Back in 2011, I dedicated a post to my love of reading, and to the promotion of books whose protagonists had disabilities. In honor of this blog’s third year on the Web, I’ve decided to do it again.
I’m providing a list–by no means exhaustive–of some popular, and some lesser-known, books with protagonists who have disabilities. These disabilities can be anything–physical, mental, psychological, or some combination. The reading levels may vary, but I’ve tried to focus on middle grade and young adult literature for a few reasons. I’m passionate about these genres. I think the target audience for them is at a prime age to get some real education about persons with disabilities (as in more than, “Be nice to Petey; he can’t walk.”) I also feel this education doesn’t happen because these genres are sorely lacking in protagonists with disabilities. However, other reading levels are also represented.
Finally, I have decided to do something a bit different with this blog than I did in 2011. Along with conventional disabilities, I will also be representing eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, as well as obesity. As we’ve discussed, these are not classical disabilities. Yet they are just as misunderstood as classical disabilities, if not more so, and the people who experience them are just as marginalized and in need of a voice. Plus, eating disorders and obesity are in fact disabling conditions.
With that in mind, here’s the list:
Anything But Typical (Nora Baskin)–Jason Blake is the twelve-year-old protagonist of this middle grade novel. He has high-functioning autism and struggles to fit into his neurotypical (NT) world. He has a tremendous talent for reading and writing and loves creating stories on Storyboard, his favorite Internet writing group. Through Storyboard, he meets PhoenixBird, whose real name is Rebecca. They become good friends, but when Jason meets Rebecca, will she see him as a regular kid or only autistic?
Counting by 7s (Holly Goldberg Sloane)–Twelve-year-old Willow Chance loves nature, diagnosing medical conditions, and counting by sevens. She’s never been typical, but that’s never been a big deal. When her adoptive parents die in a car accident, Willow must make her way in a typical world, and does so with triumph.
A Mango-Shaped Space (Wendy Mass)–Mia sees letters and numbers in color, but only told her teachers once because they assumed she was being disruptive and sent her to the principal. But now, Mia’s condition is becoming a bigger part of her life. When she finds an Internet discussion group about synesthesia, the young teen has finally found like-minded individuals. Yet these new friendships may cost Mia more than she’s prepared to pay.
Stuck in Neutral (Terry Trueman)–Shawn McDaniel has cerebral palsy. He can’t talk or move one muscle, even his eyes. His older brother Paul doesn’t understand him and often feels angry, and his father believes Shawn is suffering and would rather be dead than live with CP. But Shawn has a great mind locked in his body, and perfect auditory memory. Find out what happens to Shawn in this book, sequel Life Happens Next, and Cruise Control, Trueman’s companion book about Paul McDaniel.
(W)hole and Breath(e) (Ruth Madison)–These books, aimed more at older young adults/adults, introduce us to Elizabeth, a young woman with a unique sexuality. She is attracted only to physically disabled men. When she meets Stewart Masterson, former champion surfer and “paraplegic of her dreams,” they embark on a relationship fraught with obstacles, including Stewart’s dark secrets and the disapproval of Elizabeth’s parents.
Life in the Fat Lane (Cherie Bennett)–Lara is the sixteen-year-old queen of her high school. She’s smart, pretty, popular, and 118 pounds. But suddenly, she starts gaining rate at an alarming rate until her size nearly doubles. She’s sent to the hospital and placed on a strict liquid diet, among other treatments. But nothing helps and her doctors and nutritionists can’t figure out why. This is Lara’s journey through her experience with a “less than perfect” body and what she gains from it.
One Fat Summer (Robert Lipstyle)–Robert “Bobby” Marks, unlike most seventh-graders, dreads summer. That’s when everybody abandons their coats and long sleeves and pants, and his overweight body is exposed. This summer though, Bobby has more obstacles than his weight, including a sadistic summer job boss, a bully, and a friend who may or may not become a girlfriend.
Wintergirls (Laurie Halse Anderson)–Lia and Cassia have been best friends for years, and also competed to see who could be thinnest. When Cassia’s eating disorder takes her life, Lia must rebuild hers and deal with the guilt of her friend’s death.
Girls Like Us (Gail Giles)–Sequencia (Quincy) and Biddy are two graduates of their high school’s special education program. No longer allowed to participate in school, they are placed in an apartment as roommates. Both girls have mental disabilities to some degree, and this causes hardship, particularly for Biddy. However, they navigate their new world with humor and honesty.
A Miracle of Hope (Ruth Reid)–This Christian-based Amish novel is for young adults and adults. When Lyndie Wyse gets pregnant outside wedlock, she must leave her community. Her only hope seems to be a marriage to Josiah Plank, resident of an isolated north Michigan Amish settlement. During her marriage of convenience, Lyndie also becomes caretaker for Josiah’s deaf daughter Hannah, whose giftedness leads her family to important truths.
A Woodland Miracle (Ruth Reid)–Coming January 2015, this is the next in the Amish Wonders series. Grace Wagler has struggled with her limp all her life, encountering unwanted pity and heartbreak from her childhood best friend. When she meets fun-loving, unconventional Amishman Ben Eicher, he tries to strike up a relationship with her, but Grace distrusts him. Through the course of the book, Ben must decide the kind of man he’s going to be, while Grace decides how to relate to him and how to best deal with her disability. Getting treatment could make her life easier, but the Amish way is to accept it as “God’s will.” Which choice is right for her, and for Ben?
Song of the Magdalene (Donna Jo Napoli)–May be better suited for adults. This novel tells the story of Miriam, a woman considered “unclean” in first-century Israel because of her seizures. Abraham, the son of Miriam’s caretaker Hannah, has a disability as well. In fact, he’s considered the “village idiot.” But together, they just might save themselves.
Cinder (Marissa Meyer)–First in the Lunar Chronicles series, this YA novel concerns Cinder, a cyborg with a missing arm and leg. Her stepmother treats her cruelly, and she’s blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when Cinder gets a chance at love, she’s got to delve into the “cinders” of the past and present to secure her future.
Reaching for Sun (Tracie Vaughn Zimmer)–Teenage Josie Wyatt is different. Born with CP, she’s relegated to special ed and the “special” bus. Her Gram and mom are there for her, but life is far from perfect, until Josie meets a boy who can see her for who she is. As Josie grows, her family’s farm withers, but obstacles may provide needed growth for everyone around her.
Waiting for Normal (Leslie Connor)–Addie has dyslexia, but her bigger problem is her family life. Her mom can’t seem to find normal; for example, one day the pantry’s stocked, the next day, there’s not a crumb in the house. Addie must find her own brand of normalcy to guarantee she can have a life of her own.
Naked Without a Hat (Jeanne Willis)–In a twist on the old institutionalized-individual-breaks-free plot, nineteen-year-old Will wants to move into a group home. His mom constantly nags him to take off his lucky knit hat, his father forbids him to play guitar because he only knows one song, and he just lost his job at Burger King. When Will moves into a flat with three other individuals with different disabilities, his life takes a positive turn. But things really get positive–and sticky–when he meets gypsy girl Zara, who camps out in the park where Will works with her family. Will seeks a great relationship with Zara, but will his mom ruin everything?
Say What You Will (Cammie McGovern)–Compared to The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park, this book concerns Amy and Matthew. Amy has cerebral palsy and Matthew has severe OCD. When Amy decides to hire an aide for her next year of high school, she gets Matthew, and the two strike up a romance.
Fanny and Memily (Stephen Cosgrove)–These two early reader books are part of the Serendipity series. Their title characters have disabilities/perceived flaws. Fanny is a cat with three legs, and Memily is unusually tall even for a giraffe. They must learn “handicapped” is a state of mind, and differences can be great. Parents can also try Flutterby, a book from the same series about a winged horse who struggles to find “her own kind,” and Leo the Lop, about a flop-eared rabbit whose differences help him save the day.
I Can, Can You? (Marjorie W. Pitzer)–This picture book for kids up to 4 shows babies and toddlers with Down Syndrome doing all the things little kids the world over can do.
Susan Laughs (Jeanne Wilis, Tony Ross)–Told in rhyme, this picture book features Susan, who laughs, rides, swings, plays with her friends, and reads. Oh yeah, Susan also uses a wheelchair.
Goodbye Tchaikovsky (Michael Thal)–Twelve-year-old David Rothman is a violin virtuoso–until deafness strikes, on his birthday, no less. David must learn to navigate his new world and figure out his future, especially where the violin fits in.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (Jack Gantos)–Life hasn’t been easy for grade-schooler Joey Pigza. As he puts it, “My dad ran off when I was in kindergarten and my mom went after him,” leaving him with his sometimes-abusive grandma. In addition to family issues, Joey also has to cope with undiagnosed ADHD and the stuff his impulses make him do, such as swallowing his house key and bouncing around the school hallways like a superball. A special ed placement, the reappearance of Mom, and other obstacles make Joey’s life even crazier, but he navigates it all with humor and aplomb. If you like this one, try other Joey books like Joey Pigza Loses Control and What Would Joey Do?
