Growing up disabled, I could not find much representation of experiences like my own. Neurodiverse and mentally ill, I struggled to find positive and uplifting books that showed hopeful outcomes to living with my symptoms and conditions. Fortunately, today’s kid lit doesn’t shy away from disability but embraces it. Now more than ever, disabled younger readers have books that offer better representation of the diverse spectrum of disability. In the best children’s books about disabilities, you’ll find picture books and middle grade novels that showcase unforgettable characters navigating disability and life in an abled world.
Picture Books About Disability
After the Fall by Dan Santat
This inventive picture book expands on a story we all know well and good: Humpty Dumpty, who sat on a wall and had a great fall. But in Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat’s After the Fall, we find out what happens after: the hard work of recovery, healing, and trauma. When Humpty develops anxiety and a phobia of heights, he’ll have to find coping mechanisms to move forward instead of being stuck in the past.
Dad, Jackie, and Me by Myron Uhlberg and Colin Bootman
In the summer of 1947, Jackie Robinson is breaking barriers as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As the first Black player in baseball’s Major League, Robinson is breaking down barriers. Closely following Robinson is a young boy who translates the radio’s play-by-play into sign language for his Deaf father. Then one day they go to watch Robinson live.
Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari and Patrice Barton
Moose loves Zara most of all. Each time she and her wheelchair pack up and leave for school, Moose is forlorn. One day he escapes and joins her at school. On his escapade, Moose finds he loves to protect and comfort Zara and be read to. When Zara learns she might be able to have him come with her every day as a therapy dog, they work together to make that dream a reality.
A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing with an Autistic Sibling by Shaila Abdullah and Iman Tejpar
One of the best children’s books about physical disabilities, this tender story follows a young girl who lists all the things she does and does not like about dealing with her autistic brother. But by creating this “manual,” she comes to better understand his experience.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley
Looking for nonfiction children’s books about disabilities? Try Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley’s The Girl Who Thought in Pictures, in which we meet a young Temple Grandin, who thinks in pictures. Grandin’s unconventional mind is a mark of her autism. Later, Grandin achieves great things in science, becoming an icon in the autistic community.
I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood and Julianna Swaney
All Eva wants to do is fulfill her passion for dance and become a dancer one day. But her cerebral palsy and wheelchair set her apart from other children. When Eva learns of a dance class for children of all abilities, she eagerly signs up. With the support of her classmates and teachers, dancing becomes the joy and confidence-builder Eva needs to pursue her dreams.
Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor and Rafael López
Drawing on her own childhood with diabetes, Supreme Justice Sonia Sotomayor has crafted in Just Ask! a compelling book separating the range of abilities and disabilities kids can experience. Just Ask! is a celebration of being disabled and a rallying cry for better communication to break down stigma.
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan and Christiane Kröme
Malik is a kite fighter in Pakistan who uses a wheelchair. This year, he’s determined to win the kite fighting celebration of Basant. And indeed with Falcon, his trusty kite, he does just that. But when a bully targets Malik and another kid, he works to turn that bad energy around and help the girl being targeted.
Looking Out for Sarah by Glenna Lang
This picture book offers a unique perspective: that of a service dog. Sarah is a blind musician and educator. Her seeing-eye guide dog Perry accompanies her wherever she goes, including to her visits with kids she teaches. One time they even walked from Boston to New York to show the power of their bond and the fact that they can do anything—together.
A Miracle at Bates Memorial by Gin Noon Spaulding and Aranahaj Iqbal
A Miracle at Bates Memorial is the first book in Gin Noon Spaulding’s Adventure of Li-Li books. Li-Li is bright, intelligent, and sensory sensitive. As her family and school learn to make her experience more positive and inclusive, Li-Li begins to shine. This book is excellent for introducing themes of hyperlexia III and the sensory sensitivity that comes with it.
