I continue to spend a lot of time trying to find books (and comics) which have disabled characters and these are seven of the best for primary school age kids. They cover a range of characters and impairments. I’d say they’d suit roughly ages 5-8. These are a bit too long or complicated for Molly (age 4) but have been good for Max (now 8) and some are still interesting for Ben (age 10). Let me know if you know of any other books with disabled characters that you love!
I have put online shop links by each one.
Buy I Am Not A Label by Cerrie Burnell, Lauren Baldo from Bookshop.org here
Buy A Kids Book About Disabilities by Kristine Napper here
Buy Stephen Hawking by Isabel Sanchez Vegara, Matt Hunt here
Buy Don’t Call Me Special by Pat Thomas, Lesley Harker here
Buy Not So Different by Shane Burcaw, Matt Carr here
Buy The Girl Who Thought in Pictures by Julia Filey Mosca, Daniel Rieley here
Buy Department of Ability comic by White, Scrivens, Jones here
I have spent a lot of time trying to find books which have disabled characters and these are ten of the best. They cover a range of characters and impairments. My daughter Molly (age 4) loves all of these but they’re probably a bit too young for my sons Max (age 8) and Ben (age 10). Some of them are quite old and only available secondhand. Some are published in the UK and some are from America. Let me know if you have any other books with disabled characters that you love.
I have put Waterstones or Amazon links where I can, but of course some of them will be available from your local bookshop (you could try my favourite one here)
I have been reading even more books than usual to Ben during lockdown (or whatever we’re meant to call this period now). We have been choosing longer books and taking a week or two to get through them. Max often listens too.
We have just finished Wonder by R.J. Palacio which is about a boy, August, who is ten years old, has facial differences and starts a new school. It’s about how people react to the way he looks and how he makes new friends. Some parts are told from the viewpoint of his sister and his school friends. A lot of it is about his relationship with his parents, how he feels about his appearance and how he manages other people’s behaviour. It’s all the stuff that parents typically worry about when they have children who are different, or actually probably just all parents.
I make a concerted effort to read diverse books to my kids. I seek out stories about people who look different to them, or celebrate different holidays, or live in different kinds of families. I don’t think it’s enough to hope your children will see a range of people in the culture they consume – you have to proactively curate it. I’m not doing in perfectly, but I’m trying.
In the books I buy and read, I don’t protect them from potentially tricky topics. Books are a great way of introducing the beginning of something before it comes time to have a Big Chat, or perhaps there will never need to be a serious chat because books are a great way of introducing nuanced topics and having a whole series of little chats. All chats and topics are different but books have helped me have chats with my kids about flowers, racism and reproduction, just in the last few weeks. Of all the stories, I particularly seek out ones that depict disability because I want to try and provide some balance to the overwhelming majority of the stories Ben hears being about non-disabled people.
So we started reading Wonder, and I found bits of it difficult. There are sections where kids are really mean to August and I worried that I was telling Ben that kids are bullies, but reminded myself that Ben might not relate to August. Not least because his physical differences are entirely different to Ben’s. So I continued, relieved when we got to a bit where August made good friends. Ben was engaged, enjoying the story, showing no signs of distress.
There were a number of points where I welled up while reading – partly because I’m an absolute sucker for this kind of storytelling, and partly because people’s kindness often moves me to tears and August makes a really good friend in the book. There are passages where there is a danger of August being depicted as the kind of ‘inspiration porn’ that so enrages disabled people – the plucky, courageous person who is congratulated for completing an everyday task, living an everyday life. But there is also something beautiful in Wonder about the way August rises above horrible people and makes meaningful connections. His teacher makes a speech at the end: ‘It’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed… we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness’, I read to the boys as my voice wobbled around the threat of tears. August is clever, hard working and funny. He makes friends in the book, just through being himself.
When we got to a chapter written by August’s sister, Olivia, I worried because she eloquently describes her parents not having time for her when they are so distracted by her brother. I didn’t (don’t) want Ben to feel like his siblings might be resentful of him, or to plant in Max’s mind that he’s been dealt a bad hand in siblings or families. I found it hard to read the passages where Olivia doesn’t want August to come to a show at her new school, because she is embarrassed that her brother is so different, but she feels awful for feeling that way.
I realised that reading books like this is as important for Max as it is for Ben. It’s easy to forget that having a disabled sibling is, in itself, an identity. It affects so much of who Max is, what he does, and how he lives. I would love for him to see that being Ben’s brother is hard in some ways, and wonderful in others. But there are things he finds difficult, and perhaps it’s helpful for him to know that other siblings find this too. It’s very unlikely he’ll suddenly become resentful of his brother because he heard a character in a book was. And if Max is at all resentful, me pretending he isn’t won’t make it go away.
What Max mainly wanted to talk about as we read the book was why other kids, friendly and not, were behaving the way they were. Max wondered why one particular boy, Julian, was so mean and why his parents didn’t want him to be friends with August. Max has some experience of kids not liking his brother and far from it making him self-conscious about Ben it has, so far, just made him really sad, which made me even sadder.
But for every unkind character, there is a friendly one. And August’s parents are there beside him. There is a bit at the end where August and his dad are discussing the astronaut helmet that August wore all the time, for years, so people couldn’t see his face. August’s dad is telling him how much he hated the helmet: ‘The real, real, real, real truth is: I missed seeing your face, Auggie. I know you don’t always love it, but you have to understand… I love it. I love this face of yours, Auggie, completely and passionately. And it kind of broke my heart that you were always covering it up.’
‘Oh, that is SUCH a parent thing to say,’ Max groaned. ‘That’s exactly the kind of thing you guys say.’ Too right, kid, and not going to stop anytime soon…
The time has come to elaborate on the ‘stories’ part of ‘Son Stories’.
Ben loves stories. He’s always liked books. When Ben was almost one year old, we were on our way back from a holiday and due to huge snowstorms and a perilous motorway we made an unplanned stop at my sister Maddy’s house in Nottingham. At midnight Ben woke and was really struggling to breathe. My sister and her boyfriend got up to show us the way to the nearest hospital, where we carefully walked over the ice to reach A&E. As soon we mentioned breathing problems in a child with cerebral palsy who was not yet 1, we got whisked through to a bed where they gave Ben some drugs and a nebuliser. We were surrounded by doctors and nurses, Ben was very distressed and his breathing was really laboured.
While James briefed an Intensive Care doctor on Ben’s history, in case he needed to be sedated and ventilated, a nurse suggested I sit with Ben for a bit and do something he enjoyed to see if his breathing calmed down. So we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Ben smiled at the list of food like he always did, and by the time the caterpillar had become a butterfly Ben’s breathing was much improved.
The nurses said they had never seen a more dramatic response to a book.
Ben chooses by looking at the book he wants. He chose The Twits by Roald Dahl.
The Twits is a more recent addition to our library. As I mentioned previously, Ben’s a big fan of an old video on YouTube of Rik Mayall reading George’s Marvellous Medicine. His uncle Harry then bought him a box-set of every Roald Dahl childrens book and we’ve been working our way through them.
I think some people wonder how much Ben understands, how much he can learn. The kid chose the book with barely any pictures, no colours and a lot of words. He bloody loves stories. Even when his brother is trying to run over his hand with a truck.
An hour later I found Max sitting in the chair, drinking milk and watching TV. How many other kids get to relax unsupervised in furniture that valuable?
(Apologies for blurry phone photos – hard to take high quality pictures when you’re busy reading)