Tangerine (Edward Bloor)–Paul Fisher of Tangerine County, Florida is legally blind. He can’t see without extremely thick glasses. But he can see things others refuse to see, like the increasingly dangerous behavior of his brother, Eric. Paul gets help with this through his new friends on the soccer team, and also deals with obstacles such as a sinkhole trying to swallow his school.
The Oak Leaves (Maureen Lang)–This Christian-based novel ties together Regency England/Ireland with contemporary Chicago. Talia Ingram is intrigued when she finds her great-grandmother Cosima Escott’s journal, but struggles to balance her discovery with her worries about her son Ben, who’s not developing typically. When Talia and her husband Luke learn Ben has Fragile X Syndrome, which will leave him with cognitive disabilities for the rest of his life, they are devastated, until they discover a life-changing truth in Cosima’s journal about Cosima, her family, and her brother Roy, who also had Fragile X. Also read the sequel, On Sparrow Hill. Two of IndependenceChick’s personal faves!
Saving Amelie (Cathy Gohlke)–Suitable for adults and older teens due to thematic content, this book tells the story of Rachel Kramer, an American of German descent whose father is a eugenicist. When she and her father must return to Berlin for a biannual trip to a special clinic, Rachel learns she has been part of a deadly genetic experiment since she was a child. She also learns of Hitler’s drive to create a “master race,” and becomes involved in helping her long-lost twin, Leah, save a little girl named Amelie who is deaf and will be executed for her disability if the Nazis find her. Christian-based, but disturbing in places.
Just Another Girl (Melody Carlson)–Fourteen-year-old Aster has always been the caretaker for her younger sister Lily, who has severe cognitive disabilities. Her parents are busy, and her older sister Rose is extremely selfish. Aster tries not to resent Lily, but it’s tough, especially this summer. But her relationship with Lily may be about to change, and so is Lily’s life.
Losing It (Erin Fry)–Ben Robinson loves baseball, especially watching it on the couch with his dad while eating fattening foods. When Ben’s dad is taken to the hospital in a harrowing medical emergency, Ben is sent to live with his aunt, who makes it her mission to get him healthy. Ben will have to “step up to the plate” and take control of not only his weight, but also his life.
Purge (Sarah Darer Littman)–Janie Ryman hates bingeing and purging but can’t seem to stop. The doctors and psychiatrists at the Golden Slopes treatment center want to help, but Janie’s too busy navigating her new reality. She’s soon drawn into conflicts between the Barfers (bulimics) and Starvers (anorexics) on the ward, as well as the difficulty of her own self-rediscovery.
Small Steps (Louis Sachar)–In this companion book to Holes, Sachar lets us know how Stanley Yelnats’ camp-mate Theodore–er, excuse me, Armpit–is doing. It’s been two years since his release from Camp Green Lake, a corrupt youth detention camp, and everyone still expects the worst from him. Ginny, his neighbor, who has cerebral palsy, knows how that feels. Together, they must learn to take small steps toward freedom and their futures, even when old friends–or are they enemies–get in the way.
The Crazy Horse Electric Game (Chris Crutcher)–Willie is an amazing athlete, until a freak accident leaves him with a permanent physical disability. Now the cane he received to commemorate his triumph in the Crazy Horse Electric Game isn’t only an accessory–he has to use it. Willie eventually runs away and must fight to keep his body and life intact on the streets.
Moses Sees a Play (Isaac Millman)–This book is one in a series for young children about Moses, a boy who is deaf and attends a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In this one, exactly as the title says, Moses goes to a play put on at the local deaf theater with his class. Includes basic sign language lessons for readers.
Wendy on Wheels (Angela Ruzicka)–These books for young readers star ten-year-old Wendy, who does everything TAB kids do from her wheelchair, such as going to the beach or the zoo and campaigning for accessibility in her town. Check out the author’s website at http://www.wendyonwheels.com.
Whew! That’s a lot of books, yes? But they’re all good ones, so curl up with one this holiday. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Kwanzaa from the IndependenceChick blog!