The current emphasis on inclusion and diversity in books means that today's middle grade readers have a much wider selection of books featuring disabled protagonists than did readers in the past. This is great news, although more books are welcome!
Our list of children's novels featuring physically disabled characters is a mix of contemporary stories, historical fiction and graphic novels that give voice to a wide range of experiences as characters journey towards harnessing their strengths and standing up for themselves in their communities. Many of the books (but not all) are by authors who have lived experience as a disabled person.
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WINK by Rob Harrell
Harrell's tender story about a boy dealing with a rare eye cancer is peppered with fantastic illustrations. Seventh grader, Ross, is worried about how cancer will change his body, as well as the way others see him. He wears a cowboy hat to disguise the permanent wink the cancer has caused. He also feels anger at his condition and at the friend who abandoned him. But Ross's story isn't depressing, Harrell's writing is amusing and readers, no matter what their medical history, will relate to Ross. Ages 9 and up.
INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS (series) by Dusti Bowling
This funny and moving book is fantastic. Aven Green and her family move from Kansas to Arizona, where her dad has taken a job as the manager of a western theme park. Aven was born without any arms but that hasn't stopped her from accomplishing anything–she just does it with her feet! Aven narrates her own tale with a humorous, clever and truth-telling eye. With the help of her new friends, she sets out to solve a mystery and learn the secrets of Stagecoach Park. Ages 9 and up.
ROLL WITH IT (series) by Jamie Sumner
Ellie loves to bake! Her cerebral palsy means her mom is a bit overprotective, and that she has to spend more time than she would like with doctors. Ellie's grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease and so Ellie and her mom move in with her grandparents to help out. Starting a new school means Ellie finally finds some good friends and feels like she fits in somewhere. Roll With It is a marvelous book, tackling important themes, with good humor and likable characters. Ages 9 and up.
HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS by Merrie Haskell
Aspiring author Princess Tilda is an independent-minded princess who has never even considered slaying dragons because of her disfigured foot. However, her cousin, Ivo, wishes to steal her kingdom and she ends up fleeing her home. The ensuing adventure involves magic, capture, a menacing Blue-beard character, and (of course) dragon slaying. Ages 9 and up.
OUT OF MY MIND (series) by Sharon Draper
Melody is an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy. She has never spoken and can perform almost no physical movement. The school and doctors claim she is also mentally disabled but her mother insists Melody is intelligent. Her mother is right. Melody has a photographic memory and is smarter than any of the other kids. Melody narrates her story, sharing her frustrations and triumphs, and when she gets a communication device, others can finally appreciate her for who she is, not for who she is not. Ages 9 and up
DOG DRIVEN by Terry Lynn Johnson
14-year-old McKenna has Stargardt disease (a juvenile form of macular degeneration) but she's kept this hidden from her family because her sister has already lost her sight to the disease and McKenna doesn't want to lose her autonomy. She's hoping to keep her secret long enough to compete in a days-long dog sled race that raises awareness for Stargardt disease. Needless to say, this is a risky endeavor and Johnson's fast-paced, suspenseful book highlights the challenges McKenna faces, not just in the race, but as a teen learning how to identify as someone with a disability. Ages 10 and up.
THE CHANCE TO FLY by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz
Nat's passion is musical theater. Now that her family has moved to New Jersey, she finally has the chance to audition for the musical, Wicked. Neither of her parents are totally behind this–her father wants her to keep up with wheelchair racing. Nat gets a part in the show, makes new friends and learns what it's like to finally be on the stage. Author and Tony-award winning actress, Ali Stroker was the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway. Ages 9 and up.
THE WINDEBY PUZZLE: HISTORY AND STORY by Lois Lowry
Lowry introduces her book with facts around the discovery of a 2,000-year-old bog body in Northern Germany that inspired her book. She gives historical, scientific and archaeological background to set the context for her two intersecting narratives. In the first part of the book, Lowry imagines the life of an Iron-Age girl and how her life's journey may have led her to the same end as the bog body. After the bog body was DNA tested and revealed to be a boy, Lowry wrote the second narrative from the disabled boy's perspective. A fascinating and unique reading experience. Lowry also includes photographs. Ages 10 and up.
