. In The Superhero Manual, you get to see, if you put a timer on and do your assignment and then after, reward yourself, you’ll be able to, probably, focus better while you’re doing your assignment because you want to get the reward. Those are things that I found helped me. Then same thing with Brave Brian. I love Brave Brian. It’s not, anxiety gave him a superpower. Anxiety made him brave. That’s why it’s called Brave Brian instead of my usual learning disability and then character. I think that I have become so brave once I started facing my anxieties. Anxiety has been really difficult for me for a long time. I’ve had a lot of different anxiety ticks. Being able to cycle through those in my journals and see how much progress I’ve made really helped me. I think that each time I write a book, I see personal growth in myself.

Writing Brave Brian, which is my most recent book, was honestly a big step for me because I think anxiety is something that I struggle with the most. This book talks about what anxiety is. Also, it has ways that you can cope with your anxiety in the book as well. I absolutely love all three books because I feel like all three of them have helped me. Just being able to see how much I’ve distributed them around Florida, I’ve been able to help so many other people as well. That has really motivated me to want to do more books. I want to find out more about other learning disabilities that I don’t have and write about them and make learning disabilities not — I don’t want it to be a taboo anymore. I want it to be spoken about. I want people to be proud of their learning disabilities. That’s really the goal with these books.

Zibby: Can you share, do you know how many books you’ve sold?

Aashna: I don’t know how many books I’ve sold, but I personally have donated over four hundred books.

Zibby: Wonderful. That’s really great. They’re self-published, right? You distributed through Amazon.

Aashna: Yes.

Zibby: If there is someone listening who has dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD, and they haven’t read your books yet, but of course, they will, what would you say to them or to a parent of them who is listening? What should they know? What is the most important thing you want them to hear because of your story?

Aashna: I would definitely say that if you have a learning disability right now and you’re listening, you can do anything you set your mind to. I try to be living proof of that every single day. I thought, once upon a time, that I would never be able to achieve my goals and achieve my dreams. Right now, I’m standing here as Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen, the first Indian American, and I have learning disabilities. I talk about them openly. I’m on track to becoming a pediatric dental surgeon in my future although I have three learning disabilities. Look at me and see that you can achieve anything you set your mind to. Don’t think you can’t. I think that’s the biggest thing to remember if you have a learning disability, is that you can do it. That’s what I would tell anyone who’s listening who has a learning disability.

Zibby: By the way, I’m on the board of the Child Mind Institute. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. I feel like you should get involved and be a spokesperson over there too and do something with them. Maybe I could put you in touch with —

Aashna: — Absolutely. I was actually going to ask you about that because I them. They told me to come to a convention, but then I — we’ll talk about it after.

Zibby: Okay. I’ll put you in touch with the founder. Amazing. Where do you want to go to college?

Aashna: Thanks to the Miss America organization, I have a lot of places that I have a full ride to, actually.

Zibby: Wow.

Aashna: I know. Isn’t that amazing? Scholarship competition. I have a lot of options. My dream was always Columbia, going up north. After meeting all these girls from all fifty-one states and seeing the amazing opportunities and all the amazing things that I can do in my future, I’m trying to think. Maybe I should go somewhere else. Maybe I should go where some of my Miss America friends are going. Honestly, I have a year to think about it. I’m so indecisive. I’m just all over the place right now.

Zibby: I will say, I run a publishing company called Zibby Books. I don’t do any children’s books, but if you want to ever write about this whole thing, you just keep my information. I have very high hopes for you for a memoir or fiction. I don’t even know what you’re going to do. Just stay in touch.

Aashna: Thank you so much. Absolutely. You’ll be the first person I go to.

Zibby: I’m totally impressed and inspired. I love that you are doing all of this and that you’re already helping so many people. You have such a good heart. It is so inspiring and wonderful to see. Your message is so important. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Go to school. It’s nine thirty. What are you doing?

Aashna: My school just started, actually. It starts at nine thirty.

Zibby: Go, go, go. Go back to school.

Aashna: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming on. Buh-bye.

Aashna: Bye.

Aashna Shah, DYNAMIC DIYA: Dyslexia is her Superpower

DYNAMIC DIYA: Dyslexia is her Superpower by Aashna Shah

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts