March is Disability Awareness Month! Disability is a broad umbrella term, encompassing lived experiences ranging from blindness or visual impairment to post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost a quarter of the population in the United States is estimated to be living with a disability according to the CDC. This month is an opportunity to learn more about disability experiences and to contemplate how to support the disability rights movement, which seeks to expand accessibility and create equal opportunities for employment, housing, and education. The children’s and young adult books on this list feature stories about hearing loss, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, and anxiety. To find more youth literature with disability representation, take a look at the winners and honorees of the Schneider Family Book Award, which “honors an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child or adolescent audiences.” The link to the award page can be found at the end of this post.
Illustrated by: Polly Dunbar
Can Bears Ski? 2020 (Picture Book).
Little Bear feels the world around him. He feels the floor shake when someone stomps to get his attention, but something is missing. Little Bear is not sure what is happening. Confusingly, his family and everyone around him seem to be consistently asking: “Can bears ski?” Then Dad Bear takes him to see an audiologist and they learn that Little Bear has been experiencing deafness. With new hearing aids, he discovers that “Can bears ski?” is actually “Can you hear me?” His new world is loud and will take some getting used to, but with the love and support of Dad Bear, Little Bear will find his way.
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Illustrated by: Lauren Baldo
I Am Not a Label: 34 Disabled Artists, Thinkers, Athletes and Activists from Past and Present. 2020 (Picture Book).
This book profiles 34 disabled artists, thinkers, athletes, and activists. Learn about how these iconic people have overcome obstacles, found pride in their identities, and paved the way for others to succeed. These short biographies tell the stories of people who have faced unique challenges which have not stopped them from becoming trailblazers, innovators, advocates, and makers. Each person is a leading figure in their field, be it sport, science, math, art, or the world of pop. The profiles include Henri Matisse, Temple Grandin, Frida Kahlo, Demi Lovato, and more. Reading this picture book anthology of disability experiences will challenge readers’ preconceptions of disability and mental health with the eye-opening tales of these remarkable people.
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This Beach Is Loud! 2019 (Picture Book).
Patience, understanding, and an anxiety-reducing exercise save the day at the beach when a young child’s excitement turns into sensory overload. Going to the beach is thrilling, but it can also be busy and loud. Sand can feel hot, itchy, or sticky, and it gets everywhere! In this sweet picture book, a sensitive boy gets overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, and sensations at the beach. Luckily, this kiddo’s dad has a trick up his sleeve to help his son face these unexpected obstacles. Combining accessible storytelling and playful design, this story gently offers practical advice for coping with experiences that are new to sensitive children on and off the autism spectrum.
Fly. 2022 (Young Adult Fiction).
In this powerful novel in free verse, Felix Landon Yarrow (with the initials F.L.Y., resulting in the nickname “Fly”), a fourteen-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, is captivated by the noble, chivalrous ideals of knighthood inspired by Don Quixote. When he fears that a school villain, Carter, poses a danger to his lady love, Daria, he knows rescuing her must be his quest. Using his wits and his own unique powers, he constructs an elaborate plot meant to culminate with him on his “trusty steed” (his wheelchair) triumphantly conquering his enemy and saving his “damsel in distress.” Alas, for this brave knight, as for most teenagers, plans often have a way of going awry. This is a moving story of courage, connection and self-discovery. In the spare first-person narrative, Felix’s sarcastic and self-aware voice explores how it feels to be constrained by the world’s preconceptions.
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! 2020 (Middle Grade Fiction).
In this epistolary middle grade novel, eleven-year-old Vivy Cohen will not let anything stop her from playing baseball, not when she has a major-league pitcher as her pen pal. Ever since her hero, star pitcher VJ Capello, taught her how to throw a knuckleball at a family fun day for kids with autism, she has been perfecting her pitch. Now she knows she is ready to play on a real team. When her social skills teacher makes her write a letter to someone she knows, she writes to VJ and tells him everything about how much she wants to be a pitcher, and how her mom says she can’t because she is a girl and because she is autistic. Then two amazing things happen: Vivy meets a Little League coach who invites her to join his team and VJ starts writing back.
LeZotte, Ann Clare
Illustrated by: Julie Morstad
Show Me a Sign. 2020 (Middle Grade Fiction).
