[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.
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.
- 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
- Contain token disabled characters – sidekicks, helpless victims, and villains. [Problematic example: The Snow Rabbit, Becky The Brave]
- Rely on tropes – sage blind grandmas, misogynistic autistic men, magic cures, etc. and uses disability as a Chekhov’s gun or plot twist. [Problematic example: Walking Through A World Of Aromas, Peter Nimble, French Toast, Lola And I]
- Use disabled identities as inspiration porn for non-disabled folks. [Problematic: In My World]
- Cheer non-disabled characters for basic human decency toward disabled friends and family, or contain excessive whining about how burdensome disabled people are for ‘real’ people to deal with. [Problematic example: My Brother Charlie, Just Because, Shelley The Hyperactive Turtle, My Brother Is Autistic.]
- Dismiss and minimize real obstacles and dangers caused by societies and environments hostile to disabled people, or completely forget they exist at all. [Problematic example: Dylan the Villain, ‘10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes‘]
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
‘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.
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.
‘I Can, Can You?‘ is a regular toddler board-book featuring photos of tots with Down syndrome doing everyday kid things.
‘Dad And Me In The Morning‘ features a Deaf main character and a quiet morning sunrise with his dad.
‘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.)
‘Real Friends‘ – In this graphic novel/semi-memoir, the protagonist has OCD, which is mentioned a couple times, but doesn’t define the character.
‘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.
‘The Deaf Musicians‘ features an impromptu jazz session on the subway.
‘Susan Laughs‘ features an active, boisterous little girl going doing typical kid stuff, who happens to use a wheelchair.
Include Disabled Peers & Equals
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
Change The Environment To Suit Disabilities – Not The Person
‘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.
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.
‘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
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
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