Hello readers, and happy Independence Day weekend. Last year at this time, I dedicated one of my posts to my love of reading and desire to highlight books with independent, intrepid, and multifaceted protagonists. In celebration of Independence Day and another July here on the blog, I want to do so again.
First, a few guidelines:
- The books on this list don’t necessarily feature characters with disabilities. Those that do, are books that place the character with a disability in a position to do things other than “inspire,” although inspiration can be a facet of the story.
- Many, though not all, of these books are aimed at adolescent readers or young adults, since this seems to be the prime age to move into reading literature with deeper themes and universal questions.
- I will try to strike a balance between male and female protagonists. However, growing up as a cisgender female, and in a time where a lot of teachers were focused on books for boys, I exposed myself more to books featuring girls. There may, therefore, be more female protagonists, although I do look for books with gender-neutral themes/questions/settings.
- As an addition, this year’s list will include some books that represent characters with disabilities and the disability experience, but not necessarily in the best light. The purpose of including these is to encourage readers, adolescent and adult alike, to make comparisons and contrasts, and talk about how disability *should* be represented, as well as what can be done to change current images.
Here’s this year’s list:
Mine for Keeps (Jean Little). Sarah Jane “Sally” Copeland is a fifth-grader with cerebral palsy living in Canada during the 1980s. In order to provide the best services possible, Sally’s parents sent her to a boarding school for kids with CP and other disabilities when she was small. Sally has always longed to live at home, and this year she’s moving back for good. But being with her family full-time and in a mainstream school presents a lot of challenges. Fortunately, Sally gets the chance to make friends and be both independent and interdependent. Through her West Highland white terrier Susie, she also gets the chance to take sole responsibility for someone, care for them, and face her own fears. Special mention to Sal’s dad, who is a rare example of a parent who makes sure his daughter has what she needs in terms of modifications but encourages her to live life to the fullest.
Wonder (R.J. Palacio). This book is a bestseller, and I can see why. It concerns Auggie, a fifth-grader born with facial deformities who has never been to a “real” school. When he gets the chance to go he’s unsure about it, but soon meets some unique friends who see beyond his face and limitations. Auggie has a strong and funny voice, and Palacio does something unique by giving us other characters’ perspectives. There are companion books to this one, each featuring one of Auggie’s friends.
The Shakespeare Stealer (Gary Blackwood). Orphans don’t get many chances to experience independence or self-determination, especially in Shakespeare’s day. Fourteen-year-old Widge is no exception. His cruel guardian has ordered that Widge use his gift for shorthand to steal Hamlet from none other than William Shakespeare. This prompts Widge to get involved in the theater, and determine whether he will risk his life or betray the first friends he’s ever had. Note that due to archaic language, this may be a tough read for younger kids; I’d suggest 14 and up.
Girls to the Rescue (Bruce Lansky). This is an older series of paperbacks that you may find used in good condition, although they are all available on Amazon.com, as are separate stories. Each book in the series is an anthology of short stories from many cultures, all featuring girls who do heroic things rather than waiting for a prince to rescue them. Some stories are fairytales, others are folktales, and still others are contemporary. One contemporary story, found in Book #5, concerns Aisha, an African-American girl who rescues the two-year-old she’s babysitting from a house fire. The twist to that rescue is what made me put her story, “Tulia,” on the list in particular.
Because of Mr. Terupt (Rob Bueya). Another current bestseller for young readers, this one features an elementary school cast of both boys and girls, and their innovative new teacher Mr. Terupt. The cast ranges from Peter, the class clown, to Anna, a girl with a rough home life, to Jessica, a young aspiring actress. When harmless fun leads to tragedy for their teacher, all the narrators worry it’s their fault. However, they also come to terms with their own struggles and find inner freedom. Special mention to Jeffrey, who like Anna in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, has spent much of his life as a live donor for an ill sibling.
A Little Princess (Frances H. Burnett). This one gets some flak from the modern feminist movement, as well as parents who want their daughters out of the princess phase ASAP. But it was one of my favorites as a child, partially because of Sara’s irrepressible, independent, and kind spirit. When Sara’s father dies, she is made a drudge at her strict boarding school, under the thumb of a sadistic headmistress. Her ability to be noble and kind is tested, but she comes through with flying colors. I also highly recommend the BBC film version, made circa 1986 and starring Amelia Shankley as the title little princess.
