Home Book Collections Influential Kids Books Featuring Capable Disabled Characters

Influential Kids Books Featuring Capable Disabled Characters

via Ashia

[Featured Image Description: Book cover for ‘King For A Day.’ The rest of the images in this post are book covers from the preceding text].

This is the third in a four-part series on disability in children’s books: In this post, you’ll find stories starring disabled characters who aren’t defined by disability, teach your kids to see disabled people as peers worthy of respect, and discover how to recognize ableism & erasure in the media.

 


Normalizing disabled characters and smashing tropes

In our previous post, we learned the life-or-death consequences of inaccurate representation of disabled people in teh media. Later, we’ll learn about kick-ass disabled heroes who fought for equality and inclusion.

But first – the most important books you need for your bookshelf – stories that normalize disabled characters and includes us in everyday narratives.



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Stop using disability as a trope & humanize disabled characters

For more on normalizing targeted identities, check out the Uhura Test, featuring guidelines on normalizing girls of color in kidlit.

Stores that pass the Uhura Test:

  • Feature under-represented characters with agency.
  • Are created by makers who have this lived experience, or consult those who have.
  • Feature engaging plots with universal appeal, connecting any reader with empathy.
  • Feature characters who are valuable and successful outside the gaze of a male/white/non-disabled kyriarchy.
  • Bonus for disability: Non-disabled characters accommodate and acceptance the needs of disabled folks without any whining
Stories that fail the Uhura Test:

Captioned age ranges are for when my sons got ‘the gist’ of the story with discussion & alternative readings – most contain text for much older ages.


Accept Disabled Characters As Normal

Ages 4+

King For A Day‘ is a gorgeous story of dedication and mastery of a craft, plus kindness and generosity with a bit of suspense thrown in. Also the main character uses a wheelchair. Actually – I’m downplaying this. This book is AMAZING. It’s absolutely everything I want in a book that both empowers and normalizes kids with disabilities. GO READ IT.


Ages 9m-4y

Clean It!‘ features a young family cleaning around the house. The main character wears a leg splint and his dad uses an inhaler. I adore every book in this series, but this is the only one with a disabled main character.

 


Ages 6m-3.5y

I Can, Can You?‘ is a regular toddler board-book featuring photos of tots with Down syndrome doing everyday kid things.

 


Ages 5+

Dad And Me In The Morning‘ features a Deaf main character and a quiet morning sunrise with his dad.

 


Ages 4+

Amelia Bedelia’s First Apple Pie‘ is one of the few Amelia Bedelia books where she isn’t shamed and ridiculed for her literal understanding of idioms. Her grandparents just accept her as she is and they are awesome. BTW: Amelia Bedelia is so obviously autistic. I grew up thinking she was the only reasonable character in a series of books about aggressively mean people who don’t know how to speak properly. The newer versions by the original creator’s nephew are the bees knees, and the adults in her life are kind and inclusive.

It means a lot to have someone like us so well-represented in kids books, even if the original books by Peggy Parish foisted her as a burden on her employers and friends and she was treated with kindness only when earning her humanity via her autistic area of interest – baking. (Which is actually pretty realistic.)


Ages 8+

Real Friends‘ – In this graphic novel/semi-memoir, the protagonist has OCD, which is mentioned a couple times, but doesn’t define the character.


3.5+

Hello, Goodbye Dog‘ – Features a wily, loving dog and her competent, loving owner (who happens to use a wheelchair).

 

 

 


Hands And Hearts’– Simple book featuring a mom and daughter’s day at the beach, and they communicate via ASL.


Ages 4+

The Deaf Musicians‘ features an impromptu jazz session on the subway.

 

 


invisible lineSusan Laughs‘ features an active, boisterous little girl going doing typical kid stuff, who happens to use a wheelchair.

Ages 2+



Include Disabled Peers & Equals

Ages 3+

Beautiful‘ is similar to ‘Lovely,’ but with more action and less diversity. The text reads like a sexist etiquette primer, and the images spin common stereotypes on proper little ladies with mud-slinging, active, goofy, rough, and tumble girls – some of whom are physically disabled. I’m not reading it to my sons because of the text – they don’t yet know that ‘beautiful’ is a value our culture holds for women (no boys in this book) and I prefer not to introduce that concept yet.


