Choosing children’s books that include and affirm disability experiences

When it comes to disability representation in children’s literature, historically, books have been authored by non-disabled people and for non-disabled people, according to award-winning author Corinne Duyvis. These books don’t “[consider] that the people reading them might themselves be disabled” or “that the perspective of an actual disabled person might differ from what a non-disabled author offers,” Duyvis said.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison has analyzed the diversity of about 18,000 children’s books published in the U.S. between 2018 and 2022. Of the 975 books that had a disability theme or featured a significant character with a disability, 27% were by creators who publicly identified as disabled.*

To counter this imbalance, Duyvis recommended that educators, librarians and parents seek out books by disabled people. Duyvis and two librarians talked with MindShift about what else educators and caregivers should look for when selecting children’s literature that represents disability and what conversations with kids about these books and about disabilities can look like. They also offered recommendations of inclusive, affirming books for kids from preschool to high school.

Highlighting inclusivity and diversity

Often, when disability has been shown in the pages of children’s books, it has been through the experiences of white or male characters, according to Elizabeth Perez, a librarian at San Francisco Public Library’s Children’s Center. But Perez said that there is always room for more books from other perspectives. For example, she would love to see more disability representation in non-English language and bilingual kids’ literature. When publishers only elect to translate best sellers they “perpetuate a lack of inclusivity in publishing,” she said.

Picture books: My Three Best Friends And Me, Zulay by Cari Best and Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Song In the City by Daniel Bernstrom and Jenin Mohammed, Bodies Are Cool by Tyler Feder

Chapter book: Built For Speed by Vicky Fang

Middle grade: Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth, The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

Young adult: Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, edited by Marieke Nijkamp

Countering misinformation

Disability representation in kids’ literature can also educate readers about what living with a disability might look like or mean. These books help to counter misinformation, said Julia Torres, a librarian, educator and activist. Educators should steer away from “disability warrior” and “trauma warrior” tropes, said Perez. Although trauma might be part of someone’s experience with a disability, Torres said, “We can center a type of children’s literature where the disability is a part of a person’s lived experience and identity, just as a cultural or ethnic or linguistic identity is part of the human experience.”

Picture book: Sam’s Super Seats by Keah Brown and Sharee Miller

Chapter book: A-Z Animal Mystery by Kayla Whaley

Middle grade: Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story Of A Rebel Girl On Wheels Who Helped Spark A Revolution by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner

Young adult: Disability Visibility: 17 First-Person Stories for Today, edited by Alice Wong

Disability representation in fantasy books

According to Perez, the fantasy genre is particularly lacking in disability representation. “People of all abilities can exist in any fantasy. We exist in real life. Why not in the fantasy world?” she asked. Duyvis pointed to her own novel, The Art of Saving the World, about a girl with an anxiety disorder who explores who she is through alternate universes, as an example of disability representation in fantasy. Another of Duyvis’ books, On the Edge of Gone is about an autistic girl who must prove herself worthy of securing a seat on the last generation ship to leave an apocalyptic earth. Just because the character is autistic “Does that make her any less worthy of survival?” Duyvis asked.

Middle grade: Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez, My Aunt is a Monster by Reimena Yee, The Tea Dragon series by Kay O’Neill, The Real Boy By Anne Ursu

Young adult: The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp

Appreciating different experiences

Disability representation in children’s literature is for everybody. “Whether you’re disabled or not, you can appreciate a book with a character who is or is not disabled,” said Duyvis. A reader who is disabled might read a book with disability representation and recognize themselves, while a non-disabled reader might recognize disability as “a little more normal,” she added.

Teachers can foster affirming and enriching conversations surrounding disability representation in children’s literature by asking: “What do you think of how other people in the book are reacting to the character?” If students are reading a book that includes an autistic character, the educator might ask them to think about what a singular character represents and explain that it “doesn’t necessarily mean that this is what any or all autistic people are actually like,” said Duyvis.

When students are encounter books that don’t represent disability in an inclusive or affirming way, Duyvis encouraged educators to promote critical thinking by having students ask themselves, “Can I necessarily trust what I read to be true?”

Torres recommended avoiding language like, “How did the person survive or thrive despite their disability?” Framing a disabled person’s existence “in spite” of their disability, can suggest that the person’s disability takes away from the value of their life. Torres said it might be helpful to ask these questions using affirming language instead:

  • What did you learn about living with this particular disability?
  • What are some misconceptions that you have unlearned?
  • If you were to uplift things about the character what would those be?

When students have discussions about differences or disability representation in children’s literature, Perez likes to use the “mirrors and windows” approach. Students should see themselves, the mirror, but should also see others represented in what they read, the window. This can help to eliminate isolation.

Having these discussions in the classroom is not about garnering sympathy, said Torres. Rather, “it would feel beautiful not to have to explain.” Being open minded is the crux of disability inclusion and representation in kids’ literature. “Don’t limit an audience based on who the main character is,” said Duyvis.

Picture books: My City Speaks by Darren Lebeuf and Ashley Barron, A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth by Christina Soontornvat and Dow Phumiruk, Listen: How Evelyn Glennie, A Deaf Girl, Changed Percussion by Shannon Stocker

Middle grade: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, El Deafo by Cece Bell

Young adult: (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start The Conversation About Mental Health, edited by Kelly Jensen

*Editor’s note: Independent analysis of data accessed on July 14, 2023 by KQED MindShift using the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison Diversity Statistics Book Search. CCBC researches whether the creator of a book identifies as disabled if a book contains disabled characters or disability themes; it does not collect this data for all books it receives.

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