Girl, Stolen (April Henry). Cheyenne has pneumonia, so her stepmom takes her to get antibiotics and leaves her bundled in the back of the car. Before her stepmother can return, Cheyenne is kidnapped, thanks to an antagonist named Griffin. The problem is, Griffin doesn’t know Cheyenne is blind and the daughter of a huge corporation’s president.
Wolf by the Ears (Ann Rinaldi). Sally Hemings is coming of age at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. She is a pampered slave girl, but could pass for white, and now that she’s growing up she has to decide if she wants to do that. Rinaldi is one of my favorite historical authors for YA readers, and in this book she takes an interesting and deft look at how what’s on the outside can influence independence, as well as whether being white could make a person truly “free” in any era.
Al Capone Does My Shirts (Ginnifer Choldenko). Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan’s dad just got a job as a prison guard–at Alcatraz–in the 1930s. That’s one reason the family has moved; the other is so Natalie, Moose’s sister who has autism, can attend a prestigious school for kids with disabilities like hers. The perspective on prison gives this book a unique connection to physical and personal freedom. The fact that Natalie’s parents “grieve” her disability and search for a cure is not ideal, but it is sadly correct for the 1930s (warrants discussion). Moose has a strong, funny voice and is a good brother to Natalie; he has honest emotions regarding her but doesn’t seem to approach her disability the way his parents do.
Wonderstruck (Brian Selznick). This one’s a doorstop–640 pages–and no, I haven’t read it. But I am recommending it because it does something too few books do. It unites a male and female protagonist, Ben and Rose, in a non-romantic way. They run away together to New York, searching for what they want out of life (for one example, Ben wants to find his missing dad). And did I mention, both protagonists are deaf?
Megan’s Nutcracker Prince (Emily Costello, Ballet School Series #4). Megan Isozaki is half-Irish, half-Japanese, and all ballet lover. When she gets the role of Clara in the ballet school’s Nutcracker production, her friends are thrilled for her. Megan should be thrilled too, but she just found out she has a significant learning disability and thinks that will negatively influence her performance. She’s also keeping said learning disability a secret from her friends and dealing with a Russian houseguest, as well as the regular ups and downs of being a ten-year-old. Will she knock everyone’s socks off or miss some crucial steps?
Night (Elie Wiesel). This beautiful soul died Saturday. In view of that, and in view of the inner freedom he had to achieve and pointed others to, I highly recommend his Holocaust memoir. It’s just over 100 pages, but please don’t rush reading it.
A Pony for Keeps (Pony Pals Series #3, Jeanne Betancourt). Anna loves her pony Acorn, and hanging out with the other Pony Pals. But her parents say if her grades don’t go up this term, Acorn must be sold back to his original owner. Despite Anna’s hard work, her grades don’t improve. She wants her pony and her social life back, but that may take a Pony Pals sized plan. Best for girl 8-12.
My Name is America (various authors). This series is the companion to the historical Dear America series for girls; it’s for boys. I recommend the journal of William Thomas Emerson, an orphan and Revolutionary War spy, James Edmond Pease, a Union soldier, and Patrick Flaherty, a soldier in Vietnam. The series also features characters like Chinese miners from the 1850s, black baseball players carving a niche in the 1960s sports world, and newsies in early 1900s New York. Despite the male protagonists, girls may enjoy this series, too.
Rules (Cynthia Lord). This is one of those books that doesn’t handle disability well. Twelve-year-old Catherine narrates, giving us an inside look at what it is to be twelve and to grow up with a younger brother who has autism. David is a satellite character, treated as autistic and little else; for example, he is routinely disciplined for natural behavior such as echolalia. Jason, a boy with physical disabilities who Catherine meets later, is also treated as a lesser person. Warrants discussion of what is and is not “normal” and what “rules” may be meant to be broken.