Mommy Sayang by Rosana Sullivan
Alleya and Mommy have a deep bond and share many experiences. Alleya hopes to dance among hibiscus flowers with Mommy one day. But then Mommy becomes sick, and it’s up to Alleya to help her recover. This poignant picture book fills a need in disability representation by showing a reality many kids know: that of a sick parent. Fortunately, this one has a happy ending.
Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
Today Patricia Polacco is an acclaimed children’s author. But back in her childhood, while Polacco excelled at art, she struggled with dyslexia. In this picture book memoir, Polacco opens up about how she, as “Tricia,” learned to work through her dyslexia setbacks with the help of a teacher, Mr. Falker. With Mr. Falker’s help, Polacco learns strategies to read and gets her confidence back.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best and Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Zulay is tight with her three best friends, who never let her feel less than amazing even with her blindness. When she expresses a desire to race on the school’s Field Day, her besties and a special aide help her prepare for the run. This picture book shows diverse, positive representation of inclusivity.
We’ll Paint the Octopus Red by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen and Pam Devito
Seeking great children’s books about intellectual disabilities? Add We’ll Paint the Octopus Red to your TBR. Six-year-old Emma eagerly awaits becoming a big sister. But when she finds out her baby brother has a condition called Down syndrome, she helps him learn more about the world around him, discovering there’s nothing he can’t do when they do it together.
When Charley Met Emma by Amy Webb and Merrilee Liddiard
Initially, when Charley sees Emma on the playground, he’s not sure how to behave. Emma has limb differences and uses a wheelchair. But soon the two strike up a friendship together. This delightful picture book emphasizes kindness, diversity of abilities, and friendship.
Middle Grade Novels About Disability
El Deafo by Cece Bell
A landmark work in disability representation, Cece Bell’s graphic novel memoir El Deafo is essential reading and one of the best children’s books about disabilities. Bell bases her book on her own experiences becoming deaf as a child after an illness. After her diagnosis, Bell struggled to live in an abled world but eventually finds community with other members of the Deaf community. Bell also draws strength from El Deafo, the superhero character she creates to help her find her “powers” and feel exceptional with unique gifts.
Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible by Suzanne Kamata
Fourteen-year-old Aiko Cassidy has cerebral palsy and has long been her sculptor mother’s muse. But Aiko’s getting tired of being someone else’s inspiration. She’d much rather pursue her dreams of becoming a manga artist. When she and her mother get invited to showcase her art in Paris in a special exhibit, Aiko is less than enthused. She’d rather go to Japan, study manga, and meet her father. But the trip to Paris ends up fulfilling Aiko in ways she never thought possible.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
This middle grade novel about disability stars Joey Pigza, who takes “dud meds,” AKA Ritalin, to calm his stormy moods. Joey tries to fit in with his classmates, but his attention challenges make it extra hard, and it seems like he can’t do anything right or “normal.” No matter what, it feels like school is a landmine for Joey. When Joey is sent to the school district’s special ed program, it could be his last chance to fit in and stay out of trouble, even with his endless energy.
Mascot by Antony John
After he’s paralyzed in the car crash that kills his father, Noah Savino is struggling to adjust to his new life. Being in a wheelchair proves frustrating, especially since Noah was an avid baseball player before the accident. Noah’s not happy about his new normal, including all the physical therapy that doesn’t seem to make a difference. But with the help of new friends, family, and supportive people in his school, Noah finds a way forward through his struggles.
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
A National Book Award winner, Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird tells the story of Caitlin, who has Apserger’s. Caitlin finds thinking beyond black and white confusing and has adapted her own skills to interpret and interact with the world around her. Caitlin used to go to her older brother, Devon, for help, but tragically Devon was killed in a school shooting. When she comes across the word “closure,” Caitlin knows she needs to get it, even if it lies somewhere in the grey area she’s less comfortable with.
Meena Meets Her Match by Karla Manternach and Rayner Alencar
For fans of Junie B. Jones and Ramona Quimby, Karla Manternach’s Meena Zee books portray a positive and inclusive environment where epileptic Meena shines. Meena finds friendships challenging, but still presses onward with her goals. Manternach’s books offer both an educational look into epilepsy and the personal experience of Meena as she sets out to create the most colorful Valentine’s Day Box in her class.
