Until the last few years, finding YA books with disabled characters could be a real challenge. Not only were they few and far between, but those that did exist could too easily fall into representing disabled characters as either helpless or inspirational (or both all at once). Few #OwnVoices stories were being told, and few recognitions went to showcasing the books that told stories of disabled characters well, meaning those that did often fell under the radar. It wasn’t until 2003 that a specific award was created for honoring disability representation in books for young readers, thanks to Katherine Schneider. She began the award because it was a librarian who changed her life as a young blind person and helped her find books—and she wished to pay this forward for future generations. It’s in part thanks to her work, as well as the work of champions of inclusivity, that finding YA books with disabled characters has become a bit easier.
The work isn’t done, of course. Some disabilities are showcased more than others, and there are absolutely still books that offer representation that does more harm than good. As more #OwnVoices authors share their stories, though, we’re being treated to dynamic, well-rendered characters living incredible stories where they get to be the hero—and not “just because” they have a disability.
Find below 20 outstanding YA books with disabled characters. Although not all of these books are #OwnVoices (in part because unless an author is forthright in sharing something personal about themselves, you can’t always verify disability), they offer a solid array of portrayals of living with a disability. Fiction and nonfiction are included, as are as many genres as possible. But because of the short nature of the list and desire to offer as wide an assortment of disability experiences as possible, not everything is represented here. Instead, consider this an introduction to finding some of the best books out there featuring disability in YA books.
Although mental illness is absolutely a disability, I’ve limited inclusion of the books featuring those characters in this list. YA books about mental illness continue to be a passion of mine as an author/editor of one myself, and the list linked to will bring you 50 recommended titles.
This list is limited to YA books, but a couple of other books I cannot recommend enough for YA readers include CeCe Bell’s middle grade graphic novel El Deafo, a thoughtful and beautiful comic about being Deaf, and Keah Brown’s adult memoir in essays The Pretty One—we do not see enough people of color with disabilities having the opportunities to tell their stories and share their voices, and hopefully this book brings more of those much-needed stories to readers.
A couple of additional resources that will serve readers well when it comes to understanding disability and the importance of #OwnVoices in telling disability stories include Disability in Kid Lit (which hasn’t been updated since early 2018 but remains a rich resource) and the regular #CripLit chats hosted by Alice Wong and Nicola Griffin as part of the Disability Visibility Project.
This memoir follows Kamara as she experiences total upheaval from her small town in Sierra Leone when rebel attackers descended. Though she tried to flee, she never made it to the neighboring town. Instead, she was captured and had her hands cut off. She escaped and survived, making her way to Freetown, hoping to find a a way to freedom. The book is about how she made her way from such a tragic situation to living in Toronto and how it is she navigates her new life without her hands.
This voice-driven novel follows Macy as she navigates her own tumultuous home life—one with an inconsistent mother, a father in prison, and a younger brother in the foster care system because of repeat CPS visits—with understanding why it is her best friend has been pulling away from her. These are teens living hard, hard lives and still managing to get up every day and go through the motions, much as it leaves an impact on them physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Macy has a psychological, potentially neurological, disorder that impacts her daily life and the relationships with her best friend and family.
Told in dual timelines, this story follows a girl named Sophie who everyone believes is the reason that Mina, her best friend, died. Sophie is a recovering drug addict and rumors are she set up the drug deal that went bad and led to Mina’s death. But Sophie knows that’s not the truth, and she and Mina shared a secret no one could know. This thriller features not only a bisexual main character, but Sophie struggles with chronic pain as well as challenges relating to her addiction.
In this historical story about a romp through Europe by notoriously roguish Monty, we’re accompanied on the adventure by best friend Percy, who lives with epilepsy. This trip is about Monty and avoiding responsibility to be thrust upon him by his disapproving father, and it’s also about the deep crush Monty nurses for Percy.
This book goes quite a bit down into the backlist, but it’s one readers will want to revisit—or pick up for the first time. Sam sets out on a cross country trip as he works to discover more about his family, about his future with romance, and about where and how his inherited Tourette’s Syndrome, which came to be part of who he is. This character-driven novel is humorous, as much as it’s a look at a disability too easily mocked in popular culture.
Burcaw’s first memoir-in-essays will have you rolling with laughter as he shares his exploits, his awkward situations, and his life with spinal muscular atrophy with honesty. Once you discover his voice in this book, make sure you pick up the second memoir-in-essays he wrote called Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse.
Stories about the teens who don’t leave their hometowns after high school fascinate me, as it’s such under explored territory. Vanna never planned to get stuck in her small New Mexico town, but it happened—and that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. The disease, which has the potential to be genetic, is now something Savanna considers as a possibility for her future, as she helps to take care of her father and carve a life for herself.
