I LOVE children’s books. I am riveted by beautiful illustrations and stories that lovingly teach children about life. And, I will be honest, sometimes I use children’s books to help launch a conversation that might be hard for me to start. I know many hesitate to discuss a big topic like disability for fear of creating a barrier that didn’t exist in a young mind. But children do notice – they notice everything. And, if we don’t talk about the big things, someone else will and it will be with their own imprint on it.
When it came to Gwendolyn, I saw firsthand what NOT talking about her very obvious differences did. I saw parents squirm and shush and I saw tiny preschoolers read the tension and silence and jump to “my questions must not be allowed because the answer must be bad.” That is the LAST thing I ever wanted to teach so I quickly learned to start talking. To the parents, to the kids, to teachers, to everyone… giving them inclusive language to answer the most common questions and letting them in on all the many ways Gwendolyn was just like them. Kids are rarely subtle with their curiosities and when I answered in a way they quickly understood, using language that normalized, they accepted and moved on to friendship quite easily. (Here is the letter we sent home to every parent in Gwendolyn’s school so they could support their own children. Feel free to use it to jumpstart your own conversations.)
One of the most simple ways to normalize difference is exposure. And picture books are an easy introduction. Not every child is going to have a Gwendolyn in their class. But, they will most certainly be exposed to diversity and people who are different from them in their lives. And, with 1 in 5 of the population living with a disability they will meet someone with some type of special need – and wouldn’t it be nice if your child already had some frame of reference? Knowledge is power. And when kids have even a simple understanding of something, they are so much more accepting.
These are some of our favorite books that talk about differences – sometimes with disability in the forefront and sometimes just general differences as a backdrop. I have found most bookstores and even Amazon have a disappointingly paltry “Disability” and “Special Needs” sections – dated, poor illustrations and overly simple storylines – so I’d love your suggestions to help this list grow. Just leave a comment below. (Also, these are in no particular order — sorry to stress out my organized friends and lovers of alphabetization. )
Picture books featuring disability
- Gemina: The Crooked-Neck Giraffe // Gemina stood out from the other giraffes at the Santa Barbara Zoo. She was the famous crooked-neck giraffe. Everyone who saw her wondered if she was all right? Did her neck hurt? As months passed, Gemina’s neck leaned more and more to the side but it never seemed to bother her. Gemina didn’t let her difference stop her from doing anything the other giraffes did. Told with affection and illustrated with oil paintings, this is Gemina’s story, a celebration of the life of a very special giraffe.
- How Lucky Got His Shoe // How Lucky Got His Shoe is a delightful story a Humboldt penguin born at the Santa Barbara Zoo with a foot that was growing improperly. A local shoe company developed a waterproof, quick-drying shoe so he could get in and out of the pool.
- Zoom // Lauretta’s mother takes her to buy a new wheelchair, but Lauretta isn’t satisfied with a regular five-speed or ten-speed model. No, she insists on the 92-speed, black, silver, and red dirt-bike wheelchair. When she gets a speeding ticket during a one-day tryout, her parents insist that the chair be returned to the store . . .
- Mama Zooms // A boy’s wonderful mama takes him zooming everywhere with her, because her wheelchair is a zooming machine.
- We’re All Wonders // We’re All Wonders may be Auggie’s story, but it taps into every child’s longing to belong, and to be seen for who they truly are. It’s the perfect way for families and educators to talk about empathy and kindness with young children.
- The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin // When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, no one expected her to talk, let alone become one of the most powerful voices in modern science. Yet, the determined visual thinker did just that. Her unique mind allowed her to connect with animals in a special way, helping her invent groundbreaking improvements for farms around the globe!
- Not So Different: What You Really Want To Ask About Having A Disability // Not So Different offers a humorous, relatable, and refreshingly honest glimpse into Shane Burcaw’s life. Shane tackles many of the mundane and quirky questions that he’s often asked about living with a disability, spinal muscular atrophy, and shows readers that he’s just as approachable, friendly, and funny as anyone else.
