Children's books about disabilities



Children's books about disabilities



Reviews by Kathy Dickson

Books reviewed were borrowed from the Lion and Lamb Peace Arts Center at Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, where they are available for borrowing. See their full bibliography.

Mi Amigo, Victor

Bertrand, Diana Gonzales. Mi Amigo, Victor. (Robert Sweetland, illus.) McHenry: Raven Tree Press, 2004.

Dominic tells us all about the things that he and his pal, Victor, do to have fun. They tell each other stories and jokes, cheer for each other, go swimming together, ride roller coasters, and more.  Dominic says the best thing about his friend Victor is that he accepts him for who he is. It isn’t until the last page that we learn that Victor is in a wheelchair, through an illustration of the two laughing. With Dominic’s final statement, this becomes a story of friendship that turns on its head any assumption we might have made that the child in a wheelchair might be more likely to say that his friend accepts him just as he is. This is an excellent book for any collection not only because of its ability to showcase the gifts and abilities of friends, but also because it is bilingual in Spanish and English.
Cruise, Robin. Little Mama Forgets. (Stacey Dressen-McQueen, pictures.) New York, Melanie Kroupa Books; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006.
A touching book about a granddaughter and her grandma, “Little Mama.” Lucy knows that Little Mama forgets many things, but the story focuses on all of the things Little Mama remembers, which are beautiful, loving, fun things- like how to dance, tickle her granddaughter, make towers of tortillas, and stories of Mexico. With the beautiful pictures and the sometimes English/Spanish text, this is a gem for any collection, with both a celebration of culture and of things that do not change with an aging mind.
Davis, Patricia. Brian’s Bird. (Layne Johnson, illus.). Morton Grove: Albert Whitman and Company, 2000.
Eight-year-old Brian receives a bird for his birthday, Scratchy. The bird learns to talk and sit on Brian’s finger. One day, his older brother, Kevin, scares the bird and it flies out the front door. Carefully guiding Brian to the place where Scratchy was in a tree, Scratchy lands on Brian’s finger, and Brian returns him to his cage. Brian says he knows that his brother will never be as careful as he is. Without ever saying the word “blind,” the reader learns that Brian is blind, through how his family describes things to him. A great story about living an ordinary life with a disability.
Dwight, Laura. We Can Do It. New York: Starbright Books, 1997.
Through vivid photographs and a litany of things each child CAN do, we learn about Down Syndrome, blindness, spina bifida and cerebral palsy in this book. In addition, different genders and races are represented. A quick read and  an excellent visual tool for showcasing the abilities and humanity of different children with disabilities who go to school, play with friends, and help at home. A great book to initially introduce children to various disabilities. Even though it is a little old, the language of the book is spot on; you can only tell its age by the type of computers in the pictures!
Dwyer, Kathleen. What Do You Mean I Have a Learning Disability? New York: Walker and Company, 1991.
This book, written by an educational consultant and therapist who has written many preventive and corrective language teaching books for children with learning disabilities, features 10-year-old Jimmy. The reader learns about Jimmy’s difficulties at school, but particularly his feelings as a student who repeatedly gets bad grades when he feels he is trying so hard. He talks about “feeling stupid” only to his cat, until his parents and teachers decide to have him tested. Following the test and a learning disability diagnosis, Jimmy attends a class for other students “who are smart and have the same problems.” A dated resource, this book still focuses on the individual journey which makes it worth a read. I would like to see an updated version of this book.
Elder, Jennifer. Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes. (Marc Thomas and Jennifer Elder, illus.). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006.
This book showcases many famous people who the author claims had some form of autism. Each one has a short biography, from Lewis Caroll to Albert Einstein, about how they may have been perceived as different, followed by the list of successes in that person’s life. The first person introduced is eight-year-old Quinn, who has autism, and wants to know about others with autism throughout time. At the end he asserts, “I’m going to do it my own way, just like all the great people before me…only different.”
Ellis, Marvie. Tacos Anyone? An Autism Story. (Jenny Loehr, illus.). Austin: Speech Kids Texas Press, 2005.
