You all must have been good this year, because you’re getting more book recommendations about strong, independent protagonists and people who aren’t often represented. This is partially because of the snowy conditions of the last post; we didn’t lose electricity but I kind of rushed it because I thought we might.
Also, I need to make a disclaimer for this and future lists: Some, perhaps many, of these books I have not read. But I still confidently recommend them because of who and what they represent. If I know of or suspect a problem like inspiration porn, I will make a note of that. And so, on we go:
Dear Martin (Nic Stone). This YA novel is gaining a lot of steam in the current climate, as it should. Jus recently experienced a scary discriminatory incident, and it’s making him question all he knows about what it means to be a black teen. He starts to notice more microagressions and wonder if he’ll ever be judged by anything other than skin color, or if people are lying when they claim they don’t judge him that way. What I love about the premise is that Jus deals with his feelings through letters written to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dark Sons (Nikki Grimes). I read this in my brief teaching tenure in preparation to teach it to a class. It’s a modern take on the tale of Isaac and Ishmael. When Sam’s dad, a devout Christian, leaves and marries a white woman, Sam’s world is thrown into turmoil. When dad and stepmom have a baby together, that turmoil increases as Sam struggles with how or if to accept this child, who he is as a person, his racial identity, and many other layers of conflict. The actual story of Ishmael is interwoven, making for one of the most layered books I’ve encountered.
Counted with the Stars (Connilynn Cosette). This is one of my personal favorites; it takes a look at the Exodus story through the eyes of Kiya, an Egyptian slave. The catch is, Kiya used to be a pampered member of nobility. Double catch? She doesn’t believe in the Jews’ One God through most of the book. There are Judeo-Christian themes, but Connilynn is a great author for any audience. As a bonus, Kiya’s brother, a prominently featured character, is a three-dimensional person with a disability. (The book implies cerebral palsy, but naturally, it would not have been called such in that era). Great for teens and adults.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Kelly Barnhill). A middle grade novel, this one is also gaining serious steam; I see it in prominent bookstore spaces whenever I visit my local B&N. The book features Xan, a young girl who takes on the task of raising one of the babies sacrificed to a forest witch. As if that wasn’t hard enough, thirteen years later, Xan discovers her adopted daughter has magical powers. They came about because years ago, Xan accidentally fed baby Luna moonlight. And now, life is about to get a lot more complicated…
The Serafina Series (Robert Beatty). I’ve only read the first in this trilogy so far, but Serafina, the main character, definitely fits the parameters of this list. She was raised at the Biltmore Estate, but consigned to its basement so no one could see and be terrorized by her. Without giving too much away, Serafina is only half “normal person,” and she doesn’t know the other half of her heritage. Finding it helps her protect the estate and solve some intriguing mysteries.
The School for Good and Evil Series (Soman Chainani). As a huge fan of Once Upon a Time, these are on my To Be Read list even though they’re “for kids.” The series posits that every fairytale hero and villain you know went to school to become so. But what if one day, two students got switched? Sophie, who expects to be kidnapped, rescued, and trained/treated as a princess, is sent to the School for Evil. Meanwhile Agatha, who has all the characteristics of an ideal Evil student on the outside, is sent to the School for Good. Horrors! But maybe the best thing that could have happened to fairytale world…
Fish in a Tree (Lynda Mullay Hunt). Ally is illiterate, but nobody knows that. She’s been able to hide the truth for years. But her new teacher, Mr. Daniels, is a lot smarter and savvier than Ally bargained for. And Ally’s life, school and otherwise, is about to change.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Lisa Yee). Millicent Min may be a genius, but that label is not easy to carry, especially in the summer. This summer, she’s stuck tutoring Stanford Wong, and has just as many friends as ever – as in, none. When Millicent meets Emily, she seems to have found a true friend – but will Millicent have to lie to keep that friend? Check out Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time and So Totally Emily Ebers for books with the POVs of the other two main characters.
