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Books

16 Books for Kids & Adults on Navigating Disabilities & Special Needs

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I recently wrote about my son’s love of reading and how it influences his view of the world. It didn’t occur to me that an essay about my budding bookworm might affect the mood of a good friend of mind whose child learns a little differently. But it triggered her, and therefore it triggered me.

Being a writer of books for kids (and their parents) requires a special kind of mindfulness, and I’m working hard to honor all kinds of experiences. Understandably, it rattles my friend when someone tells her about their child’s special love of reading, the great pleasure that child gets from losing himself in his books. My friend’s child—creative, funny, athletic, and bright—has dyslexia, and will always struggle with untangling the tangled up pages in front of her. It’s a challenge indeed, but they’re up for it.

Likewise, I have friends whose children struggle with ADHD, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and if I have learned anything from them, it is this: When your child learns differently, walks differently, feels things differently, life itself becomes different.

Despite more and more awareness and inclusion campaigns regarding differences and disabilities of all kinds, it often takes a personal connection to someone whose child is struggling with something unseen, or something seen but misunderstood, that we gain some insight into the lives of people for whom little things are a big struggle. February happens to be National Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to take a good, hard look inside the experience of a person whose differences, whether physical, neurological, or psychological, inform their lives and the lives of those closest to them.

We talk a lot in children’s publishing about holding up mirrors and opening up windows—it can be so validating and reassuring to see yourself in a book, to see your experience written about in a way that makes you feel understood. It can also be exciting to open a window to a reader who might not otherwise get inside these experiences, and getting inside of an experience is, frankly, vital to our understanding of others.

Read on for mirrors and windows for every kid (and most grown-ups, too).

Picture Books/Early Readers

Thank You, Mr. Falker” by Patricia Polacco

A picture book about the gift a very special teachers gives to a child struggling with the challenges of dyslexia.

Cakes and Miracles” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrated by Jaime Zollars

This picture book combines the triumphant story of a resourceful blind child with the holiday of Purim.

Hank Zipzer” series by Henry Winkler, a.k.a The Fonz

A wonderful series for emerging readers, featuring a dynamic boy character who happens to have dyslexia. Bonus: The book’s typeset in a special font to make it easier for the dyslexic reader to access.

Jacob’s Eye Patch” by Beth Kobliner Shaw, illustrated by Jules Feiffer

A truly charming picture book about making connections thanks to our differences. 

Be a Friend” by Salina Yoon

This is a gorgeous book about how to be a friend, period. A must-read.

Middle Grade Fiction

El Deafo” by Cece Bell

Highly engaging and accessible, this is a memoir of sorts about hearing loss, written and illustrated in comic style. Witty and inspiring. Middle schoolers will love this.

Fish in a Tree” by Lynda Mullally Hunt

Another must-read. Here’s a line that tells you all you need to know about this special novel: “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” An extraordinary story.

Out of My Mind” by Sharon Draper

My daughter’s favorite book ever, ever. The triumph of this character in the face of living with cerebral palsy is captivating.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key” by Jack Gantos

I cannot recommend this enough, especially for boys with ADHD.

Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

If you or your child has somehow never read this, um, go do it. Pronto. Kindness is the only way.

Rules” by Cynthia Lord

A beautiful portrait of siblings and family living with autism.

Finding Perfect” by Elly Swartz

A beautiful and authentic story about a girl whose anxiety disorder plagues her. The portrayal of her interior life as she navigates middle school and the ups and downs of her family life is especially compelling.

Forget Me Not” by Ellie Terry

A compelling novel in verse featuring a character living with Tourette syndrome, to be released March 14.

Mockingbird” by Katherine Erskine

A haunting book for older readers, this one captures the struggle of a girl who must cope with her Aspergers as her life crumbles around her. 

Grown-Ups

Ketchup Is MY Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism” by Liane Kupferberg Carter

The Little Gate-Crasher: The Life and Photos of Mace Bugen” by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

The extraordinary biography of a man living with dwarfism, written by his great-niece Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture in Melrose Park.

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