Updated: Jun 23, 2021
By Margaret Kingsbury
One in four adults live with a disability, yet disabled representation in children’s books is far too sparse. In a study (2014) conducted by Donna Sayers Adomat and published in Disability Studies Quarterly, she found that reading and discussing children’s books that feature disabled characters in the classroom led to more positive interactions.
Ms. Schild related how, before the unit, students were resentful of a classmate with developmental disabilities who had an aide to help her; the classmates thought that she was receiving unfair privileges. After the unit, they understood why she needed assistance. One boy with autism, who was usually quiet and withdrawn during class time, participated actively in the book discussions and could identify with some of the characters in the stories. At one point he said, “That’s like me. I have autism—a little bit.” A parent noticed changes in her daughter: “She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I changed,’ but I notice a big difference in her attitude when we go out and see someone in a wheelchair. She’ll go up and start talking to that person, and she won’t complain about the kids in her class with ADHD anymore.”
These types of interactions and outcomes demonstrate why it’s essential to read children’s books featuring disabled characters and to make sure that both school and home libraries are stocked with these books. It’s also vital to discuss the books afterward, as the study notes, children often speak about disabilities utilizing societal stereotypes and attitudes. Adult guidance and discussions can help create more positive and realistic attitudes about disabled people.
I am a disabled mother, so I know how important it is to have disabled representation in the children’s books my daughter and I read at home. One tendency I’ve noticed in these children’s books is for authors to portray characters with easily identifiable physical disabilities, like wheelchair use. While this is excellent, I wish I saw more instances of invisible disabilities, like my own.
These ten children’s books portray many types of disabilities and from many perspectives. Some are told by a child with a disabled mother, relative, or classmate. Some are about a disabled child or adult and their day-to-day living, and others reveal a unique, fictional story that doesn’t relate to the child’s disability. These are just as important, for it’s essential to show children that disabled people can have fun and adventures and full lives of their own.
10 Children’s Books With Disabled Characters
For many, disability shows itself as chronic illness and exhaustion. This is the case for Aleeya’s mother in Mommy Sayang, Rosana Sullivan’s debut picture book. The story is based on Sullivan’s childhood, of her life growing up in a small Malaysian village, or kampung, and the loneliness she felt when her mother became ill and could no longer play with her. Though this is her debut picture book, Sullivan illustrates and directs for Pixar and has worked on many of their shorts, so she’s experienced in creating short tales for children. Her illustrations are sweet and engaging, just like the prose.
This picture book is about kite battles during the festival of Basant; fighting bullies with kindness, and also features a wheelchair user as one of the main characters. I love books that feature disabled characters having adventures and fun in a story not defined by their disability. Our lives are not defined by our disability, even when it’s something we think about every day. This may be my favorite book on the list.
The Baby Loves Science board book series explains scientific concepts in toddler-friendly ways. The Sight and Hearing books feature blind toddlers, glasses-wearing toddlers, and toddlers who need hearing implants. Whether your toddler experiences sight or hearing difficulties or not, they’re very likely to meet other children who do. This is a great way to explain these types of differences in a scientific way.
Most children will have experiences with disabled elderly as their grandparents and great grandparents age. According to the Center for Disease Control, elderly who require home health care are more likely to have depression than those who don’t. This is the case with Fern’s grandmother, Nanna. When Nanna becomes a wheelchair user, she becomes depressed, and she no longer does the things that once brought her joy. So Fern decides to try and capture some joy for her Nanna, but that’s more difficult than she thought. This book is magical. Illustrator Isabelle Follath uses color to show the impacts of depression visually and also the vibrancy of joy. The illustrations pair perfectly with Corrinne Averiss’s sweet and hopeful prose.
This book never says that Charlotte is autistic, but those who have or are experienced with autism will recognize and relate to Charlotte and her need for quiet. No matter where she goes–at home, school, even the park–Charlotte feels overwhelmed by the many noises that surround her. After her dog escapes the leash one day, Charlotte learns how to find a quiet place inside herself, a place to return to when she feels overwhelmed.
“I know I’m not an ordinary kid” opens R.J. Palacio’s picture book about the loneliness of looking different than other children and the bullying that often accompanies that. The child in We’re All Wonders finds comfort in the friendship of Daisy, his dog, and in his imagination. The simplicity of the prose makes its message of kindness and acceptance even more poignant. Of all the books on this list, this one made me the saddest, though it does end on a hopeful note when another child offers his friendship. This picture book is based on R.J. Palacio’s middle-grade novel Wonder.
Many people with disabilities aren’t born with their disabilities. The Deaf Musicians tells the story of a jazz piano player who is kicked out of his band when he becomes deaf. He despairs at losing his passion, but he soon discovers that music is still a part of him, and he forms a band of deaf musicians on the subway. As with all the books by Pete Seeger and Paul DuBois, the jazzy prose sings, just as the illustrations by award-winning illustrator R.Gregory Christie do.
Donna Jo Napoli is a prolific and award-winning children’s book author. What you may not know about her is that she’s also a linguist who specializes in sign language and activism for deaf children. Hands & Hearts tells the story of a mother and daughter’s fun day at the beach, and each page of sparse prose is accompanied by a sign, with a total of fifteen signs. The watercolor illustrations are soft and lovely, perfect accompaniments to the text. The signs are illustrated in a sidebar on each page spread.
Looking after Louis shows how inclusive classrooms are advantageous for both disabled and non-disabled children alike. Louis has autism and doesn’t speak on his own or participate in class activities like the protagonist, a little girl, and fellow student does. When Sam, another classmate, plays soccer with Louis one day, a whole new world opens up for Louis, and all the children learn a bit more about communication, joy, being human, and that breaking the rules is allowed in certain circumstances.
In Not So Different, Shane Burcaw answers all the frequently asked questions he gets about being disabled with humor and honesty. These are the kind of questions adults are too polite to ask, but that children with their bluntness certainly will, like “What’s wrong with you?” and “How do you eat?” Burcaw has spinal muscular atrophy. In addition to writing, he’s also the president of a nonprofit he created, Laughing at My Nightmare, which promotes positivity and kindness and provides medical equipment grants for people with muscular dystrophy. This book is quite funny, and the photographs are pretty hilarious, especially the sections with Shane and his non-disabled brother getting into mischief.
These ten children’s books are essential for classroom and home libraries alike. While there are other children’s books featuring disabled characters, I do wish more stories were published and that disabled representation more closely matched the reality of disabled life and the number of disabled people who live in the United States.
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Margaret Kingsbury writes about disability representation, fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales for Book Riot, The Bronzeville Bee, Star Trek, and more, and she’s co-creator of Baby Librarians where she, a friend, and their children write about the children’s books they love. Her fairytale fiction has been published in Nonbinary Review, Devilfish Review, and Expanded Horizons, among other places. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, daughter, and their many, many books. Find out more on her website and follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians or Twitter @areaderlymom.