Representation of physical disabilities and physical differences in children’s books IS SO IMPORTANT! Kids need to see themselves as heroes of stories –> mirrors. And other kids need to step into the lives of someone else to build empathy and understanding –> doors and windows.
We MUST talk about physical differences with children (also referred to as physical disabilities) who don’t have them.
If we don’t, disabilities become the elephant in the room. As a result, children mistakenly interpret we think it’s wrong or taboo to have a physical difference. It’s not. Adults know that disabilities are NOT wrong. Nor taboo. But do our kids get that message?
As we’ll see in these stories, everyone notices differences. Especially curious children. So it’s up to us to discuss and help our children learn about disabilities without stigmas.
It’s up to us to answer questions and to help kids see what it might feel like to have a physical disability.
This is the way to ensure that we raise compassionate, empathetic, and kind children.
I recently saw a great idea on Facebook that said something like instead of saying, “Don’t stare,” say to your kids, “Say hello.” I love that!
Let’s read stories that help us become empathetic to other people’s experiences as well as our own; stories that show not just our differences but more importantly, our similarities.
Books with Physical Differences / Disabilities
When Charley Met Emma by Amy Webb, illustrated by Merrilee Liddiard
When Charley feels different, his mom teaches him that “Different isn’t weird, sad, bad, or strange. Different is different. And different is OK!“ He sees a girl at the park who doesn’t have hands and loudly asks his mom, “Why does she look so weird, mommy?” which the little girl named Emma hears and it makes her feel sad. His mom reminds Charley that being different is OK. She suggests that he introduce himself to Emma because everyone wants friends. Charley apologizes and asks Emma questions. Emma helps Charley know that even though she’s a little “differenter” than he is, she’s a lot the same, too. For example, Emma likes to play on the playground, swing, play tag, and just like Charley, draw! This compassionate story models the importance of accepting differences with kindness and openheartedness.
All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali
Jennifer uses a wheelchair because of her cerebral palsy. Using a wheelchair means that she can’t get into the neighborhood school with stairs or eat lunch in the cafeteria with the other kids. So, even though she’s a kid, Jennifer joins other activists to speak up for access to all places — asking Congress to pass a law called the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. When the law doesn’t look like it’s going to pass, Jennifer leaves her wheelchair to crawl up the steps (no ramps) of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Eventually, Congress finally passes the ADA! Reading Jennifer’s true story will make you CHEER! Because Jennifer is amazing and you’ll want to be a force for change like she is.
We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio
Simple and heartfelt, Aggie shares that he’s just like everyone else even if he doesn’t look like other people. It hurts his feelings when people point and laugh so his strategy is to put on his helmet, blast off into space, and get a bigger perspective. He sees that the Earth is full of lots of different people, all of them wonders. He is a wonder, too. We all are.”Look with kindness and you will always find wonder.“
I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Julianna Swaney
Eva, a girl who has Cerebral Palsy, dreams of dancing. She gets the chance at an inclusive dance studio and it’s a joyful, amazing experience culminating in a special performance! Based on The Young Dance Company in Minneapolis.
Ben’s Adventures A Day at the Beach by Elizabeth Gerlach
What a wonderful book! It shares what’s going on inside Ben’s imagination as he visits the beach with his family. Ben can’t walk or talk because of his Cerebral Palsy but he can imagine. He imagines running and flying, counting crabs, and building a sandcastle. Wonderful and playful, this book shows readers that no matter the outside, on the inside, kids all have so much in common.
Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross
Susan is just like you — she plays with friends, she works hard, she doesn’t like when her cat scratches her. Focusing on the similarities helps kids understand Susan and when the last page reveals that Susan also uses a wheelchair, it’s not a big deal.
Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnavas
Jessica is in a wheelchair and her first day at school is very disappointing. She thought she’d make lots of friends with her box and her bear so the next day she put cupcakes in her box. Not even a thank you. Jessica just wanted to disappear into her box. Which turned out to be a great way to start a hide-and-seek game with a new friend.
Zoom! by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
Lauretta’s 92-speed wheelchair gets her a speeding ticket! Which makes her parents tell her she needs a slower chair. But when she speedily gets her brother to the hospital, her parents change their mind.
Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
Emmanuel’s mom helped Emmanuel be strong and believe in himself even though he only had one leg. He hopped 2 miles to school. He learned to ride a bike. He worked to support his family. As an adult, Emmanuel rode 400 miles across his country of Ghana to spread the message that disability is not an inability. This is an inspiring true story that is a film called Emmanuel’s Gift.
Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
A must-own lavishly-illustrated book that is both eye-opening and empathy-building as it increases a reader’s understanding of others; in particular, other people with physical and neurological differences. It’s set up so each two-page spread features a different kid who introduces themselves and then asks a question of the readers. For example, Rafael has asthma and sometimes has trouble breathing. He asks, “Do you use a tool to help your body?” Madison uses a guide dog to get places safely because she’s blind. She explains this and asks, “How do you use your senses?” The book features kids with autism, a wheelchair, dyslexia, Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, food allergies, Down syndrome, and more. It shows all these kids working together to plant a garden, showing that just like the variety of plants in the garden, our differences make the world more interesting and richer.
Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon
Based on Jessica’s real-life situation when she was an adult, read how after her leg was amputated, she connected to a service dog named Rescue. It’s important for kids to understand the work that service dogs do. I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed reading this sweet story of friendship and resiliency.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Catia Chien
Alan stutters when he talks yet fluently speaks without a stutter with animals. He develops a passion for animal welfare and conservation, wanting to use his voice to speak up for animals. In particular, he becomes passionate about jaguars and bravely uses his voice in Belize to make a case to save the jaguars. And his words persuade the government. The jaguars get a protected preserve.
Keep Your Ear on the Ball by Genevieve Petrillo
Davey is vision impaired and independent. When he tries to play kickball and fails, he learns that it’s not always a bad thing to ask others for help.
The Black Book of Colors by Menen Cottin, illustrated by Rosana Faria
Experience colors with other senses that are NOT vision. As a person with vision impairment, you’ll “see” the colors through touch, taste, smell, and sound. Includes Braille on each page.
Lemon the Duck by Laura Backman, illustrated by Laurence Cleyet-Merle
Born in an elementary school classroom, Lemon is unable to walk. The students love the duck and help her be a happy duck. Great for introducing the topic of special needs.
A Different Little Doggy by Heather Whittaker, illustrated by Scott Alberts
Tax lives her life fully and accepts herself as she is such as trouble with her knees and going blind. This story shows us that it’s not our physical bodies that define us.
I Am Ivan Crocodile by Rene Gouichoux, illustrated by Julia Neuhaus
6-year old Ivan wants to be accepted by his classmates even though he looks and moves differently than them. I haven’t seen this book in person but it looks like a solid choice for building empathy for differences.
Just Because by Rebecca Elliott
Narrated by a younger brother, we learn about his amazing big sister. We eventually figure out that his sister has special needs but that it doesn’t affect how much she is loved by her brother.
Catherine’s Story by Genevieve Moore, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
Catherine can’t talk but she can listen. This book shows the many special attributes of Catherine, a young girl like any girl who likes friends and family.
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
This meaningful story will tug at your heartstrings. It’s narrated by Ellie a girl who loves to bake, who has CP, cerebral palsy, and who rolls through life in a wheelchair. She hates having an aid at school who’s supposed to help her with everything, even going to the bathroom. When her mom moves them to Oklahoma to help care for her grandfather, even though she’s from the so-called wrong side of the tracks, she makes friends with other trailer park kids — the first friends she’s ever had. It’s a sweet story about taking risks, the importance of finding your tribe and growing up. I appreciate that the author skillfully shows readers that kids in wheelchairs are just like everyone else only with different challenges such as things like accessibility (where your chair can go) and getting dressed.
My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder by Nie Jun
UNDEFINED PHYSICAL DISABILITY (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Four sweet stories of Yu’er and her grandpa show their warm bond and Yu’er’s adventures around their Beijing neighborhood. The first story is about Yu’er’s desire to compete in the Special Olympics. Other stories include defending herself from bullies with the help of a new friend as well as a magical old mailbox that transports Yu’er through time. This is a beautifully illustrated book of stories that feels nostalgic and heartwarming.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Iris is a Deaf girl who feels alone at her school and in her immediate hearing family. At school, Iris finds a connection to Blue 55, a whale who is called the loneliest whale in the world because his song is at a different hertz than other whales. She uses her compassionate heart, intelligence, and tinkering skills to write and record a whale song that Blue 55 will hear. Why? She wants him to know that he’s not alone. Even though she sends the song to the research station tracking Blue 55, Iris wants to see him for herself. She and her grandmother, who is also Deaf, sneak off without Iris’ parents’ permission on a cruise to the Alaskan research station. Their adventure is different than either could have imagined but profoundly life-changing for them both. It’s a heartening, poignant story that gives readers insight into Deaf children, the richness of Deaf culture, and the life-changing power of compassion.
