15 Children’s Books Featuring Characters with Disabilities

These award-winning children’s books feature characters with disabilities. In many, the central character is a child with a disability. Others feature adults who have overcome disabilities in interesting ways. Some of these stories are even presented from the point of view of service animals!

front coverSusan Laughs

Willis, Jeanne

In any discussion of disability in children’s literature, this title is bound to be the first book mentioned and it is certainly one of the best. Winner of the Nasen Special Educational Needs Book Award on hardback publication in 1999, it has lost none of its impact today. In wonderfully dynamic pictures, we see Susan laughing and singing, splashing and swimming, hiding and spinning and doing all the ordinary, active things children do. She is also fearful sometimes, and is sad when things don’’t go well – and, horrors, she can even be naughty! With a loving family and lots of friends, Susan is a child full of life and fun. It is only on the last page we see that she uses a wheelchair: ‘That is Susan through and through – just like me, just like you.’ This reissue can only confirm the importance of seeing children with disabilities in books. Unfortunately, it is still comparatively rare that one finds excellence in such stories. Category: Under 5s Pre-School/Nursery/Infant. Rating: 5 (Unmissable). 2011, Andersen, 32pp, Ages 0 to 4.
Reviewer: Elizabeth Schlenther (Books for Keeps)
ISBN(s): 9781842709900, 1842709909, 0805065016, 9780805065015

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading program info available on CLCD.)

front coverUnderstanding Sam and Asperger Syndrome

Van Niekerk, Clarabelle

Sam has an infectious giggle and is a happy boy, but he also has some quirks that need special understanding. He doesn’t like loud noises or clothes that feel odd on his skin. His breakfast pancakes mustn’t touch, and he plays the same tune on his cello over and over. He also finds making friends difficult, and the children at school tease him until he cries – and when Sam cries, he can’t stop. A trip with his family to the Fair, where Sam rides the Ferris wheel with his dad, is such fun that Sam walks all the way back to the Fair at night on his own. After this episode, his parents realise it is time to see a doctor. After tests, it is recognised that Sam has Asperger syndrome, and the doctor explains he will need help from a proper team both at school and at home. Things get better, and when Sam plays his cello at the school concert, his talents are properly recognised. A list of ten suggestions to help friends of those with AS is given at the end of the book. Bold pictures with plenty of colour are full of humour and sympathy. This is a good, basic explanation of AS and how it affects not only the child himself, but those around him. An American production. Category: 5-8 Infant/Junior. Rating: 3 (Good). Skeezel Press, 56pp, Ages 5 to 8.
Reviewer: Elizabeth Schlenther (Books for Keeps)
ISBN(s): 9780974721712, 0974721719

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front coverDan and Diesel

Hudson, Charlotte

The remarkable thing about this picturebook of a boy and his ‘wonder’ dog is that not until almost the end of the story does it become clear that Dan is blind and that Diesel is his guide dog. The story is narrated by Dan’’s younger brother who is both admiring and matter of fact, and he does give some clues to Dan’s lack of sight – clues which were only apparent to me on a second reading, as I (perhaps like many readers?) was happily suspending disbelief when told: ‘When Diesel is with Dan he has a ticket for wherever he wants to go. There are no No Dogs signs for him.’ Actually, as I write with the book beside me I can’’t believe I was so dim (or reading too fast) first time round; but the point I want to make is that this story is exciting and coherent and depicts Dan as a normal child with emotions and fears that, while pertinent to the relationship between a boy and his guide dog, are just like those of any other child who has lost a precious pet. The illustrations are lively and colourful; Lindsey Gardiner layers paint, torn paper collage and what looks like crayon overlay to great effect. Most importantly, the rhythmical text flows well and is paced so that reading it aloud feels natural and easy, which will be so important when reading to children whose sight is impaired. Suitable for 4+. 2006, Red Fox, Ages 4 to 6.
Reviewer: Lucinda Jacob (Inis – Children’s Books Ireland)
ISBN(s): 0099475855, 9780099475859

