Representation in books matters. But not only that, representation in good books matters! This list of picture books not only present stories of children with disabilities, or “differently abled,” if you prefer, in a positive light, but are beautifully illustrated and rise above didacticism. As you spend time reading these books with your children, make sure to start a conversation about what it is like to live with a disability, and how ableism impacts all children, and not just those with a disability. Teaching Tolerance has a great resource to learn more about ableism.
Every collection of diverse picture books must include a wide range of children with differing skills and abilities and you”ll understand I haven’t been able to cover every disability on this list. I have a separate list of children’s books featuring characters on the autism spectrum, which some people may or may not consider a disability. For older children, this list of books with neurodiversity may be helpful. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Look Up! by Jung Jin-Ho. A wheelchair-bound girl gazes over her balcony onto the sidewalk below. She calls to the passersby to “Look up!,” but they ignore her cries until one young boy looks up and then lies down in order to look up at her. This is such an unusual and interesting book. Kids will love talking about both the perspective of the girl and the people on the sidewalk, as well as how being aware of our surroundings will help us see how to be generous to others.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best was also one of our favorite picture books of the year back when it came out. This book about a blind girl, Zulay, is anything but didactic. Zulay enjoys going to school with her diverse group of friends, but what she doesn’t like are the special lessons she must have in order to learn how to use her cane. When news of field day arrives, the possibility of participating in a race is just the motivation Zulay needs.
A Boy and His Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz. Author Rabinowitz, whom Time magazine called “the Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation”, struggled as a boy with a speech impediment. He wanted desperately to overcome his stutter and speak like everyone else so he makes a promise to a jaguar at the zoo. In college he learns how to control his stutter but it isn’t until he finds a way to help the jaguars and other wildlife that he feels whole. This was a Schneider Family Book Award Winner.
The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen. Not all books about disabilities need to be contemporary stories! In this fairy tale-like story, the only daughter of the emperor in Peking is born blind. Hwei Ming’s father feels great sadness at his daughter’s blindness and he promises a reward to anyone who can bring her sight. Many men come to try, but they all fail to help Hwei Ming see. One day, an old man with a mystical seeing stick enters the city gates. The old man teaches not just Hwei Ming, but her father, how to “see.” The glossy, embossed illustrations become more and more colorful as the story progresses. Lovely.
Just Because by Rebecca Elliot. A boy describes all the things that his sister, who is strapped into a wheelchair, enjoys or does not enjoy. After each item, he explains, “Just because.” He doesn’t use her disability as an excuse or a reason, he simply accepts her for who she is. Colorful illustrations show the two siblings engaging in everyday activities and pretend play.
The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin. This is such an interesting and unusual book. There are in fact, no colors – or rather, no colors in the way seeing people think about colors. Each page is black, but the words and textures invite the reader to experience seeing colors as a blind person might experience them.
Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis. When I started reading this book I wondered if I had checked out the right book, which speaks powerfully about its message. Simple text, such as “Susan swings… Susan swims … Susan reads…” etc. is accompanied by the appropriate picture depicting Susan enjoying everyday life activities. We are given the entire book to learn about Susan and to identify with her, seeing her as “just like us”. The image of Susan in a wheelchair at the end reinforces that living with a disability does not … well… disable someone.
My Friend Isabelle is a sweet book by Eliza Woloson. Isabelle has Down Syndrome but even though Charlie does not, the two are friends. Charlie narrates the story and describes how the pair like to do a lot of the same activities, but they are also different kids with their own interests and personalities. The reader does not learn about Isabelle’s Down Syndrome until the end of the book; the focus of the book is on the children’s friendship.
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen. A young girl describes her anticipation surrounding the upcoming birth of her new brother. After spending time listing all the activities she looks forward to, like kicking a ball, going on a Safari, and more, she reveals that her father has told her that her brother might not be able to do everything as soon as she thinks. Her brother will be born with Down Syndrome. But then the father and daughter discuss all the amazing things her brother will be able to do.
Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco is a well known picture book about a girl with dyslexia. Trisha struggles with reading and writing, and desperately wants to learn. Her difficulties are compounded by taunts she endures from other children. She finally connects with a compassionate teacher, Mr. Falker, who sets her on the path to reading and teaches her how to see her gifts.
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah inspired an earlier book list: books that will inspire your kids to follow their dreams. Emmanuel was born in Ghana with only one leg. Most children with disabilities didn’t go to school, but Emanuel was determined and hopped two miles each way to attend school. After his mother died, he decided to honor her last words by proving “that being disabled does not mean being unable.” He completed the astounding feat of bicycling 400 miles in 10 days. To say the least, Emmanuel’s is an inspiring story, and Thompson and Qualls do great justice to his accomplishments. An author’s note describes his continuing work and successes on behalf of disabled persons in Ghana.
The Pirate of Kindergarten by George Ella Lyon. Ginny loves books, and reading circle. But she has difficulty reading because she sees everything double. After the nurse discovers her condition during the school’s vision screening day, the doctor prescribes an eye patch and Ginny embraces her new role as the pirate of kindergarten. While this is a story about a temporary disability it will help kids look at how differences come in all varieties and to embrace the uniqueness of all children.
Moses Sees a Play. I once had the great pleasure of seeing a performance given by the National Theater of the Deaf, and many theaters also provide interpreters during specific performances so non-hearing people can enjoy the magic of live theater. Moses is a student a a school for deaf children. After seeing a performance by The Little Theater of the Deaf, the class decides to put on a show of their own. Included in the book are wonderful descriptions of the performance action and how the actors use their bodies to convey meaning. In addition, the book is also written in sign language, and includes diagrams of signs, which teachers and parents can use to practice with their children. There are several books about Moses, for further reading.
Kami and the Yaks by Andrea Stenn Stryer. Kami lives with his Sherpa family on the high slopes of the Himalayan mountains. Kami tends to the yaks, and he is deaf. One day he blows his whistle for the yaks, but they do not come. As a storm approaches, he finds the yaks, but one of them is injured. Kami runs back to fetch help. His father, unable to understand because Kami cannot use words, becomes upset that Kami has returned without the yaks. But Kami is not deterred and he communicates with gestures until his brother figures out what is going on and the three of them rush to rescue the yaks. Gorgeous illustrations!
Back to Front and Upside Down. The class is making cards for their principal but Stan has trouble forming letters and his handwriting is all mushy and unreadable. He feels discouraged but doesn’t know how to ask for help. Many parents children who struggle greatly with handwriting and this sweet book emphasizes the importance of getting help for one’s struggles and giving oneself permission to take the time necessary to learn and accomplish one’s tasks.
Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Patrice Barton. Zara has a dog named Moose. Moose loves Zara so much he wants to go with her everywhere and follows her to school. Moose is not a service dog, but others see his potential as a good companion and Moose goes through the training to become a therapy dog, who can be welcomed at places like schools. Although Zara is in a wheelchair, the story isn’t about her physical challenges, it is about the joy of friendship with a furry friend.
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan. Malik is looking forward to flying his kite during the festival of spring. From his wheelchair on a rooftop, he flies it vigorously, battling the neighborhood bully. After the celebration, his compassion spurs him to help a girl with a kite escape from the same bully.
Can I Play, Too? by Mo Willems. Do worms, elephants and the porcine count as children? you be the judge. When I started reading books for this list, I didn’t realize there was an Elephant and Piggie book about children learning to play with others who are differently abled. What happens when Piggie and Gerald play ball with a snake? As you might guess, a lot of learning and understanding. Great fun.
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