This is a sibling story. Older brother, Thomas, needs some help from a therapist, to learn how to play well with his brother, Michael, who has autism. The “taco” ends up being a way to play with Michael, through stacking him in couch cushions.  A touching yet educational story written by a therapist who adds the disclaimer not to try therapy techniques at home, as this is the story of what is fun and what works for one child with autism. The book is also written in both English and Spanish, and won a Barbara Jordan Award.
Ely, Lesley. Looking After Louis. (Polly Dunbar, illus.). Morton Grove: Albert Whitman and Company, 2004.
Louis has autism. The reader follows him through a day at school, where his classmate talks about “looking after Louis,” asking him to join in things, or watching him in class.  The classmate, who wants to understand why Louis gets to play more soccer than she, says, “I think we’re allowed to break rules for special people.” After watching him play, she feels special, too, which is a redeeming line for anyone with a sensitivity to the characterization of persons with disabilities as “special.” A story of a regular, mainstreamed classroom. I would guess in 2012 this book reads differently than it did in many contexts in 2004.
Fleming, Virginia. Be Good To Eddie Lee. (Floyd Cooper, Illus.). New Work: Philomel Books, 1993.
At first read, the language in the book coming from a “bully” character is negative, stereotypical and hurtful. Eddie Lee, who has Down Syndrome, is disregarded, made fun of, and called names by a peer, JimBob. Christy, another peer is struggling throughout the story to know exactly what to do with Eddie Lee’s desire to be with JimBob and her out exploring the North Carolina hills. Her process of discovery of Eddie Lee’s kindness, compassion, and wonder is transparent in the story. 
The reader sees an attitude shift in her from her initially hurtful, but all-too-common, negative attitude of growing children who begin to notice differences in each other. I can see children learning from the book and discovering with Christy the gift of friendship with Eddie Lee, exploring the wonder of something as simple as frog eggs together. One drawback is that, due to the year of publication, the book cover uses the phrases “disabled children” and “Down’s children,” rather than the “people first language,” which is now considered most respectful.
Heelan, Jamee Riggio. Rolling Along: The Story of Taylor and His Wheelchair. (Nicola Simmonds, illus.). Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers, 2000.
Named a Learning Book of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Rolling Along is a keeper. Taylor, a boy with cerebral palsy, tells the story of getting a wheelchair and all of the things he can do with it. From his perspective, we hear the concerns of others that are overridden by his own positive attitude about all of the things that are normal for him to do: therapy, using his walker, learning to “pop wheelies” in his wheelchair. Through the book we learn all Taylor and his twin brother Tyler do to play together, such as  playing basketball or taking rides (Taylor in his wheelchair, Tyler on his bike.) An absolutely wonderful book.
Lakin, Patricia. Dad and Me in the Morning. (Robert G. Steele, illus.). Morton Grove: Albert Whitman & Company, 1994.
The narrator in the story is boy who is deaf. Yet, the words “can’t,” “disability,” and “deaf” never appear in the story. We hear everything that the narrator can do, which allows us to infer a hearing impairment. It is a wonderful spin on learning about daily life as ordinary for a person with such a difference. “I can speech-read,” he says, and “Dad and I have lots of ways of talking to each other, like signing, or lip reading or just squeezing each other’s hands. That’s our secret signal.” The reader experiences the excitement of going to see an early morning sunrise at the beach with the boy and his dad. Every other sense comes alive through his sharing; he shows us the colors, the wildlife, and temperature of the morning and water. A wonderful book to add to any collection.
Lears, Laurie. Ben Has Something to Say: A Story About Stuttering. Morton Grove: Albert Whitman & Company, 2000.
Ben is a child who stutters. At school, he does not like to read aloud and is happy to go with his dad, a mechanic, to the junk yard at the end of the day to look for parts. While there, he befriends a dog, Spike, who belongs to the junkyard owner. While the owner believes Ben is shy since he never talks, Ben talks to the dog and to his dad, who encourages him to speak for himself. Ben gets that chance, when the junkyard owner wants to give the dog to the pound, and he talks to the owner. The result is taking home his friend, Spike, to be his pet. The story is endearing, and a good resource for any group of children or community. The book, written in 2000, opens with a “what stuttering is and is not” for parents and teachers of children who stutter: “Stuttering IS NOT the whole of a person who stutters.” This is a wonderful resource for a church or home library to assist with learning about one challenge many people face.
Lears, Laurie. Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism. (Karen Ritz, illus.). Morton Grove: Albert Whitman & Company, 1998.