When Zayneb, who is the only Muslim in her school, is suspended for confronting her teacher, she heads to Qatar for an early spring break at her uncle’s home. She’s going to try out being a nicer version of herself. Then she meets Adam, who has just been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He’s keeping the diagnoses a secret from his father, who is grieving the death of his mother.
When Viola returns home from a trip abroad, she’s finding herself becoming extremely light-sensitivity. She’s diagnosed with an allergy to the sunlight, and her parents immediately go into overdrive, shielding her away from any potential exposure. This even means screen time is limited—a big challenge, especially when she begins to fall for Josh. So she’ll do the only thing she can think to do: rebel.
Though this book falls more closely to middle grade than YA, I’ve included it because it deals with something so rarely seen: synesthesia. Mia, the main character, sees color, hears color, and reads color. She’s kept this a secret, but when she can no longer hide what’s going on, she learns this mingling of her senses has a name.
Marcelo, the main character, has an autism-like disorder that isn’t named directly in the book but is rather shown to the readers through his actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Although he’s always attended a special school, the summer after his junior year, his father insists he get to know “the real world,” and forces Marcelo to work in the mailroom at his law firm. It’s here Marcelo not only makes friends, but uncovers a real world problem that he needs to solve.
Maggie lost her sight six months ago, but rather than desire the pity of her classmates, she instead cranks up the notch on being rebellious—until a school prank goes too far and she ends up with her very own probation officer. Where she believes her future has been taken from her because of this, suddenly, when she’s able to see again, even if it’s just one person, it helps her understand that she still has a big, bright future ahead of her. Except, when she discovers the real reason she’s able to see this boy and only this boy, she has to pull that belief even further to the forefront of her mind.
Amara and Nolan are never alone and never apart from one another. Every time Nolan blinks, he’s transported to another world—Amara’s mind—where he has felt powerless. But when he learns he can potentially control her mind, which brings with it not only anger and frustration for Amara, but potentially dangerous consequences for both of them. Both main characters are physically disabled in this science fiction book.
Told in alternating voices, this story follows Autumn, a popular girl wrestler who struggles with a learning disability that makes reading hard, and Adonis, a shy boy who has no legs and uses a wheelchair. Adonis is a great reader, and he knows he can help Autumn out…just as he also knows that she’d be a great help to him with his biggest secret.
Bo has a reputation and a family that has one, too. But she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her or of them. Agnes is a by-the-rules girl who never stays out late and believes that her parents are just being protective because she’s blind. Despite how different the two girls are, they become fast friends—and when Bo shows up in the middle of the night desperate to run away from her life (and the police), Agnes joins her.
When she moves halfway across the country before her senior year of high school, Maya is upset to be leaving her Deaf school for a public one. While Maya has set huge goals for herself, including going into the medical field, her new teachers don’t have the same beliefs in her as she does. Beau, student body president, becomes smitten with Maya, learning ASL so he can pursue her, and while she’s hesitant about their relationship, she lets herself get involved. Given the chance for a cochlear implant, Maya passes it by—leaving her relationship with Beau strained, as he cannot understand why she’d make such a choice.
Told in verse, this book follows Veda, who is a classical dance prodigy in India, on her way to fame. But when she’s in an accident that leaves her as a below-knee amputee, suddenly her life is in a tailspin. Can she dance again? But she carries onward, starting back at the beginning, until she meets Govinda, who helps her reconnect with her life, with him, and with the world around her.
There are very few characters in YA—and in fiction more broadly—who have Crohn’s Disease, so Frank’s novel in verse is a much-needed look at the illness (side note: my upcoming YA anthology, Body Talk, due out in Fall 2020, features an essay from author Kara Thomas about living with this challenging, painful disease). Told through the voices of Chess and Shannon, this novel in verse is about two girls dealing with Crohn’s Disease, one who has been working with the illness for a long time and one who, after an unfortunate incident with a boy she was beginning to like, is newly diagnosed.
This much needed, vital anthology featuring disabled characters by disabled authors includes stories from authors like Keplinger, Stork, and Duyvis named above, but also Heidi Heilig, Dhonielle Clayton, Kayla Whaley, and more.
Julia sees a slur about her best friend on the wall of her school, The Kingston School for the Deaf, and she decides to cover over it with graffiti. But her “best friend” tells on her, causing her to get kicked out of the school. Her parents decide to send her to a mainstream school in the suburbs, where she’s the only Deaf student. Wanting to find her way, Julia decides to take up graffiti again anywhere she can. Then she discovers there’s someone else tagging her work, and suddenly, there’s a turf war.