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front coverMy Pal, Victor

Bertrand, Diane Gonzales

My Pal, Victor/Mi amigo, Víctor is a beautiful and insightful portrait of true friendship. The book is about two boys, Victor and Dominic, who enjoy a variety of typical activities including storytelling, baseball, riddles, swimming, roller coasters, coloring, fishing, and playing in the park. Victor tells the funniest jokes, swims better than a fish, loves the wildest amusement park rides, claps the loudest for his friend at baseball games, and above all accepts Dominic just as he is. The typicality of their relationship becomes something more profound when we learn that Victor is disabled and lives his open-hearted, fully active life from a wheelchair. The writing is unique and full of movement. For example, the author describes scary ghost tales as “heart-booming stories” in which even “goose bumps get scared.” The Spanish text is paralleled throughout and is just as exciting. A bilingual vocabulary list is included. The illustrations are bright, colorful and active, underscoring the author’’s message. All the elements of this book work together to provide children and adults with a story that is both heartwarming and thought provoking. 2004, Raven Tree Press, $16.95. Ages 5 up.
Reviewer: Michelle Negron Bueno (Children’s Literature)
ISBN(s): 0972019294, 9780972019293

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front coverThe Deaf Musicians

Seeger, Pete

Lee must leave his jazz band after his band mates and the bandleader notice that his piano playing just doesn’t sound right. His playing doesn’t sound right because Lee has lost his hearing. On his way home, he sees an advertisement for a school for the deaf. This opens up a whole new world for him as he meets new friends who use sign language to communicate. Soon, he is a member of a new band that uses sign language to play their instruments and sing. With colorful drawings and text, this book shows how what is considered by some to be a handicap can actually develop into something quite different. Although the setting may be a bit difficult for many younger ones to identify with, the story itself is easy to get involved in. This story could be useful for deaf awareness, vocabulary development, and putting words to sound. Fiction. Grades K-3. 2006, Putnam, Unpaged., $16.99. Ages 5 to 9.
Reviewer: Deborah Paratore (The Lorgnette)
ISBN(s): 039924316X

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading program info available on CLCD.)

front coverThe Blind Hunter

Rodanas, Kristina

Based on an African folktale, this subtle story speaks to the many ways of seeing. When a sighted hunter Muteye agrees to take a blind man Chirobo hunting, he thinks that the blind man can’t see anything and hence will catch nothing. But Chirobo senses a dangerous leopard by sound, smells the warthogs nearby, feels the earth shake with his hands and feet, and places his bird trap near the place where birds enter the water. When the two companions return to their traps, Chirobo’s holds a fat duck while Muteye’s holds a skinny quail. So Muteye switches the birds. Later, eager to continue the good conversations the two have had, Muteye asks, “Why do people fight?” and the old man answers with sadness that people fight because they take from each other what does not belong to them. “Just as you have done to me.” Muteye is stunned and returns the duck, asking how he can earn forgiveness. “By learning to see with your heart–as you have just done to me.” While the tale’s beautiful oil pencil-and-watercolor illustrations set the story in the great southern grassland regions of Africa, it is not identified by specific African location although the names are from the Shona language. This makes the tale less one with cultural significance, but perhaps more universal. As an exploration of the idea of using all of ones senses to “see,” and a story of behaving honorably, it succeeds in raising reader’s consciousness. 2003, Marshall Cavendish, $16.95. Ages 6 to 10.
Reviewer: Susan Hepler, Ph.D. (Children’s Literature)
ISBN(s): 0761451323, 9780761451327

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front coverCakes and Miracles: A Purim Tale

Goldin, Barbara Diamond

A favorite story first published in 1991, with artwork by Erika Weihs, has been slightly shortened, illustrated anew, and stylistically softened to show more compassion for Hershel’s blindness. Mother’s voice especially is not so sharp and the muted colors, curved lines, and close-up perspectives of the pictures convey a sense of comfort. Despite being sightless, Hershel’s imagination inspires him to create shapes out of cookie dough, winning him approval, the possibility of a productive future, and the ability to help his mother. A note at the end of the story adds information about Purim that the story lacks. In either version, this is essential for every Jewish holiday collection. Category: Holidays. 2010, Marshall Cavendish, 32 pp., $17.00. Ages 5 to 9.
Reviewer: Linda R. Silver (Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews)
ISBN(s): 9780761457015

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front coverFeatherless

Herrera, Juan Felipe

Tomasito is a young Hispanic boy with spina bifida who is attending a new school. Everyone wants to know why he’’s confined to a wheelchair. He often feels like a featherless bird that needs his freedom. He discovers he can experience freedom on the soccer field. Tomasito finds a true friend that believes in him and what he can do from a wheelchair. Bilingual children will enjoy the two languages in this book, along with the reassurance that moving is not so bad. Fiction. Grades 3-5. 2004, Children’s Book Press, 30p., $16.95. Ages 8 to 11.
Reviewer: Janie Barron (The Lorgnette)
ISBN(s): 0892391952, 9780892391950