Julie, the older sister of Ian, tells small stories of life with her brother, who has autism. On their walk to the park, she explains to the reader that Ian sees, hears, feels, and thinks differently. Sometimes, she admits, he makes her angry.  After he is lost for a moment and then found under the park’s bell (his favorite place), Julie asserts that they can walk home the way Ian likes, which includes things like stopping to line up stones on a sidewalk, smelling bricks at the post office, and watching a fan spin in a parlor. A sister’s story of embracing the way her brother sees the world is instructive to how we might all encounter others.
Lears, Laurie. Nathan’s Wish: A Story about Cerebral Palsy. (Stacey Schuett, Illus.). Morton Grove: Albert Whitman and Company, 2005.
This is a story about the need to find something meaningful to do. Nathan has cerebral palsy, and through his desire to help his neighbor who rehabilitates injured birds, he discovers a way for one injured owl to not be so sad: help orphaned owls. This is a book that is honest about the sadness that comes from wishing for something that can’t come true (Nathan’s words), but about how attitude and opportunity support using abilities and positive living.
Lester, Helen. Hooway for Wodney Wat. (Lynn Munsinger, Illus.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Books, 1999.
This is the story of a rat who cannot pronounce his “r”s, and about how the teasing and bullying from the other children makes Rodney very shy and not wanting to talk. It isn’t until a large rodent, a bully type herself, comes into class and scares everyone else, and a game of Simon Says where  Rodney is the leader, that his life changes among his classmates. Because he said, “Simon Says ‘go west,’” the bully rodent thinks he means “go west” and leaves on a long journey west; the rest of the class, knowing how to understand Rodney’s mixed up letters, all lie down and rest, and make him the hero for making the new rodent leave. While it was an unintentional move, Rodney has confidence and is no longer an outcast by his speech difference.
While this book is a strong testament to how much the attitudes of others impact the life of someone with any impairment, and shows an attitude shift by the end, I would encourage readers to have a conversation with children about how the larger rodent was made an outcast by her behavior, but also due to the others wanting her to go away. So while Rodney is welcomed, the new rodent was not, making it important to talk with children about how she might have acted differently to make friends and also be a part of the class.
Lewis, Beverly. In Jesse’s Shoes: Appreciating Kids With Special Needs. (Laura Nikiel, Illus.). Minneapolis: Bethany Backyard, 2007.
A sibling goes through her own process of acceptance regarding her brother, who is “wired differently,” in this story. Through her own honesty with her frustrations and impatience at times, she learns by literally walking in her brother’s shoes, and discovering the world as best as she can through his eyes. She discovers that everything that causes him to be teased (and her, too) is bound up in differences. She is able to articulate and teach peers about these differences,  and recognize that not being “regular” isn’t so bad after all. This book stays away from the word “disability,” and focuses on differences.
Maguire, Arlene. Special People, Special Ways. (Sheila Bailey, illus.). Arlington: Future Horizons, 2000.
This is a poetic, rhyming read, a quick review of all kinds of differences people have. Through pictures and texts, we see people of different ages, races, genders, and abilities. By the time we get to the last line: “though we seem different, inside we’re the same. Our hearts are for caring no matter our name,” we have a sense that there are many, many differences- yet a similar purpose of heart. A message book.
Moss, Deborah. Shelley, the Hyperactive Turtle. (Carol Schwartz, illus.). USA: Woodbine House, 1989.
“Shelley was different than the other turtles who moved slowly and sat still for a long time,” the book begins. He was a “special” turtle. The book depicts Shelley at school with other turtles, unable to stay in his seat or stay quiet, and getting in trouble for it. Eventually Shelley is tested, and the reader learns about what “hyperactive” means, as well as a potential course of treatment, including medicine and seeing a therapist. Shelley’s redeeming moment comes when the doctor tells Shelley that he is a “very good boy” and that his teachers and parents wanted to help him. A good initial introduction to a difference known as hyperactivity.
Ratzlaff, Aaron J. Quills. Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2011.   
Porcupine experiences embarrassment and grief after mysteriously losing her quills. But her friends remind her that being a friend means loving unconditionally. Nice pictures and a sing-songy text make this a fun and sweet read about moving on after an acquired difference.