The year is 1805 and eleven-year-old Mary Lambert has always felt safe and protected on her beloved island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her great-grandfather was an early English settler and the first deaf islander. Now, over a hundred years later, many people there, including Mary, are deaf, and nearly everyone can communicate in sign language. Mary has never felt isolated, but recent events have delivered winds of change. Mary’s brother died, leaving her family shattered. Tensions over land disputes are mounting between English settlers and the Wampanoag people. A cunning young scientist has arrived, hoping to discover the origin of the island’s prevalent deafness. His maniacal drive to find answers soon renders Mary a “live specimen” in a cruel experiment. Mary’s endeavor to save herself is at the core of this novel. An author’s note shares more details about sign language and deaf education.
Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen. 2021 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Eleven-year-old Maple Mehta-Cohen has been keeping a secret: she can’t read very well. She has an impressive vocabulary and loves dictating stories into her recorder (especially the adventures of a daring sleuth who’s half Indian and half Jewish like Maple herself), but words on the page just don’t seem to make sense to her. Despite all Maple’s clever tricks to hide her troubles with reading, her teacher notices, and now Maple has to repeat fifth grade. Maple is devastated. What will her friends think? Will they forget about her? She uses her storytelling skills to convince her classmates that she’s staying back as a special teacher’s assistant (because of budget cuts, you know). As Maple navigates the loss of old friendships, the possibility of new ones, and facing her reading challenges head-on, her deception becomes harder to keep up. Can Maple begin to recognize her own strengths, and to love herself (and her brain) just the way she is? Readers who have faced their own trials with school, friendships, or the experience of dyslexia or other learning disabilities will enjoy this heartwarming story and its bright, creative heroine.
Show Us Who You Are. 2022 (Middle Grade Fiction).
Twelve-year-old Cora is autistic, but because she gets bullied by her classmates and patronized by her teacher, she often tries to imitate neurotypical behaviors. When Cora’s brother drags her along to his boss’s house, she doesn’t expect to strike up a friendship with Adrien, son of the intimidating CEO of Pomegranate Technologies. Adrien has ADHD and the two find refreshing companionship in their shared indifference towards social norms and expectations. As she becomes part of Adrien’s life, she is also drawn into the mysterious technological projects at Pomegranate. At first, she’s intrigued by them: Pomegranate is using AI to recreate real people in the form of a hologram after their death. As she digs deeper, however, she uncovers even darker secrets. Cora knows she must unravel their plans, but can she fight to make her voice heard, without losing her sense of self?
Pimentel, Annette Bay
Illustrated by: Nabi H. Ali
All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything. 2020 (Picture Book).
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, Jennifer Keelan grew up facing the limitations others set for her. From a lack of cutaway curbs and bus lifts to being denied enrollment at her neighborhood school, Jennifer was continually excluded from living the life she wanted. After discovering the world of disability rights activism, she knew she had to use her voice to change things. When Jennifer was just eight years old, she participated in the Capitol Crawl: an act of defiance in which disability advocates who used wheelchairs crawled up the stairs of the United States Capitol. The image of young Jennifer crawling up the steps went viral and contributed to the pressure that coaxed Congress into passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1989. This powerfully illustrated biography of Jennifer’s life is a celebration of youth activism and will show all children that they have the power to make a difference.
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Illustrated by: Raul the Third
Stuntboy, in the Meantime. 2021 (Middle Grade Graphic Novel).
Portico Reeves’s superpower is making sure all the other superheroes, like his parents and two best friends, stay super safe. He does this all in secret. No one in his civilian life knows he’s a superhero called Stuntboy! He lives in the biggest house on the block, maybe in the whole city, which basically makes it a castle, even though his mom calls it an apartment building. Behind all the many doors in the building live a bunch of different people who Stuntboy frequently saves. In fact, he’s the only reason the cat, New Name Every Day, has nine lives. All this is great except for Portico’s other secret: his parents are fighting all the time. They try to hide it by repeatedly telling Portico to go check on a neighbor “in the meantime,” but Portico knows “meantime” means his parents are entering the Mean Time and they’re about to start yelling at each other. It’s Portico’s superhero responsibility to save them, once he figures out how. All these secrets give Portico the “frets,” which his mom calls anxiety. Will Portico be able to move beyond his arch-nemesis who is determined to prove that there is nothing super about Portico at all?
Resources / References
The Schneider Family Book Award
This award, administered yearly by the American Library Association, recognizes authors and illustrators for their artistic representation of the disability experience in youth literature.