One of the biggest issues that contribute to ableism is the lack of education people receive from a young age about disabilities. This is further worsened by the lack of non-stereotypical representation of disabled individuals in media.
To help ease these issues, we have outlined a few children’s books that feature strong, disabled main characters and depict their incredible journeys. Many of these books are true stories, written by authors who have gone on to achieve success not despite their differences, but, rather, inspired by them. These books can be used to teach children about the importance of inclusion, rejecting ableism, and treating those who are different the same way they would like to be treated.
1. “I’m Here” by Peter Reynolds (Ages 4-8)
This simple picture book is a subtle depiction of the social struggles endured by differently-abled kids and the importance of inclusion. It opens with an autistic child observing his peers around him: he takes note of the environmental stimuli and how it affects him. He then experienced an imaginative journey that ends with one of his peers reaching out, creating a sweet friendship. This book shows how differently-abled kids may have their own unique form of communication, and how it is so important for peers of these kids to normalize these non-traditional forms of communication and “meet kids in the middle.” For kids, this book not only provides a good introduction to these topics but will also spark a significant conversation about them.
2. “Just Ask” by Sonia Sotomayor (Ages 4-8)
This book is a colorful introduction to a wide variety of disabilities and health conditions. Written by United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “Just Ask” was inspired by her own experiences growing up with Type 1 diabetes. The book is incredibly inclusive, touching on conditions ranging from ADHD to Tourette’s to even nut allergies. She frames the book around the idea of a diverse garden that she and her friends are planting. There, no flower is the same, and the garden as a whole is all the better for it. She emphasizes that, similarly, none of us are the same, and we must embrace our differences to move forward together. She also tells us that, if we ever do not understand something about someone who is differently-abled, we should “Just Ask!”
3. “Dan and DMD” by Joseph & Liora Yasmeh (Ages 3-7)
This book provides a digestible introduction to Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy for young children. In the story, Dan is an upbeat, fun-loving kid who has a variety of hobbies and interests. He also happens to have DMD. The Yasmehs explain what DMD is in this book in a way that children can grasp, as well as outlining how DMD affects Dan and some of the modifications he and others must make in their lives. The book ends with an inspirational note from Dan, which is incredibly moving.
4. “El Deafo” by Cece Bell (Ages 7-12)
This graphic novel loosely follows the life of author Cece Bell, who suffered from meningitis at an early age and subsequently lost all hearing. It depicts the journey Cece undergoes in discovering she is deaf, learning how to read lips and utilize her hearing aids, and the social struggles she faced with being non-hearing. Initially viewing her deafness and hearing aid as things that separate her from other students, she learns to view them as her unique super abilities and uses them to help her classmates.
5. “Thank you, Mr. Falker” by Patricia Polacco (Ages 7-11)
This book is also based on a true story: it details the childhood of Patricia, otherwise known as “Trish” and her struggles with dyslexia. Growing up, her family had always fostered within her a love for literature and the pursuit of knowledge, so Trisha was beyond excited to learn how to read and write. However, when the time comes, she learns that reading and writing do not come easily to her at all, especially when compared with the other children. She isn’t sure why this is the case, and she chalks it up to her being “dumb.” When a new teacher, Mr. Falker, enters, he discovers that Trisha does have dyslexia. They work together to help her learn how to read.
6. “The Able Fables” by Dr. Nicole Julia (Ages 2-10)
The Able Fables is not a book, but, rather, is a series of books by Dr. Nicole Julia. The first in the series, “Gary’s Gigantic Dream,” depicts giraffe Gary’s first time picking out a wheelchair with his family. Once he goes through the process of picking out the perfect wheelchair for himself, a world of new opportunities opens up for Gary, and we see him start to build his dreams around these opportunities. The second book, titled, “Lia’s Kind Mind,” tells the story of Lia the lion, a birthmarked gymnast who struggles with self-worth as she initially fails to master the balance beam. This is a story of self-worth, with the result being Lia learning to be kinder to herself. In the third book, “Louie’s Together Playground,” Louie is a llama who is building an inclusive playground with some of his friends. His friends are shown to be incredibly diverse and all differently-abled. Louie himself is a llama with dwarfism, but that does not stop him and his friends from achieving their goals here. The Able Fables, much like “Just Ask,” are great books for inclusivity and turn stereotypes about disability on their head. Plus, a percentage of profits from the Able Fables go towards building and supporting inclusive playgrounds.
7. “No Such Thing as Normal” by Megan Dejarnett (Ages 5-8)
This book is very similar to “Just Ask” in that it shows readers a wide range of individuals with different disabilities, health conditions, and appearances. The main characters, based on Dejarnett’s sons, have a somewhat ignorant conversation about a differently-abled student, calling her “not normal.” Their mother in the story then takes them all around the town, introducing them to other people who the brothers could also deem “not normal.” They meet individuals who are blind, autistic, and even someone who has red hair and freckles! In doing this, the mother teaches these brothers that there is “no such thing as normal.”
8. “Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability” by Shane Burcaw (Ages 6-9)
“Not So Different” is an autobiography by Shane Burcaw, who was diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic disease wherein skeletal muscles degenerate due to the loss of motor neurons. Burcaw frames this book as a sort of “Q & A,” where he answers commonly asked questions (usually asked by kids) about his disability. He addresses questions many would be afraid or think “not socially acceptable,” to ask. He also educates readers about the nature of spinal muscular atrophy in and of itself, providing real scientific terminology and not shying away from anything.
9. “Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah” by Laurie Ann Thompson (Ages 4-8)
This book is also a biography, telling the story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a man from Ghana who biked across the country with one leg. It opens by telling us the challenges Emmanuel faced throughout his childhood, such as his father abandoning him and the schoolchildren ostracizing him due to his disability. Thompson illustrates just how Emmanuel overcame each of these challenges and broke the mold for disabled people in Ghana, becoming more than a beggar (the “norm” for disabled people there) and moving to the city, working, and supporting his mom. He eventually pursues his dream of biking across the country in just ten days, inspiring his fellow countrymen, disabled or otherwise. It should be mentioned that this story does feature serious topics, such as illness, social issues, and death. This story tackles stigma against disabled individuals and shows how just anything is possible.
10. “When Charley Met Emma” by Amy Webb (Ages 5-8)
This book tells the story of a new friendship between two kids Charley and Emma, as well as how Charley learns disability etiquette. When his mother brings him to the playground, Charley notices Emma, who has a few physical differences from his own. After he says something hurtful about Emma, his mother tells him to apologize to her and encourages him to strike up a conversation with her. He learns a lot about Emma’s disability, as well as what he should and should not say to people who are different from him. This is a heartwarming story about friendship, and within the lines, there is certainly an abundance of relevant lessons for kids.