Books That Teach Kids and Teens about Disabilities

Books that teach kids and teens about disabilities; Removing the Stumbling Block

If you are anything like me, you eagerly await the summer months to finally make a sizable dent in that pile of books adorning your nightstand. My summer reading list typically includes a mix of young adult novels, professional books, and a healthy handful of books for fun.

I really love to read, but as an Educator and a parent, reading more than one or two books a month throughout the school year is a challenge. Since I typically begin to put books aside for summer throughout the late Winter & Spring, I find myself drawn to articles splayed across the internet that proclaim, “Best Summer Reading Books for Your Middle Schooler” or “Ten Must Read Books in 2016” or even “Perfect Summer Reading Lists for All Ages.” And while I do typically find some wonderful gems this way, I have also realized that something is missing. The lists I love lack an important category: “Books That Teach Kids and Teens about Disabilities”.

As a Jewish Educator who cares deeply about disability inclusion, I am continuously drawn to well-written books that frame disability in a positive, readable and easy-to-understand way.

Here are some of my favorites:

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper: This should, in my opinion, go to the top of every reading list. I have read it more than once and I recommend it often to teachers, parents and teens. I’ve even led a faculty book discussion around this gem: “Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom—the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged, because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it…somehow.” Out of My Mind is a powerful story that will tug at your emotions and help you to rethink the way in which you interact with individuals who lack the ability to speak in traditional ways.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Named around one of my favorite quotes, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid,” this book sheds light on dyslexia, a reading disability that is too frequently overlooked and misdiagnosed. “Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.” Every child needs a “Mr. Daniels” and this book is a great way to inspire teaching and relationships that celebrate diversity.

Wonder by R J Palacio: This is an outstanding novel not only for gaining perspective and insight, but for teaching kindness. I also highly recommend the short vignettes on each of the characters, particularly The Julian Chapter. “I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse. August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can't get past Auggie's extraordinary face. WONDER begins from Auggie's point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community's struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.”

Bonus: We Are All Wonders for young children. Delightful!
All three of these novels are perfect for parents and children to read together. It is also interesting to note that two of the three protagonists are female, despite the fact that their disabilities are more commonly diagnosed and/or associated with males. 

Worth noting: The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. My review is here. Naoki Higashida, a very smart, very self-aware, and very charming thirteen-year-old boy with autism, writes this one-of-a-kind memoir that demonstrates how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives, and responds in ways few of us can imagine. Using an alphabet grid to painstakingly construct words, sentences, and thoughts that he is unable to speak out loud, Naoki answers even the most delicate questions that people want to know. Questions such as: “Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly?” “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” “Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?” and “What’s the reason you jump?” (Naoki’s answer: “When I’m jumping, it’s as if my feelings are going upward to the sky.”) With disarming honesty and a generous heart, Naoki shares his unique point of view on not only autism but life itself.

Here are some of the books on my summer reading list:

Learning Outside the Lines by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole: “Every day, your school, your teachers, and even your peers draw lines to measure and standardize intelligence. They decide what criteria make one person smart and another person stupid. They decide who will succeed and who will just get by. Perhaps you find yourself outside the norm, because you learn differently—but, unlike your classmates, you have no system in place that consistently supports your ability and desire to learn. Simply put, you are considered lazy and stupid. You are expected to fail. Learning Outside the Lines is written by two such “academic failures”—that is, two academic failures who graduated from Brown University at the top of their class. Jonathan Mooney and David Cole teach you how to take control of your education and find true success—and they offer all the reasons why you should persevere. Witty, bold, and disarmingly honest, Learning Outside the Lines takes you on a journey toward personal empowerment and profound educational change, proving once again that rules sometimes need to be broken.”

Rules by Cynthia Lord: “Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules from "a peach is not a funny-looking apple" to "keep your pants on in public"— in order to head off David’s embarrassing behaviors. But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, its her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?”

El Deafo by Cece Bell: “Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid. The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is.”

What are you reading?

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