Read Harder: A Children’s Book That Centers a Disabled Character But Not Their Disability
UNICEF estimates that 93 million children have disabilities worldwide. Yet the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s most recent study found that only 126 out of the 4,034 children’s books they received from 2019 had a main character with a disability. This disparity is shocking, to say the least. There is an astonishing lack of children’s books with disabled main characters, especially #OwnVoices books. Unfortunately, these books also seem to lack the marketing funds publishers give to other books. However, that has begun to change in the last few years. Many of the books listed below are debut novels or picture books that have been published in the last two years. These books for the Read Harder Challenge show disabled children enjoying science, flying kites, playing baseball, and being the kids that they are. They’re fun, beautiful, and desperately needed books.
Picture Books With Disabled Main Characters
Too Sticky! by Jen Malia and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
Author Jen Malia explores the joy of science in this super fun #OwnVoices picture book with an autistic main character. Holly loves science experiments, but she doesn’t love stickiness, whether the sticky texture comes from yummy maple syrup on her pancakes, or she imagines it coating the pine trees on the way to school. She’s worried about the class’s science experiment for the day—making slime. However, once science time arrives, she realizes it’s a lot of fun to make slime, especially when she adds enough glue so that the slime doesn’t stick on her hands. The illustrations are oozing with delight and texture. If you have kids, this is an excellent book to read before making your own slime. If you don’t have kids, this is still a delightful read that will have you thinking about textures and science experiments.
Mommy Sayang by Rosana Sullivan
This adorable picture book by Pixar director, artist, and writer Rosana Sullivan shows the powerful bond between mother and daughter. Sullivan bases the book on her childhood. Aleeya lives in a small Malaysian village—or kampung—and loves spending every day with her mommy. The two pray together, cook together, water the garden together, and even play together in Aleeya’s dreams. When Aleeya’s mommy falls ill, Aleeya becomes sad and lonely and brings her a hibiscus flower to help her feel better (I cry on this page every time I read it). When Mommy sayang is feeling better, the two spend their day together as before. This book is so sweet, and the simple prose is as engaging as the illustrations.
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan and Christine Krömer
This picture book takes place in Pakistan during the festival of Basant, a kite-flying celebration. Malik, a wheelchair user, has been practicing his kite flying on the roof of his house with his cherished kite, Falcon. He captures kite after kite, including that of the bully next door, and becomes the King of Basant. When the bully tries to take a little girl’s kite, Malik steps in to help her. This is a thrilling picture book about the joy of kite flying and how to intercede when someone is being bullied.
The Amazingly Awesome Amani by Jamiyl Samuels, Tracy-Ann Samuels, and Nidhom
The Amani in this picture book is based on the authors’ son, who is autistic and has Mixed Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder. While Amani has few words during the day, at night, in his dreams, he becomes a superhero. Amani fights crime and defends good, and his confidence at night as a superhero helps him become more confident during the day. The illustrations and text are both fun and engaging.
Middle Grade Books With Disabled Main Characters
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen is Sarah Kapit’s #OwnVoices debut novel about an autistic girl who just wants to play baseball, except her mother doesn’t think she can handle it. When one of Vivy’s teachers asks the students to write a letter to someone, 11-year-old Vivy chooses to write to VJ Capello, a major league baseball player. Several years earlier, VJ taught Vivy how to throw a knuckleball during a chance encounter, and now he’s become her idol. A local coach notices her talent and invites her to join the team, but it’s a lot more challenging than it should be as Vivy faces bullying from her teammates. Writing letters helps her deal with her anxiety. This uniquely told epistolary novel is fun, empowering, and touching. It’s inspired by Kapit’s childhood as an autistic child who loved baseball. Kapit’s second book will be out in March and it looks adorable—The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family. The two sister main characters are both autistic.
What Stars are Made of by Sarah Allen
Prepare to be delighted by this debut #OwnVoices novel about a girl who loves science almost as much as she loves her family. Like the author, 12-year-old Libby Monroe has Turner Syndrome. Libby is both excited and worried when her older sister becomes pregnant. Her sister and brother-in-law are struggling financially, and babies are expensive, and she worries that if the baby has a health problem, that will cause even more financial strain. Meanwhile, Libby decides to enter a science contest with a project about Cecelia Payne, the first person to discover what stars are made of. She’s determined to get Cecelia Payne into science textbooks and, if she wins, she’ll give all the money to her sister to help with finances. This is a sweet and beautiful read.
Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
This #OwnVoices debut also celebrates science. Twelve-year-old Nova and her big sister Bridget both love science and especially space. They’re eagerly looking forward to watching the Challenger launch and seeing the first teacher go to space. But then Bridget disappears, and Nova moves into a new foster home, where the family dismisses her because of her nonverbal autism, a problem Nova also experiences with her teachers at school (though she has an awesome special education class). Only Bridget understood her, but she doesn’t know when, or if, Bridget will return. She writes letters to her sister nonetheless, describing her excitement for the Challenger launch. The knowledge of the Challenger explosion builds a layer of dread as Nova becomes more and more excited, but the ending, while it will wreck you, is also poignant and lovely.
After Zero by Christina Collins
In After Zero, another #OwnVoices debut, a series of secrets begins to slowly converge for Elise, who has selective mutism. Elise sees things that she knows can’t be real, like her teacher’s stuffed raven slowly coming to life. She’s told no one of these moments. Her mother also has secrets from her past that she hasn’t told Elise. She keeps Elise isolated, and only recently has Elise been allowed to go to school. Her mother also forbids Elise to go into certain areas of the house. When Elise’s mother leaves her bedroom door unlocked one day, Elise slips inside and discovers secrets about her past that must be spoken. This is a beautiful novel that entwines magical elements with the everyday.
Lila and Hadley by Kody Keplinger
Animal lovers will enjoy Lila and Hadley, an #OwnVoices novel about a girl who finds solace and friendship with an abandoned dog. After her mom is sent to jail, Hadley, who is blind, is sent to live with her sister, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years. She leaves all her friends behind, but at the animal shelter where she volunteers, she befriends a dog named Lila. She decides to foster Lila and teach her a few basic commands so that she can be adopted. But Lila resists any training. Meanwhile, Hadley’s also having trouble learning to use her cane. This is a moving novel about friendship and dealing with anger and the joy of pets. And guess what, the dog doesn’t die!
Meow or Never by Jazz Taylor
Avery Williams, like the author, has anxiety. When her father saves enough money for a new house, Avery moves away from her friends and starts a new school. If that weren’t panic-inducing enough, Nic—her crush at the new school—overhears her singing and insists she try out for the school musical. She winds up landing the lead role. One day when Avery is hiding backstage, she discovers a stray cat, which she names Phantom. When Avery’s anxiety gets to be too much, she turns to Phantom to help her destress. And there’s a lot to be stressed about—the play, her feelings for Nic, and telling her father that she likes girls. I have yet to read this, but I’m so excited to see an #OwnVoices middle grade book published with a Black lesbian protagonist who has anxiety. And there’s a cute cat!
For more articles about disability representation, Book Riot’s Grace Lapointe has this excellent discussion on the alienating lack of disability representation in books. Hopefully, publishing will address this lack by publishing more books like these ten I’ve listed here. If you’re looking for YA books with disability representation, check out this list by Kelly Jensen, as well as this shorter list of children’s books by Jamie Herndon.