Mia Lee is Wheeling through Middle School by Melissa and Eva Shang
In Melissa and Eva Shang’s Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School, titular heroine Mia Lee is running to be Video Production Club President. The problem? Mia’s competition is the class mean girl, Angela Vanover. As the election progresses, Mia feels targeted by an unseen enemy who steals her campaign posters. But Mia has an arsenal of best friends and allies on her side. Notably, Melissa and Eva Shang are sisters who lobbied the American Girl Doll company to create a doll with a disability. Though they were denied by corporate, Melissa and Eva wrote this story to bring greater visibility and disability representation.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
At 8 years old, Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning and acquired superhuman abilities with math. Since then, Lucy’s been homeschooled by her supportive grandmother. But when it comes time for middle school, her grandma insists she tries going to school with her peers. Prodigy Lucy would rather test out, but reluctantly agrees, rising to her grandmother’s challenge to stretch her horizons. Alongside the normal middle school growing pains, Lucy also has obsessive compulsive disorder. Learning to live with OCD and social anxiety is just one of the tasks for the brilliant “Lightning Girl.”
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel and Jon Klassen
Chronic illness and disability can be hard for siblings to grasp, and inevitably brothers and sisters might feel some resentment towards their sick sibling. For more mature middle grade readers, Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest explores this darker side of this relationship dynamic with a fabulist story. Steve’s younger brother is a baby troubled with illness. One night, Steve is visited by a wasp queen who permeates his dreams and offers to “fix” Steve’s little brother. Steve negotiates whether or not to accept the wasp’s help or whether he can and should accept his brother for who he is.
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
This novel is a new classic in children’s books about physical disabilities. Melody is an 11-year-old with a photographic memory, synesthesia, and deep intelligence, but her genius proves unknown. Nobody realizes it because her cerebral palsy leaves her unable to talk, walk, or write. Eventually Melody gets a communication device that finally allows the world to witness her intelligence, grace, and grit.
Rules by Cynthia Lord
Twelve-year-old Catherine spends much of her time trying to help David, her autistic brother, navigate the world’s social rules while having trouble socially herself. Catherine finds David’s autism exhausting as her whole family’s lives seem to revolve around David’s symptoms and condition. But one summer, it seems like Catherine will get to break apart from David and live on her own, enjoying vacation with new friends. Eventually, Catherine begins to accept her brother’s diagnosis and her quirky relationship with him.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
If there’s a tech problem that needs to be solved, 12-year-old Iris is the person you find. With her legendary technology skills, Iris is used to finding solutions. Unfortunately, because she is the only Deaf kid at her school, she’s often passed over because people don’t expect her to be the genius intellectual she is. One day, Iris learns about Blue 55, a whale who cannot communicate with his species. Iris takes it upon herself to find a way to breach Blue 55’s silence and reach his heart. This lovely story about connection is a touching and tender read.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
In this captivating book, Caldecott medalist Brian Selznick inventively plays with text and images to converge two storylines 50 years apart. Ben is struck deaf just moments after unearthing a clue that could lead him to his absent father’s identity. Meanwhile, Rosa, who is Deaf, dreams of an actress and crafts a scrapbook of the experience. Both Ben and Rose go on quests to find the missing information they need. Ben’s passage is told in text while Rose’s is told in pictures to signify her visual world.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Sixth grader Ally has developed ways around her inability to read for years. Ally is embarrassed and ashamed of her dyslexia and tries desperately to keep it a secret. But this year, she gets Mr. Daniels in class, and he’s committed to helping Ally learn to read despite her dyslexia. This confidence-boosting children’s book is anchored in lovable Ally and her perseverance. As she comes to find the courage to get help, readers gleefully cheer her blossoming on.
For more disability in kid lit coverage here on Book Riot, check out these articles: