Want to know another very underrepresented group in children’s books? People with learning differences.
For children who are challenged with learning differences (disabilities), seeing a person like yourself in a story is quite affirming. In fact, Rick Riordan said that’s why he wrote Percy Jackson for his son who, like Percy, has ADHD and dyslexia.
And for children without a learning difference, they’ll be able to glimpse into the life of a person who does. That’s empathy building!
We need more representation but here’s a start… a list of picture books and chapter books that shows characters with learning differences. The list below shows ADHD, dyslexia, SPD, and general reading and learning disabilities.
Learning Differences in Picture Books
Aaron Slater, Illustrator by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
I love all the books in this series but this is my new favorite because it shows that having a learning disability doesn’t prevent you from communicating! It’s about a boy named Aaron, an artist and storyteller, who struggles with reading. When his teacher Miss Greer assigns the students to write a story, Aaron draws his story instead. He uses his artwork to help him tell his story to the class — which both the teacher and his classmates love. His art helps him find the words while he works hard to improve his reading little by little.
My Busy, Busy Brain: The ABCDs of ADHD by Nicole Russell
The story realistically captures how Nicole’s brain zig-zags with things that she notices, making it hard for her to pay attention in school. Her teacher and classmates show acceptance of Nicole’s ADHD brain; some classmates also share that they have ADHD, too. Nicole is proud of herself for speaking up for herself and sharing about how her brain works.
Abdul’s Story by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Tiffany Rose
Abdul loves stories but struggles with getting the words down on paper. When a visiting writer helps teach the class, all the students learn that good writing is more than spelling and handwriting — it’s good ideas and the rest can come later. It’s an important lesson for ALL kids, parents, and teachers and shows that learning disabilities don’t mean lacking ideas or intelligence.
The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco
I love this book so much about the “special” or “junkyard” class of kids with learning differences. Their teacher, the amazing Mrs. Peterson, helps each child find their talent and gifts.
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. Each two-page spread features a different kid who introduces themselves and their difference and then asks a question of the readers. 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.
A Walk in the Words by Hudson Talbott
This memoir shares the stress and difficulties the author had with reading, especially compared to others who read books without trouble. Eventually, he figured out ways to read on his own by looking at words differently.
Knees: The Mixed Up World of a Boy with Dyslexia by Vanita Oelschlager and Joe Rossi
Well-paced and illustrated, you’ll find this to be an easy-to-read and understand picture book about life with dyslexia.
The Alphabet War by Diane Burton Robb
Kindergartener Alex finds that letters trick his brain –– he mixes up bs and ds, for example, and it seems like he’s in a war with the alphabet.
Thank You Mr. Falkner by Patricia Polacco
Mr. Falker changes everything for 5th grader, Trisha. He helps her learn to read! I love this picture book story based on the author’s life.
Sarabella’s Thinking Cap by Judy Schachner
Captain Starfish by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Calpoys
Learning Differences in Chapter, Middle Grade, & YA Books (Ages 7 – 18)
Super Lexi by Emma Lesko, illustrated by Adam Winsor (ages 7- 9)
SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER, ADHD
As Lexi describes her feelings and reactions, we begin to understand that she has some differences than many other kids such as noises affect her strongly and she has phobias. Sometimes she just curls up into a ball. But she is the same as other kids, too — she has a fantastic imagination, loves art, and likes having a friend.
Honestly Elliott by Gillian McDunn (ages 9 – 12)
Elliott’s shuttling between his dad and mom’s houses. He’s often overwhelmed with emotions, particularly anger and sadness since his parent’s divorce and his stepmom’s pregnancy, not to mention that his ADHD makes it hard to focus. Also, his dad’s constant criticisms aren’t helping either. (I really disliked the dad for most of this story.) Worst of all, his dad won’t let Elliot do his favorite thing– cook. For a buy-local school project, Elliot pairs up with a girl who has Celiac disease. Not only do they become good friends but Elliott’s rigid black-and-white thinking softens as he opens to different perspectives, including his new friend’s. I love how the author normalizes therapy, ADHD, and Celiac disease and gives the characters great arcs. (The dad comes around and Elliott grows into new ways of seeing the world.)
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullally Hunt
Both Ally and her older brother have hidden that they can’t read –– until Mr. Daniels helps Ally learn to read and she discovers her true value. It’s a beautiful, emotional story that will help kids understand what it’s like to have dyslexia.