The Chance to Fly by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz
Who Was Helen Keller? by Gare Thompson, illustrated by Nancy Harrison
Part of a biography series for early readers, this is the inspiring true story of Helen Keller, a woman who was deaf and blind and learned to speak and read.
The Baking Life of Amelie Day by Vanessa Curtis
I enjoyed this chapter book so much! The writing flows, the plot is engaging, the characters are fascinating — especially Amelie — and learning about living with Cystic Fibrosis is quite eye-opening. Amelie loves to bake (could you guess from the title?) and she’s made it to the semi-finals of a teen baking contest in New York City. Unfortunately, her health deteriorates (which happens when you have CF) and her mom won’t let Amelie compete.
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
This is a moving story of a friendship between a large boy with learning disabilities and a very small boy with physical disabilities. Together, they overcome the bullying at school. It’s a sad but powerful story of friendship and resilience.
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
Just because Melody can’t walk or talk due to cerebral palsy doesn’t mean she isn’t smart — and she is smart! She’s just sick of people thinking she’s dumb and wants out of the trap of her mind. She finds a way to communicate but is still treated poorly by her peers. Realistic, sometimes very painful, and important for everyone to read. GREAT class book or book club book.
El Deafo by Cece Bell and David Lasky
A multiple award-winning graphic novel, Cece Bell shares the story of growing up with a hearing impairment, using a very bulky hearing aid, and finding her place in the world. Funny and moving, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story of courage and determination.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert
Excellent! The book shows both Annie and Helen’s strengths and weaknesses as well as really significant character arcs. If you don’t know the story, or even if you do, read this book. You’ll be entranced with how laborious it was to teach Helen and how Annie’s persistence paid off in the end.
Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton
Surfer, Bethany, loses her arm to a shark attack. In this book, we learn her story and how she continued on with her life, surfing, and living life to the fullest.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
When he starts public school in fifth grade, Auggie is teased because his face doesn’t look like that of other kids. He changes throughout the story, deciding to stop hating his face to focusing on humor and kindness which transforms his classmates and community as well. This touching story is life-changing, encouraging empathy and kindness in readers as well.
Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Based on the author’s life experience, we glimpse a pivotal time for 11- year old Vince one summer when he takes over his friend’s paper route, meets a writer, discovers prejudice, and closely watches the adults around him all from the experience of having a profound stutter and difficulty speaking. This is a well-written coming of age novel that addresses SO MANY issues making it another great book recommendation for the classroom or book club.
Window Boy by Andrea White
Sam is an English boy with cerebral palsy during the 1960s. He’s not allowed to attend school and is even institutionalized by his mother but he dreams of more, buoyed in his mind by his hero Winston Churchill and a passion for basketball.
Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings
14-year old Natalie is losing her eyesight and fears her new reality. She slowly accepts her new situation despite many challenging situations, learns Braille, learns how to use a cane, and is prepared for when she loses her sight for good.
Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco
Bee is an orphaned girl who runs away from the exploitive traveling circus. She’s sensitive about the birthmark on her face, and feels like an outsider everywhere she goes. Fortunately, she finds two “aunts” who help Bee find her inner strength and show her the meaning of love.
Girl, Stolen by April Henry
While 16-year old Cheyenne’s mom runs into the store for her pneumonia medicine, Griffin steals their car with Cheyenne in it. Griffin’s father and his friends hold Cheyenne for ransom in the hopes her famous father will pay up. Cheyenne, who is currently sick and also blind, must use all her other senses to escape. She hopes Griffin will even help her.
The Running Dream by Wendell Van Draanen
AMPUTEE / CP
When Jessica loses a leg in a car accident, she’s treated differently — as if she were invisible, just like she treated another girl named Rosa, who has CP. This book will help you, like Jessica, see people for who they are, not what their physical conditions are. Any other books you’d like to see on this list?