Ages 6m-3.5y

Happy In Our Skin‘ runs along the same lines, but for even younger children, and includes several mixed-race, interfaith, and gay families in addition to characters with vitiligo, wheel-chair users, facial birth marks, and one little girl with a conspicuous brow-line, which could be a marker for an unspecified disability (or not). One caveat: one line equates skin color in terms of food (which is a demeaning device often used to describe POC in literature.) It’s something to be aware of.


Ages 4+

Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon‘ centers on a non-disabled girl (depending on how familiar you are with the series, as she is explicitly celebrated as an empowered, kick-ass Little Person in ‘Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon‘) and her best friend uses arm crutches for mobility. It’s never addressed in the story and I love that.

 

 


Brave includes a character with a leg brace and arm crutches periodically through the book. He stars in a feature spread, standing up to a bully.

 



Change The Environment To Suit Disabilities – Not The Person

Ages 2.5+

Ernest, The Moose Who Doesn’t Fit‘ is about a Moose who doesn’t fit in the book. (Obviously.) The solution is an allegory for inclusion – change the book, not the moose.

 


Ages 4+

Ada Twist, Scientist is about a science-minded, hyper-focused little girl whose parents reject her interest in science and worry about her lack of speech until an advanced age. Like Amelia Bedelia, she’s also a neurodivergent super-hero without explicitly stating the obvious. Eventually her parents come around and stop trying to force her into behaving neurotypical.

 


Ages 3.5+

Charlotte And The Quiet Place‘ isn’t explicitly about sensory processing disorders, but helps all children begin to understand the need to escape from painful, overwhelming sensory input.

 



Up next in part 4: Real-life heroes

Check out part 4 of this series to learn why books about disabled heroes must be read with a critical eye. Click here to continue to the next post.

 


Stay Curious & Stand Brave

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6 observations

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Crystal Woodbrook February 14, 2018 - 2:08 AM

Thank you for your all your informative posts about disability representation in children’s books. I’m in the midst of writing a college thesis which focuses on the same topic, and your posts have been immensely helpful to me!

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Ashia February 14, 2018 - 10:40 PM

How exciting! I’m so glad to hear you’re exploring this. Thank you!

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Stav April 5, 2018 - 4:37 PM

Hi! me again 🙂 I just read an article written by the author of the book “Just Because” in which she writes that the book is based on the interactions between her young son and her daughter with mental and physical disabilities. I wonder if things like make a difference- easpecially because you put this book as an example of bad dipiction. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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Ashia April 5, 2018 - 5:35 PM

Oh boy. ‘Just Because’ makes me twitch. It’s awful. Most of the most problematic books are written by non-disabled parents about their disabled children, and activists within the disability rights movement find non-disabled family members to be the biggest obstacle to equal rights.

Kerima Cevik said it best in her interview with intersected:

“If it weren’t for their children’s disabilities, some of the parents and grandparents involved in autism activism would never associate with intersected populations and that bigotry erupts on the skin of the autism community like clinical acne. So they are caught in this conundrum of having to stew in their own prejudice and be more inclusive to gain rights for their disabled offspring.”

For the book itself – aside from the blatant sexism, and centering on a non-disabled boy ABOUT his disabled sister without including her perspective or giving her any agency or control in the story – the point of ‘Just Because’ is to explain how useless his disabled sister is. From the book:

“She’s a lot like a princess. They don’t have to do much either. They can just sit and look pretty. Just because.”

Throughout the book, the brother both views and treats his sister like an accessory and a pet. The author makes no attempt to humanize the sister, or ask any adults with her same disabilities to review it to make sure it’s not full of bigotry. Blegh. Barf.

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Amelia Sunderland December 12, 2018 - 9:28 PM

Where’s Chimpy? by Berniece Rabe is out of print, but I own it & like it because, while the photographs show a child who has Down syndrome, the story is universal, about a little girl who can’t find her stuffed monkey at bedtime, but does find a dozen other favorite toys while searching for monkey.

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Ashia December 16, 2018 - 1:11 PM

This looks amazing! Thank you!

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