I’ve been asked several times for a list of books about special needs, or with characters that are differently abled. It took me a bit of time because I wanted to find children’s books about disabilities that were not didactic. Didactic books, or books that just simply explain a disability without a good story, are b-o-r-i-n-g, and as a consequence teach nothing. My kids are fortunate to attend a school in which there is an emphasis on teaching kids to value the uniqueness of all children and I have found that reading picture books such as these at home is an excellent way to continue the conversation with them.
I focused on diverse fiction books about special needs for this list, but threw in a few picture book biographies, too. Of course I haven’t been able to cover every type of special need. If you have read any picture books about special needs you’d like people to know about, please leave your recommendation in the comments. The more the merrier. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Can I Play, Too? by Mo Willems. 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, lots of giggles and a lot of learning and understanding. Great fun.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best was also one of our favorite picture books of 2015. I love it when a book is well-written, entertaining and teaches my son something new. Fortunately, 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 her special lessons 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 is the 2015 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 blindness causes her father great sadness 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.
My Brother Charlie. Callie, Charlie’s twin sister, narrates this story about the similarities and differences between her and her autistic brother. I’ve always liked Shane W. Evans’ artwork and his illustrations are a lovely accompaniment to Callie’s description of her brother as his own person, who we would all be lucky to know.
Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis. When I started reading this book I wondered if I had checked out the right book. 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 special need, 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!
Ian’s Walk. Julie wants to go for a walk to the local pond to feed the ducks. She looks forward to spending time with her sister, but although she is patient, she has not yet learned to fully appreciate her brother’s behavior on walks, which is so different from hers. After Ian wanders away, Julie recalls her observations in order to put herself in his position and find him. A nice book for discussing how autistic children experience the sensory world, and I appreciated the complexity in Julie’s feelings about her brother.
Bonus book about special needs #17:
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.
More book lists you will enjoy:
- Books that will inspire kids to change the world
- Books to inspire kids to follow their dreams
- Picture books to teach empathy and compassion
- Picture books about social justice
- Picture books about refugees
- Books that teach kids to combat racism
- Banned books your kids should read