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front coverLooking Out for Sarah

Lang, Glenna

This book is based on a true story about Sarah Gregory Smith and her guide dog, Perry. This book talks about how animals can help people with disabilities do extraordinary things. In the story, the narrator tells of ways that the black lab helps his blind master complete everyday tasks like go to the market, play in the park, take a train ride, and go to the post office. Sarah and Perry also take a special adventure, hiking from Boston to New York City to show the nation the wonderful capabilities that “helper dogs” for disabled people have. Lang narrates the story beautifully, as Perry would tell it. The illustrations she uses place an even greater focus on Perry. While all of the pages are warm and colorful and all of the other characters, such as Sarah and the school children wear bright clothes, Perry stands out from page to page. It is as if Lang wants the reader to be in Perry’s shoes, or paws, for a day and see all of the wonderful things he does for Sarah. Overall, this is a delightful children’s book, full of big, brightly illustrated pages that can teach children of all ages the advantages of our canine companions. 2001, Charlesbridge Publishing, $15.95. Ages 4 to 8.
Reviewer: Amanda Rosborough (Children’s Literature)
ISBN(s): 0881066478

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front coverKami and the Yaks

Stryer, Andrea Stenn

Kami, a young deaf boy living in the most mountainous region of Nepal, finds his family’s lost yaks; he does so by determination and courage, but also through keen observation. On the morning of a mountain-climbing trek involving his father and brother, the family’s ever-important animals are nowhere to be found. Because Kami knows their favorite spots, he takes off on his own to look for them. The illustrations aren’t done in typical primary colors. Instead, they better reflect the actual colors of the Himalayas, with browns, grays and lots of white. Kami’s red coat is a beacon in all the pictures, especially after a storm. The yaks are realistically drawn, with White Spot—the youngest and smallest, who becomes wedged between rocks—drawn as a gangly, awkward creature that is instantly lovable. The story never dwells on the roughness of life experienced as a Sherpa, such as nasty weather, living hand-to-mouth on climbers’ fees, or even Kami’s deafness. Instead, what are emphasized is Kami’s courage and perseverance and, ultimately, his success. Readers also learn about yaks, small-sized cattle with flowing white hair. An editor’s note at the end of the book provides a fuller explanation of Sherpas and Nepal. […]
Reviewer: Jodee Taylor (ForeWord Reviews)
ISBN(s): 9780977896103, 9780977896110

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front coverSaltypie : A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light

Tingle, Tim

This biography tells the story of a Choctaw Native American family during the last fifty years. The author begins with his recollections of his grandmother as she explains, after a bee has stung him, that it is “some kind of saltypie.” He recalls how his grandmother and her family moved from Oklahoma to Texas in 1915. After they moved into their house, his grandmother opened the door and a boy threw a stone at her. The author’s father, who was two years old at the time, saw the blood and called it “saltypie.” Later when the author is six years old, he discovers that his grandmother is blind. He learns that the term “saltypie is a way of dealing with trouble. You shrug it off. It helps you carry on.” In 1970, when he is in college, his grandmother has an eye transplant. The family all tell their special Choctaw stories in the waiting room until the doctor comes to tell them that their grandmother can now see. The next morning all thirty-two grandchildren and cousins line up for their grandmother to see them. Several pages following the story give a detailed historical account of the Choctow Nation, and the author expresses his philosophy concerning Native American people today. Realistic illustrations with warm and beautiful colors provide dramatic emphasis for the story. This heartfelt and thought-provoking story is a wonderful literary contribution to the legacy of Native American culture. 2010, Cinco Puntos Press, $17.95. Ages 6 to 9.
Reviewer: Vicki Foote (Children’s Literature)
ISBN(s): 9781933693675

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front coverLooking after Louis

Ely, Lesley

Louis is ‘not quite like’ the other children. He often stares into space, and when he is spoken to, he repeats what has been said to him. Louis has an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and the other children in his class work hard to understand him. When they are playing football, Louis likes to run about amongst the boys with his arms held high in the air. Sometimes this is irritating, but Sam twigs that Louis wants to join in, and he gears the game to Louis’s abilities. The children learn that each person has different needs, needs that must be met in diverse ways, and they accept Louis as he is. Individuality is central to this story. Each person is painted distinctively, showing us the importance of each individual, and the lively interaction of the children emphasises this, as do strong colours and vivid faces. There is also the realisation that children themselves can identify the needs of their mates, sometimes better than even the most sensitive teacher. There is an endnote about autism, but this book should also be useful in any primary classroom where there is a child with less specific learning difficulties. Category: 5-8 Infant/Junior. Rating: ***** (Unmissable). Frances Lincoln, 32pp, Ages 5 to 8.
Reviewer: Elizabeth Schlenther (Books for Keeps)
ISBN(s): 0807547468, 9780807547465