- Wendy on Wheels series // Wendy on Wheels came to Angela because of her sister, Amanda, who uses a wheelchair fulltime due to spina bifida. The universal message of Wendy on Wheels is “Live life regardless of circumstances.”
- Helen’s Big World: The Life of Helen Keller // This picturebook biography is an excellent and accessible introduction for young readers to learn about one of the world’s most influential luminaries. With her signature style, weaving engrossing prose with stirring quotations from Helen Keller herself, Doreen Rappaport brings a poignant narrative to life.
- My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay // Zulay and her three best friends are all in the same first grade class and study the same things, even though Zulay is blind. When their teacher asks her students what activity they want to do on Field Day, Zulay surprises everyone when she says she wants to run a race.
Novels with a character with a disability
- Wonder // August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
- Out of My Mind // (Age 10+) Eleven-year-old Melody is not like most people. She can’t walk. She can’t talk. She can’t write. All because she has cerebral palsy. But she also has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She’s the smartest kid in her whole school, but NO ONE knows it. Most people—her teachers, her doctors, her classmates—dismiss her as mentally challenged because she can’t tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by her disability. And she’s determined to let everyone know it…somehow.
- Fish in a Tree // (Age 10+) Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.
- Rules // (Age 9+) Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules from “a peach is not a funny-looking apple” to “keep your pants on in public” — in order to head off David’s embarrassing behaviors. But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, it’s her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?
- El Deafo // (Age 8+) Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.
Picture books about differences in general, how we are all unique, and/or how our differences can be essential to who you are
- You’re All Kinds of Wonderful // (I love all Nancy Tillman books — so incredibly beautiful. And this one… well the description is just everything we believe!) Part of growing up is discovering―and embracing―what makes us unique. From different abilities to different personalities, we are all wonderfully made with our own bells and whistles.
- We’re Different, We’re the Same // Who better than Sesame Street to teach us that we may all look different on the outside—but it’s important to remember that deep down, we are all very much alike. We all have the same needs, desires, and feelings.
- It’s Okay To Be Different // Told with Todd Parr’s signature wit and wisdom, It’s Okay to Be Different cleverly delivers the important messages of acceptance, understanding, and confidence in an accessible, child-friendly format.
- Elmer // Elmer the elephant is bright-colored patchwork all over. No wonder the other elephants laugh at him! David McKee’s comical fable about everyone’s favorite patchwork elephant teaches readers to be themselves and celebrates the power of laughter.
- Giraffes Can’t Dance // A funny, touching and triumphant picture book story about a giraffe who finds his own tune and confidence too.
- Chrysanthemum // Chrysanthemum is a funny and honest school story about teasing, self-esteem, and acceptance to share all year round.
- Tacky the Penguin // Tacky is different from the other penguins but his odd behavior saves the day.
- You are Special // Eli the woodcarver helps Punchinello understand how special he is–no matter what other Wemmicks may think. It’s a vital message for children everywhere: that regardless of how the world evaluates them, they are loved and valued just as they are.
- Not Your Typical Dragon // Crispin wonders if he’ll ever find his inner fire. But when a family emergency breaks out, it takes a little dragon with not-so-typical abilities to save the day.
- We’re All Works of Art // Our bodies might all differ in shape, and form, and frame, but think how dull the world would be if we were all the same… Celebrate difference and diversity with this wonderful and beautiful book that tells children it’s OK to be different – in fact it’s perfect to be different.
- The Hueys in the New Sweater // The Hueys are small and mischievous, unique compared to the world’s other creatures–but hardly unique to one another. You see, each Huey looks the same, thinks the same, and does the same exact things. So you can imagine the chaos when one of them has the idea of knitting a sweater! It seems like a good idea at the time–he is quite proud of it, in fact–but it does make him different from the others.
P.S. One of the first things you all did to honor Gwendolyn after she died was participate in Books For Gwendolyn. You sent so many beautiful books, many listed here, and our plan is to create a “Little Free Library” at the new inclusive playground we are building as her legacy project stocked full of books that celebrate diversity, acceptance, and kindness.