Disability in Children’s Books
Growing up, I was an absolute bookworm. My Dad told me that if I was reading, I could stay up as long as I wanted to: I took this literally. And so, I became a bookish night owl.
However, as someone with cerebral palsy, I remember being totally desperate to find a book featuring a character who had cerebral palsy. I wanted someone in my beloved books to resemble me. To experience the same pains and joys that I did as a disabled kid. Back then, I didn’t know anyone else with a physical disability; so, a fictional representation of a kid with cerebral palsy could have served as a great friend to me. I wanted to feel less alone. This was the 2000s. We found one, maybe two books.
I was drawn to working at Little Box of Books because diverse representation is at the heart of what they do. Because they have complete empathy for children searching hungrily for a book that features someone like them.
From the Little Box of Books bookshelf, I have been able to source a collection – an actual collection – of books featuring characters with disabilities. This is incredibly exciting. And a great improvement on what I found as a little girl.
However, we have to be clear about what representation means and when it’s useful. The presence of a disabled character isn’t enough.
Too often, disabled characters have been employed in fiction as a plot device for non-disabled characters to exercise their sympathy, or only introduced in stories to be cured, or framed as tragic. Disability is a part of life for so many people, and books that show this and introduce characters as more than their disability give kids a better understanding of the diversity of our population.
The wheelchair is the universal symbol for disability. When I say “disability”, the image that pops up is probably of a figure in a wheelchair.
In my scouting for books featuring disabled characters, I noticed many books where one of the children in the background was using a wheelchair, the book’s nod to disability.
This in itself is not problematic. It is great to see characters who use a wheelchair. (More please!)
However, representation should not end here. Disability is not defined by wheelchair use.
Disability can present itself in a multitude of ways. Disabilities can be visible, mildly visible, and invisible.
See below for a selection of books that feature disabled characters and books that aid discussions about disability.
The first book recommendation today is ‘You Can’. The illustrations contain representations of many disabilities.
This book has an emphasis on the diversity of people’s abilities and preferences. Its message is to view all our differences as positives. Furthermore, it encourages children to be emotionally expressive, and lets them know that all emotions are okay.
‘You can…love a good picture book whatever your age…do things together, or alone.’
There is a character in a wheelchair, another using a walking stick, and one wearing hearing aids. A blind runner reaches the finish line with their guide, the illustrations showing just how varied disability can be.
‘My big sister Clemmie is my best friend. She can’t walk, talk, move around much…I don’t know why she doesn’t do these things. Just because.’
Told from the perspective of the brother, this story is about a cherished sibling relationship.
The book is honest about the activities Clemmie cannot participate in. Meanwhile, it also celebrates the activities the siblings can do together.
‘Clemmie helps me with my drawings…She doesn’t like it when I draw pigeons. I don’t know why. Just because.’
Author Jon Roberts has a daughter with autism and ADHD. He has written this book to explain many disabilities in a child-friendly way. You can read about the creation of the book here.
On each page, a new disability is described, consequently, a wide range is covered: limb difference, dyscalculia, spina bifida, and brittle bone disease.
Two or more children who have the same disability discuss and relate to each other over what it feels like to have their disability. I like this because having a disability can feel like a very isolating, exceptional experience. But this book shows disabled children that there are kids just like them!
At the bottom of each page, there is a guide for pronouncing the words, ‘[Say: AW-tiz-um], helping children to navigate the sometimes intimidating medical terms that are used when talking about disability. Getting rid of these blockers aid conversations about disability, making it more accessible for all!
Perfect for the classroom…
This book would be a useful addition to any classroom. Kids tend to be full of questions. As a child, many kids asked me questions about my disability, and I didn’t always know how to answer them. This book is a useful tool for touching on many disabilities in one-go. A teacher could use it to initiate classroom discussion, giving children the opportunity to ask their questions in a supervised environment, teaching them to avoid staring and pointing, to respect difference and to not expect others’ to divulge their medical history.
In contrast to ‘See What I Can Do’, disability is more incidental to the storyline in ‘Jessica’s Box’. Jessica uses a wheelchair. Yet, the focus of the story is her anxiety over starting school. Jessica brings a box into school with her each day, in the hope that it will stimulate conversation with her peers. Many children, disabled or not, will relate to how Jessica feels.
Jessica’s Box is a brilliant example of having a disabled protagonist and their disability not being the focus of the storyline, see also Harriet vs the Galaxy, A Kind of Spark, and an Alien in the Jam Factory for older kids and Amazing by Steve Antony for the younger ones.
Balance the Books
Have you ever seen a disabled person in the street and your child has pointed or made a comment?
As a child, I was on the receiving end of this a lot, and sometimes from adults too (which is definitely not okay).
This is an excellent opportunity for you to take your child aside and to have a discussion with them about disability.
These books can be a useful starting point for that. And in reading them together can help adults become more comfortable with conversations about difference.
Let kids know that it is okay to be curious. It is okay to have questions.
When it comes to the representation of disability in children’s books, it is critical to balance your bookshelf.
This means having books like, ‘See What I Can Do!’ that explain disability in a way kids can understand.
As well as this, you should have books including characters with disabilities where their disability is not mentioned at all.
Vitally, this reflects reality. When you have a disability, it does a play a role in your life, simultaneously, it is not on your mind 100% of the time.
While it is wonderful to see multiple children’s books featuring disabled characters, we definitely want more!
Never ever stop at one book featuring disability and think your bookshelf is now diverse. Disability itself is so diverse, you won’t have a conclusive picture with just one book. Don’t stop collecting them!
This means that disability is a part of life – whether we’re disabled or a loved one is. Fiction can help to deconstruct some of the fears and apprehensions we might have around disability. Some of the books might even teach adults a thing or two about disability.
Going forward, it would be excellent to see more writing by authors with disabilities. As they can offer an authentic representation of what it is like to have a disability.
And never be afraid of learning yourself. There are hundreds of disabled influencers and bloggers who are open about their experiences, helping us all to develop empathy and understanding, supporting us on our journey to a fairer, cohesive society.