(Additional reviews, award info, and reading program info available on CLCD.)

front coverJust Because

Elliott, Rebecca

Since Scope’’s ‘In the Picture’ campaign, there has been more emphasis on showing children with disabilities in picture books, but still nowhere near enough. This book by a mother who knows all about disability is a remarkable creation. Using her own two children, Clemmie, who is severely disabled, and Toby, her younger brother, Elliott shows us just how close siblings can be and how little disability matters to a younger member of the family. Toby accepts that Clemmie will never walk or talk, ‘…cook macaroni, pilot a plane, juggle, or do algebra’, but he knows she is special, beautiful, like a Princess, accepting of his noise, and sometimes making him laugh. She doesn’’t like some things, like his drawings of pigeons and having her hair brushed, but she enjoys their pet ladybird because ‘he tickles her hands’. Toby likes her wheelchair; last week they ‘went to the moon on it’, and Clemmie accepts Toby just as he is too, even when he chases the cat and eats the crayons. And when there is a big storm, it is Clemmie who is brave and likes the noise and who helps Toby feel better. Particularly moving because these are real people in a real family, even though the bright and cheerful illustrations are of doll-like children, this story adds greatly to our understanding of how ‘normal’ living with a disabled child can be. With praise from both Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen, this is a book to be enjoyed both in the classroom and in the home. Category: Under 5s Pre-School/Nursery/Infant. Rating: 4 (Very Good). 2010, Lion, 32pp. Ages 0 to 4.
Reviewer: Elizabeth Schlenther (Books for Keeps)
ISBN(s): 9780745962672, 074596267X, 9780745962351

(Additional reviews and award info available on CLCD.)

front coverMy Brother Charlie

Peete, Holly Robinson

Charlie and Callie share a special bond as twins. They are alike yet different. As Callie tells the story about her brother who is two minutes older, she reveals that he has autism. In a sisterly, warmhearted manner, Callie provides her view of her brother as she tells about Charlie’s many special talents like the way he handles their dog, Harriett. She describes how Charlie’s world is different when he communicates; she tries to understand his differences with sisterly patience and love. Callie’’s story reveals the compassion and love of a family who values Charlie for who he is. They celebrate his growing list of accomplishments. From the story, the lines “”Charlie has autism. But autism doesn’t have Charlie”” are a part of the heart-rich and passionate theme. Illustrations warmly fill the pages of this loving story based on the author’s’ experiences. At the back of the book, the author’s’ intents are explained. This story helps to shed some light on autism and how one family faces the challenges and celebrates progresses. 2010, Scholastic Press/Scholastic Inc, $16.99. Ages 4 to 8.
Reviewer: Carrie Hane Hung (Children’s Literature)
ISBN(s): 9780545094665

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front coverWe Go in a Circle

Anderson, Peggy Perry

This uplifting tale is relayed through the eyes of a racehorse. When the horse is the fastest, strongest horse on the track, he feels special and important. But after his leg is injured, he must learn to live a different kind of life in a new place. Thankfully, the horse is well cared for. After being combed and brushed one day he is fitted with an unusual saddle, and a boy who arrives in a wheelchair is placed on his back. A walk around the ring makes both the young rider and the horse feel special and important. With economy of words and effective, colorful drawings, the author conveys the circle of hope drawn by the involvement of horses and volunteers who offer freedom for the disabled through a special form of physical therapy. Some of the disabled cannot walk, talk or even see, but with “hippo therapy” they are able to break through the confines of their physical limitations. An encounter at a therapy ranch in Oklahoma, one of many such ranches in operation throughout the country, inspired this book. It is there Peggy Anderson meets a twelve-year-old boy who has been riding since he was eighteen months old. Hunter is an amazing example of the progress possible through this type of therapy as the rocking motion of the horse relaxes tight muscles and strengthens weak ones. A concluding note explains more about the program. Hopefully, this book will enlighten readers, produce new volunteers, open fresh avenues of hope for some and rewarding possibilities for all. 2004, Houghton Mifflin, $15.00. Ages 4 to 8.
Reviewer: Francine Thomas (Children’s Literature)
ISBN(s): 0618447563, 9780618447565, 9780547772882, 0547772882

(Award info and reading program info available on CLCD.)


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