HUMMINGBIRD by Natalie Lloyd
Olive has osteogenesis imperfecta, "fragile bone disease," (as does author Natalie Lloyd) and is happy that she has finally convinced her protective parents to let her attend public school, rather than continue homeschooling. She and her new friends learn of a legendary magic hummingbird that grants wishes and Olive is determined to find it. However, as her journey continues she learns more about what she would actually wish for, should she find the elusive bird. Ages 8 and up.
MY AUNT IS A MONSTER by Reimena Yee
In this fun graphic novel, legally blind Safia Haziz goes to live with her aunt, Lady Whimsy, "the World’s Greatest Adventurer." When Lady Whimsy's rival comes back on to the scene, Whimsy and Safia head out on an exciting adventure of their own. Delightful! Ages 8 and up.
AIR by Monica Roe
Emmie is a WCMX athlete, who can do amazing tricks in her wheelchair. She is saving up to purchase a new wheelchair by running an online store. She hits a snag when she has an accident at school and the principal assigns an aide to help her get around school. Emmie starts to feel like her agency is being taken from her and she is determined to assert herself. Ages 10 and up.
YOU DON'T KNOW EVERYTHING, JILLY P. by Alex Gino
Jilly P. is learning about how society doesn't treat individuals equally and how she can be part of the solution. She befriends a fellow fantasy book fan, Profound, who is deaf and Black. When Jilly's sister is born deaf she starts to learn about Deaf culture and how her sister's whiteness makes her different that Profound. Her Black aunt encourages her to confront racism, even though her parents want to ignore racial tensions, both in the family and in society. Jilly is an eager student and is a positive role model for kids to learn how to support marginalized people. Ages 8 and up.
BRACED by Alyson Gerber
Braced is based on Gerber's own experience growing up with scoliosis. Seventh grader, Rachel, is an enthusiastic soccer player, but this year her doctor tells her she must wear a corrective brace for her scoliosis for 23 hours a day. Understandably, she is devastated by this. Rachel's journey to acceptance of her condition is touching and relatable as she works through relationships with her classmates and mother. An excellent read. Ages 9 and up.
SHOW ME A SIGN (series) by Ann Clare LeZotte
In 1805, Mary Lambert lives in a community where everyone speaks sign language and a quarter of the population is deaf. One day, a young man arrives in the village hoping to research the reason for the high rate of deafness. Mary narrates the story and her observations of the interactions between the English, Black, Irish, and Wampanoag peoples, as well as on racism, prejudice and ableism are perceptive and thought-provoking. The author's endnote gives historical background on the town of Chilmark and Martha's Vineyard are fascinating. Ages 9 and up.
EL DEAFO by Cece Bell
This graphic novel memoir is narrated by Cece, who loses her hearing due to spinal meningitis. A very funny and charming book about the experiences, imaginings and wishes of a Deaf girl. Although the story will help hearing kids to see challenges of the Deaf, they will also see similarities with their own experiences growing up. Ages 8 and up.
ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman
This historical fiction tale set 16th century England, follows the fortunes of Meggy Swann who has come to London to meet her father, an alchemist. However, her father doesn't want her because she's a girl and uses crutches to walk. Like Karen Cushman's more famous heroine in Catherine, Called Birdy, Meggy won't accept her fate willingly and instead uses her inner resources to survive the dirty, rough and rowdy streets of London. Excellent. Ages 10 and up.
SWAN LAKE: QUEST FOR THE KINGDOMS by Rey Terciero, illustrated by Megan Kearney
In Bloom Kingdom, Princess Odette longs to study ballet, but she is cursed to take the form of a swan during the day. When she meets Princess Dillie (who has a prosthetic leg) of Rotbart Kingdom, the new friends decide to find a way to break the curse. During their adventure they are joined by Prince Siegfried of Montrose Kingdom, who is on his own quest to prove that despite not living up to traditional masculine virtues, he is good enough to rule. Ages 9 and up.