Best Children’s Books With Characters Who Have Learning Differences

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Affiliate Links Want to know another very underrepresented group in children’s books? People with learning differences.

For children who are challenged with learning differences (disabilities is a term I dislike), 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!

I debated about including autism and Asperger‘s in this round-up of books. However, I’ve decided to dedicate an entire post to a book list with characters on the autism spectrum.

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

Knees- The Mixed Up World of a Boy with Dyslexia
Knees: The Mixed Up  World of a Boy with Dyslexia
 by Vanita Oelschlager and Joe Rossi
DYSLEXIA
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 Learning Differences in Picture Books
The Alphabet War
by Diane Burton Robb
DYSLEXIA
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. Falker Learning Differences in Picture Books
Thank You Mr. Falkner
by Patricia Polacco
READING ISSUES
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.

It's Called Dyslexia (Live and Learn Series Learning Differences in Picture Books
It’s Called Dyslexia (Live and Learn Series)
 
by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos, illustrated by Nuria Roca
DYSLEXIA
Narrated from a child’s perspective, this book is about a girl who learns she has dyslexia. 

The Junkyard Wonders Learning Differences in Picture Books
The Junkyard Wonders
by Patricia Polacco
LEARNING DIFFERENCES
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
NEURO- DIVERSITY
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.

If You're So Smart Learning Differences in Picture Books
If You’re So Smart, How Come You Can’t Spell Mississippi? (A Story About Dyslexia)
by Barbara Esham, illustrated by Mike Gordon
DYSLEXIA
We see Katie’s dad, who has dyslexia, as someone smart but who has a brain that perceives things differently.

ADHD IN PICTURE BOOKS
Sarabella’s Thinking Cap
by Judy Schachner
ADHD
Sarabella’s mind is filled with her wonderful imaginings which is wonderful most of the time, just not at school. When her teacher assigns the class homework to draw their favorite daydream, Sarabella thinks of so many things. To show her class, she makes her daydreams into a spectacular hat. I feel like her way of thinking represents neurological differences — that some brains are different than others.
What's New in Picture Books, Winter 2018
Captain Starfish
 by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Calpoys
SPD
Alfie has that feeling again — the not nice feeling — and not nice dreams to go with it. Dreams where he’s carrying the weight of the ocean. All because of the costume party. Alfie tells his mom he can’t go. And, his mom understands!! (What a great parenting role model!) She takes Alfie to the aquarium where he gets a peek of a clown fish. His mom explains that “sometimes clown fish need to hide away.” And people, too, adds Alfie. I know this kid, maybe some of you do, too. I hope that I was always as understanding as his mom. Stunning shocks of color throughout — bright blues, bright peaches, and aquamarines — set the mood. I’m grateful for this book giving attention to children like this, like my oldest. Yay!

Learning Differences in Chapter Books (Ages 7 – 18)

Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
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.

Fish In a Tree Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullally Hunt
DYSLEXIA
Both Ally and her older brother have hidden that they can’t read — until Mr. Daniels helps Ally learn to read does she discovers her true value. It’s a beautiful, emotional story that will help kids understand what it’s like to have dyslexia.

Okay for Now Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
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!!!!

Hank Zipzer Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Hank Zipzer
by Henry Winkler (ages 7 – 9)
LEARNING DIFFERENCES
Hank is a lovable, very relatable kid who has a most creative a unique brain which makes for lots of delightful and fun adventures.

Joey Pigza Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
 (series) by Jack Gantos (ages 7 – 9)
ADHD
Joey’s a hyper-active child with ADHD whose impulsive choices often get him in trouble.

books about kids with ADHD
Each Tiny Spark
by Pablo Cartaya
ADHD
Each Tiny Spark is one of the best books about learning differences that I’ve ever read that also tackles PTSD and prejudice in a beautiful, important story. Emilia is a Cuban-America girl whose ADHD makes focusing on school and school work a challenge. Her mom helps her stay on top of her assignments but her mom leaves for a work trip, leaving Emilia on her own. During this time, the community proposes to redraw the school district’s boundary lines, exposing prejudice and ongoing injustice. and Emilia becomes a passionate activist against injustice.
books about kids with ADHD
Focused
by Alyson Gerber
ADHD
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 do the testing her parents want, 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
SPD
I think you’ll love Lou’s story as much as me — it’s a beautiful character arc, the most authentic portrayal of SPD in middle-grade literature that I’ve read, and an un-put-downable, heartfelt story. 12-year-old Lou and her mom live in a truck. While her mom works as a waitress, Lou hangs out or sings for money, living her mom’s dream even though Lou dreads performing, it makes her extremely anxious. One evening, underage Lou drives in a snowstorm to pick up her mom from work and gets into an accident and Lou gets out in foster care with an aunt she’s never met. In her new home, Lou goes to a fancy private school where, after a fire drill meltdown, she’s assessed with Sensory Processing Disorder. She starts to get help with an occupational therapist and a sensory diet, understanding herself better, and learning to trust her kind aunt and uncle. Her situation is complicated and imperfect which feels completely authentic.
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
LEARNING DIFFERENCES
Harbor Me tackles some very big issues including race, immigration, bullying, learning differences, friendship, and forgiveness. The story is about six diverse children with learning differences. They bond during a special kids-only time on Friday afternoons where they share their stories, many of which Haley records on a tape recorder. Even as she learns about the other kids who are, Haley is reluctant to share that her own dad is in jail for the car accident killing her mother. When she does eventually share, it’s beautiful to see the other kids support her. This incredible story deserves to be not just read but discussed deeply as it contains a wealth of ideas to ponder. Such as what does it mean to “harbor” someone? Amazing!!