The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver). This one’s another doorstop, but so rich I read it twice. It concerns the Price women: mother Orleanna and daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May. Their husband and father, an autocratic fundamentalist pastor, has uprooted them all from 1960s Georgia to the jungles of the Congo in the name of missionary work. This book chronicles what each woman learns, how she comes to know herself, and whether she eventually becomes truly free. Bonus points for Adah, a character who is hemiplegic but an entirely new kind of character with a disability. She’s snarky, observant, and intelligent. In a fundamentalist family, she’s the cynical skeptic and fascinated with science. She also loves palindromes.
Waiting for the Rain (Sheila Gordon). Tengo and Frikkie are growing up in the apartheid-ridden world of South Africa, circa 1970s. Tengo is black and longs for education. Frikkie is white, longs for the farm, and assumes his childhood best friend wants nothing more than to grow up to be the farm oobass (foreman). But when Tengo learns the truth of apartheid and what he can be, everything changes for the boyhood friends.
Monster (Walter Dean Meyers). Steve Harmon is a black teenager accused of murder. He’s been placed in juvenile detention, and writes his experiences uniquely, like a screenplay. The book is a probing look at freedom, race, and how one influences the other.
Handle With Care (Jodi Picoult). This one doesn’t handle disability well (hereafter tagged, DNHDW). Here, the character with a disability is five-year-old Willow, born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. She’s alarmingly brilliant, but alarmingly limited because of her parents’ attitude toward disability. In fact, Willow’s parents neglect older sister Amelia and are planning to sue their OB-GYN (and the mom’s best friend) for wrongful birth. Adult audiences only; I’m just gonna leave this one here.
My Foolish Heart (Susan May Warren). This is a Christian romance, so be aware of the specific target audience. The protagonists are Isadora “Issy” Pressley and Caleb Knight. She suffers from PTSD after seeing the horrible car accident in which her mom was burned alive and her dad, the town’s beloved football coach, sustained permanent, life-altering disabilities. He’s an Iraq veteran with a prosthetic leg, determined to become the new coach on his own merit, not because of pity. Each character has a life and personality outside disability and is drawn exquisitely well. You might also try Happily Ever After from the same author. Its protagonists are TAB, but Gabe, the hero’s brother, has Down Syndrome. Gabe lives in a group home that is presented as a true home and family–rare in literature of any kind. We also get to see his interests, such as reading, fishing, and Superman (and of course, he’s in love with Lois Lane, because Superman has to be)!
House Rules (Jodi Picoult. DNHDW). The character with a disability here is eighteen-year-old Jacob Hunt, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome. In creating him, Jodi Picoult piles on every characteristic a person with AS might have, and again has the main character focused on at the expense of a TAB sibling. Heavy language and heavy courtroom drama; adults and mature teens only.
The Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum). You might consider this the ultimate independence classic, as Dorothy searches for freedom and fulfillment outside Kansas, finding heart, courage, and brains personified along the way. Yes, you can watch the movie, too. In fact, I recommend that you do, for comparison’s sake. 🙂
Saddle Sore (Bonnie Bryant, Saddle Club Series #66). This book unites Saddle Club girls Carole, Stevie, and Lisa with Emily, a rider with cerebral palsy who is helping make Pine Hollow more accessible. The girls are out to help another rider, who lost part of her leg in an accident, literally get back on the horse, but they’re all having trouble balancing riding and the rest of life.
The Gift of the Pirate Queen (Patricia Reilly Giff). Gracie O’Malley’s sixth grade year sucks so far. She’s lost her mother and has the strictest teacher in school. Her younger sister Amy, who is diabetic, refuses to take care of her own health, forcing Gracie to do so. She’s stolen something from her teacher’s desk. And by the way, Cousin Fiona is coming from Ireland to stay for Christmas and maybe longer. Gracie is prepared for a tough holiday, but Fiona’s pirate queen legend may improve things.
Hope was Here (Joan Bauer). Hope lives with Aunt Addie, who loves her, but is used to functioning as an independent adult even at sixteen. She’s a crackerjack waitress and loves her job, but not moving so much. When she has to move yet again, to Mulhoney, WI, she meets a group of friends who are unconventional and may teach her more about life than she anticipated.
I could go on forever but will force myself to stop here. I may come back later with more books; there will certainly be a year three. Happy 4th, everyone! To independence, interdependence, and a good life.