Mockingbird (Kathryn Erskine). This is another of those haven’t-read-yets, and I recommend it based mostly on its uniqueness, not because it necessarily handles disability well. Caitlin has Asperger’s, but her older brother was always there to help her navigate it – until he’s killed in a school shooting. Now Caitlin has two tough situations to navigate, plus people telling her she needs to “work on” herself and her Asperger’s, as if that’s supposed to help. (This is a great way to open the discussion of why PWDs are so often worked on, and have things done to them or for them, but are not worked with or asked for their thoughts/opinions).
Changes for Julie (Megan McDonald). Part of the Julie series in the American Girls Collection, this is the last book featuring Julie Albright, who grows up in 1974. It gets brownie points from me because it tackles both feminism and disability. Julie wants to run for class president, but she’ll be the first girl to do so, and against a popular male student. When she chooses her friend Joy Jenner for VP, everyone assumes Joy is a joke because she’s deaf. Julie tackles these issues without preaching or inspiration porn, and in my opinion, this book provides good discussion fodder for the beginnings of the disability rights movement. If you have a kid with a disability, especially a girl, you might talk about how it might feel to go to school with no modifications, to get in trouble because of a disability, etc.
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (Teresa Toten). Adam has OCD, but at least it’s not one of the “tough cases.” Robyn, a girl who he meets in his young adult support group, has OCD too – and her case is so tough she’s just been released from a residential program. Adam decides it’s his job to save Robyn – but who really needs rescuing here? One of the few books I’ve been able to find with a male PWD as the main character, and one I recommend for kids who like superheroes.
My Louisiana Sky (Kimberly Willis Holt). Also on my TBR pile, the heroine of this book is a TAB girl named Tiger Ann. The catch is, both Tiger’s parents have cognitive disabilities (I have *never* encountered that in a book before). Tiger Ann is embarrassed and ashamed of her parents, and thinks a summer with her aunt will provide needed escape. That is, until she learns some family secrets that could change everything.
Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade (Barthe deClemens). Elsie Edwards is fat – so fat she can’t see her shoes. She begs other people for their food at lunch because her mother puts her on a strict diet. She steals people’s lunch money to buy candy too, so when the book fair money goes missing, everybody assumes Elsie did it. But the truth may force the fifth grade to rethink how they see Elsie, and what “helping” her really means.
Heartsong (Kevin Crossley-Holland). Laura is an orphan, abandoned at a Viennese orphanage in infancy. Perhaps because of the abandonment, perhaps for medical reasons, Laura can’t speak. But then she meets a composer named Antonio Vivaldi, who unlocks her gift for music.
Matilda (Roald Dahl). Why this book never made any previous lists, don’t ask. I don’t know. Matilda Wormwood is the epitome of a strong and independent heroine, and while she doesn’t have a disability, her family and principal certainly treat her as though she is defective and second class. But Matilda is not about to take that lying down – she’s too smart for that. Even if you know this story inside out, grab a copy for the kid in your life.
The Popularity Secret (Cindy Savage). This one is out of print, but if you can find a copy, snap it up. Teenager Janet had a great life with her adoptive parents, but when they were killed in a car accident, she was consigned to the foster care system. Janet’s social worker promises the Kingsleys will be different – they never send anyone back, “no matter what.” And Bob and Sherry Kingsley do seem like warm and welcoming people, as do Janet’s new foster siblings. The problem is, all but one of Janet’s new brothers and sisters have disabilities, and the kids at school are pressuring Janet to take sides. They think because Janet is a “reg” (regular), she shouldn’t want anything to do with all the “crips” in school. But what are the popular kids gonna do when they find out about Janet living with the Kingsleys? This was one of my favorite books as a kid, and possibly the only one I’ve encountered that shows an ability-integrated school.
Okay – that’s plenty to think about, yes? Happy reading – and if anybody has any recommendations for the next list, feel free to write in!