Flipping Forward Twisting Backwards by Alma Fullerton
Claire is the best at gymnastics, but she’s not the best at reading. In fact, she can’t read AT ALL–and has fooled everyone for years. She lashes out to protect her secret and gets sent often to the principal. The principal figures out that Claire needs learning testing, but Claire’s mom is adamantly against testing. Claire’s friends, her sister, and a supportive teacher help her with word recognition — but she continues to ask her mom to let her get tested, which she eventually does. There’s so much to love about this fast-paced book in verse. I love that Claire is a fully developed character with efficacy who shows readers (and her mom( that having a learning disability doesn’t mean you’re not smart, it means your brain learns differently.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
READING DISABILITIES – ILLITERACY
This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The main character, Doug, is struggling to read while living in poverty with an abusive dad and older brother. What saves him is connecting to a kind librarian who shows him Audobon’s bird paintings — and how to draw. It’s excellent!!!!
A Perfect Mistake by Melanie Conklin
This is a great read for anyone who likes mystery, adventure, and well-developed, interesting characters. Max is living with the tragic aftermath of a night out that left one of his best friends in a coma. Initially, Max doesn’t want to think about what happened when he snuck out to the Res because he left before his friends did. While he’s trying to navigate school with ADHD and being exceptionally tall, Max also decides he must find out what happened to his friend. And he and a new friend named Sam discover that more than one person is lying.
Hank Zipzer by Henry Winkler (ages 7 – 9)
Hank is a lovable, very relatable kid who has a most creative, unique brain which makes for lots of delightful and fun adventures.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (series) by Jack Gantos (ages 7 – 9)
Joey’s a hyperactive child with ADHD whose impulsive choices often get him in trouble.
Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya
Focused by Alyson Gerber
Clea is a chess-loving girl who gets distracted easily (except when she can hyper-focus in chess) and it’s becoming a problem, especially in school but also with friends. She’s resistant to testing, refusing to believe she could have ADHD. But blurting out things and living with regret, she feels like she’s not in control. As she learns more about her brain, she realizes that she can figure out strategies to help her keep focused. Readers who don’t have ADHD will get a glimpse into the way this kind of brain works. It is exactly like what my oldest daughter who has ADHD tells me it’s like with thoughts bouncing all over the place. Important and insightful.
Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
The Brave by James Bird
Run out to get this absolutely jaw-dropping, stunningly beautiful book with a main character you’ll fall in love with (and whose character arc is HUGE.) It’s filled with metaphorical, meaningful, and symbolic writing and you will feel ALL the feelings. When Collin, a boy who counts every letter spoken to him and says the number out loud, gets kicked out of yet another school, his neglectful father sends Collin to live with his mom. Collin has never met his mother but he’s curious to meet her and live on the Ojibwe reservation. Living with her is a totally different experience than his previous home — because with his mother, he’s welcomed and not judged. He befriends the neighbor girl who teaches Collin how to be brave. Which he needs. And so does she because she’s going to be a butterfly soon…
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Albie struggles with learning which affects his self-esteem. But his babysitter Calista, helps him discover his gifts and that makes a big difference in his life.
Close to Famous by Joan Bauer
READING ISSUES / ILLITERACY
Foster loves cooking and wants to be on a cooking show but she’s hiding a secret — she can’t read.
Up For Air by Laurie Morrison
GENERAL LEARNING DIFFERENCE
Annabelle is a child of divorce who doesn’t see her father due to his drinking problem. She’s figuring out friendships and belonging, aware that she doesn’t fit in at school because of her learning disabilities. Fortunately, she does fit in at the pool on the older kids’ swim team.
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla, illustrations by Steve Wolfhard
Comic book geeks and kids with sensory processing disorder (SPD) will find a kindred spirit in Stanley Fortinbras. He reluctantly agrees to compete in a comic book trivia contest in order to save a friendship–even though large crowds make him very anxious. In the end, his friend ditches him but Stanley and his new homeschooled neighbor work together to finish. (It’s not entirely believable based on my own experiences with my daughter who can’t overcome her sensory issues just because she has a friend there…)
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
Mason’s a big kid with severe learning disabilities, an overactive sweat gland, and a dead best friend named Benny. As the story progresses, Mason’s confusion grows at why the police continue questioning him about the day his friend died. But something good happens when Mason befriends another student who is also bullied by the neighbor boys. This story is both about their growing friendship and the truth about Benny’s death…
Eleven by Patricia Riley Giff
11-year-old Sam can’t read well enough to determine if the hidden documents in his grandfather’s attic prove that he was kidnapped from his real parents. Who can he trust to help him?
Bluefish by Pat Schmatz
READING ISSUE – ILLITERACY
13-year-old Travis can’t read until he meets Mr. McQueen, a teacher who helps Travis learn.
Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
This is a thrilling adventure about an ADHD boy who is a half-human, half-Greek god, questing to save the world and stay away from the monsters trying to kill him.
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. Sad but powerful.
Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa
Focusing is hard, even with his ADHD medication. Then, Tyler finally finds something where he can focus — video games.
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