The Brave
by James Bird
COUNTING LETTERS
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 Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Absolutely Almost
 by Lisa Graff
LEARNING DIFFERENCE
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 Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
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.

chapter books with characters who have a learning disability / difference
Up For Air
by Laurie Morrison
GENERAL LEARNING DIFFERENCE
Annabelle 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.

children's books about sensory processing disorder / learning disabilities
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine
by Sally J. Pla, illustrations by Steve Wolfhard
SPD
Comic book geeks and kids with sensory processing disorder (SPD) will find a kindred spirit in Stanley Fortinbras. He reluctantly agrees to compete in 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, Liberty work together to finish.

children's books about learning disabilities
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle
by Leslie Connor
LEARNING DIFFERENCES
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 Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Eleven by Patricia Riley Giff
READING ISSUES
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 Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
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 Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
ADHD, DYSLEXIA
This is a thrilling adventure about an ADHD boy who is half-human, half-Greek god, questing to save the world and stay away from the monsters trying to kill him.

Freak the Mighty Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
LEARNING DISABILITIES
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 Learning Disabilities Differences in Chapter Books
Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa
ADHD
Focusing is hard, even with his ADHD medication. Then, Tyler finally finds something where he can focus — video games.

Best Children’s Books With Characters Who Have Learning Differences (Disabilities)

 

 

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9 Responses

  1. Hi Melissa,
    Thank you so much for this list. I will definitely be sharing it to our Bacalen Books: The Story Weavers social media pages! I am a science communicator and mother of two children who have a learning difference known as perceptual dyslexia. My husband also has it and has managed the symptoms for more than 20 years with his specially tinted lenses. The Story Weavers of Bacalen is a middle grade book series co-authored and published with my two junior authors. This adventure series focuses on six children from across the world who need to keep their glasses on to save the world and its people. Our learning difference heroes have special gifts which enable them to speak to books, ride book return chutes around the world and complete a dangerous quest – to find six ancient story-threads that have been stolen from a star hidden deep within Earth. If their quest fails, then this story will be the last one the world will ever know!
    During this time of Covid uncertainty each week we have been uploading a chapter of the first adventure. We hope that it will empower and support readers with learning differences and foster tolerance and acceptance in all readers.
    Visit http://www.bacalenbooks.com.au/miss-paiges-resources to ride the book return chutes with our learning difference adventurers! There are codes and puzzles to solve in the stories and hints found in the teaching resources page.
    Welcome to Bacalen (an anagram of balance – something we need a bit more in our lives at the moment!).

  2. My MG novel, DIFFERENT, is about a young girl with Tourette Syndrome. This neurological disorder is vastly misunderstood. Most people, thanks to TV and movies, thinks it’s yelling out curse words at inappropriate times. That’s does happen, but it’s a small percentage of those dealing with TS. There are both physical and emotional/neurological conditions associated with TS, and it most definitely effects learning. The physical tics can cause a child to consistently lose their place while reading, doing math, or taking tests. The other conditions, such as OCD, can add hours to homework if the child feels the need to hand in a perfect paper, or get a zero in the test because the child is stuck on writing his or her name. That’s just a little of what goes on in the life of a child with TS. I would be happy to send you a copy of my novel if you would like to review it. You can read more about it on https://www.amazon.com/Different-Janet-McLaughlin/dp/0999577328/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Different+by+Janet+McLaughlin&qid=1566651876&s=books&sr=1-1 Thank you for shedding light on these difficult disorders.

  3. Have you compiled the list for Autism and SPD books yet? If so, could you please point me in that direction? I would love to have a few picture book suggestions for helping kids understand my sons and my sons understand themselves a bit better. Thank you so much for your post on these subjects. They have been so helpful.

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    Hi! I’m Melissa Taylor, mom, writer, & former elementary teacher & literacy trainer. I love sharing good books & fun learning resources.

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