Rockwell, Norman. Willie Was Different: A Children’s Story by Norman Rockwell. New York: Dragonfly Books, 1994.
The book begins, “Willie was a wood thrush… (he) was different. He felt and looked different… Maybe way down deep inside himself he felt he was a genius.” A brilliant work by Rockwell exposes parental expectations and societal norms (of the animal world, in this case). But Willie knew that he would find his genius, and fled to live on his own, where he discovers his beautiful voice and accompanies the town librarian practicing her flute. Soon, he is the talk of the bird world as his music is in fact, his genius. Over and over again, the book reiterates his desire to “just be himself,” and when he can, his genius, as his difference, flourishes. Brilliant and touching.
Roth, Judith. Julia’s Words. (Brooke Rothshank, illus.). Scottsdale: Herald Press, 2009.
A wonderful story about two friends who meet at camp. It is told from the perspective of Christina, whose journals are shared, as a young girl at camp. Her friend Julia is deaf and “talks with her hands,” Christina writes in her journal. She raises questions about whether it will be too hard to communicate if she doesn’t know sign language, but also shares the moments like Julia teaching Christina how to sense things in a whole new way. A wonderful addition for any youth section of a church library, particularly if children have not been around anyone who cannot hear before. It is a story of getting to know a friend, and not only is it fun to read, it is a true testament of painting a whole picture of person-first living.
Shally, Celeste. The Bully Blockers: Standing Up for Classmates with Autism. (David Harrington, Illus.). Centerton: Awaken Specialty Press, 2009.
As the Vice President of the national organization “Autism Speaks” Alison Singer remarks in her foreword in support of this book, this is a story of “children working together to protect their classmate with autism from a bully. It is a testament to the power of friendship, compassion, and positive peer pressure…” (introduction); this book is a teaching tool about positive actions. I believe it might help children think about how their actions affect others, as well as shedding light on some of the ways autism affects the behavior of one child with autism. More, it might be good for adults, from high school students up, to catch wind of this book; the Bully Blocker Club that is formed in the 3rd grade lives by rules all of us—even our churches—need to be reminded of sometimes.
Shenkman, Dr. John. Living with Physical Handicap. New York: Franklin Watts, Aladdin Books, 1990.
Clearly the title dates this book, as the word “handicap” is no longer in favor. However, as the author states early in the book, “a disability need not become a social handicap—both the sufferer and society can work together to overcome the obstacles it presents” (2). Shenkman defines physical handicap as “any kind of disability or disease that puts the person who has it at a disadvantage compared to most people” (1).  The book is a scientific approach to understanding health and disability.
The “Living With” series particularly looks at contemporary issues regarding health and disability and society’s changing attitudes toward them. As a book published in 1990, I would call this a cutting edge book of its time, as it not only addresses the causes of certain physical disabilities in a medical scientific way, but it also addresses social realities of living with them. I am pleased to say much of society has come a long way in the twenty years since this book was written. It  serves as an archive to the civil rights movement the disability community has pushed through.
Thomas, Pat. Don’t Call Me Special: A First Look at Disability. (Lesley Harker, illus.). Hauppauge: Barron’s Educational Series, 2002.
This is a book about assumptions. It begins on the playground, asking the reader to guess which child has a hard time joining in on the playground, and points to the fact that the reader likely picks the girl in the wheelchair. “Sometimes, when we see people who are different from us we assume things about them that are not always true,” (10) the book states. As the title implies, the word “special” might push ordinary people to the margins as it makes them sound “too different” from everyone else. While most children’s books can serve as an educational tool for both children and adults, this one stands out as a resource for helping readers to see the whole person when they meet someone with a disability.
Willis, Jeanne. Susan Laughs. (Tony Ross, illus.). New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000.

Susan laughs, and does all number of things in this simple story of an ordinary life. On the very last page, a picture of Susan in a wheelchair with the text, “That is Susan through and through- just like me, just like you,” emphasizes the gift of being able to  have an ordinary life while living with a disability and the gift of seeing what we all have in common.


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