The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison analyzes the children’s books that publishers send them every year. Last year, they received 698 picture books. Just two of them – TWO out of 698 – had main characters who had disabilities.
What about the picture books at your house? How many do you have? How many have characters with disabilities? The book collection at my godson’s house is probably typical. Four big piles of books with no disabled characters, and two very small stacks that have major or minor characters with disabilities.
Why does it matter?
When children meet people with disabilities in books, they learn that disabilities exist, and that neither the disability nor the disabled person is a cause for worry or fear. They can satisfy their curiosity without embarrassing anyone. And later, when they meet a disabled person in real life, they will be able to treat them as an ordinary person who just happens to have a disability.
But if you want your children to read these books, you’re going to have to make an effort to get them. If you’re looking for middle grade or YA books, check out the books about ability and disability at Books Matter, the disability category at A Mighty Girl, and the Honor Roll at Disability in Kidlit.
If you’re looking for picture books, I’ve got 14 terrific ones here.
Picture books with characters who use wheelchairs
People who use wheelchairs are over-represented among disabled characters in picture books. I think that’s because authors and publishers think that mobility impairments are easier to represent, and easier to understand, than other disabilities.
My Pal, Victor by Diane Gonzales Bertrand
In this bilingual (English/Spanish) book, Dominic and Victor are best friends. They do everything together. You don’t learn until the last page of the book that Victor uses a wheelchair.
Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari
Hello Goodbye Dog is about a biracial girl who uses a wheelchair to get around. But the book is not about race, and it’s not about disability. It’s about the relationship between the girl and the dog who adores her. And it’s one of the most delightful picture books I’ve ever read.
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan
For the kite-flying festival of Basant, Malik creates a small, speedy kite that he names Falcon. His wheelchair isn’t an obstacle for the festival; he can fly his kite from the roof of the building where he lives. If he can snag all the other kites out of the sky, he’ll be King of Basant.
Arabella by Wendy Orr
Matthew wants to rescue his grandfather’s model boat, which has been swept out to sea in a storm. So he takes his grandfather’s real sailboat out, without permission, and discovers that the storm isn’t really over yet.
Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle
Catherine’s best friend, Elizabeth, sometimes uses crutches and sometimes a wheelchair. It’s no big deal to Catherine. She loves her friend, and she loves Pascha!
The Saint Nicholas Day Snow by Charlotte Riggle
Elizabeth has a bigger role in this book than in Catherine’s Pascha. She’s spending the night at Catherine’s house because her parents had to leave town suddenly to look after her grandmother. And, as in Catherine’s Pascha, she uses a wheelchair and crutches according to the situation.
When Charley Met Emma by Amy Webb
Charley knows that different isn’t weird, sad, bad, or strange. It’s just different. And he knows that different is OK. Until he meets Emma. Emma has limb differences, and she uses a wheelchair. Charlie isn’t sure what he thinks about Emma’s differences. But with the support of his mom and Emma’s sister, the two children spend time together and become friends.
Read my full review of when Charley Met Emma.
Picture books with blind characters
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best
This book is absolutely delightful! Zulay is a cheerful first grader who is Black (which doesn’t matter to the story) and blind (which is essential to the story). She is learning to use her white cane to get around, and that doesn’t make her happy. Not until she decides she wants to run in a race.
Looking Out for Sarah by Glenna Lang
A day in the life of Perry, a guide dog, and his blind human, Sarah. The story is meant to teach the reader about what blind people can do, and how their guide dogs help them. It’s particularly valuable, because Sarah is a real person, and Perry was her real guide dog.
Picture books with characters who are deaf
The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin
This story is based on the life of a real person. William Hoy was one of the first deaf people to play professional baseball, and some say he was the person who introduced hand signals to the game.
The Secrets Hidden Beneath the Palm Tree by Angeliki Pedersen
This book introduces deafness for children through conversations between a little girl named Angelia and her classmate Jacob, who is deaf.
Dad, Jackie, and Me by Myron Uhlberg
This book is a baseball story. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of a boy who could hear and his father who was Deaf. The boy loved baseball. His father, not so much. Until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. The boy’s father saw something of his own life in Jackie’s. As the father and son bonded over baseball, the boy came to understand why his father was enraptured by Jackie Robinson.
Picture books with characters who have dyslexia
The Boy, a Kitchen, and His Cave by Catherine K. Contopoulos
We honestly don’t know much about St. Euphrosynos. In this version of his story, Euphrosynos struggled in school. He couldn’t learn to read. He’d much rather work in the fields, or go to church.
Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
This story, like many of Polacco’s stories, is based on her own life. She was severely dyslexic. What a blessing for all of us that her own Mr. Falker taught her to read, and to write, so she could give us so many wonderful books!
Picture books with neurodiverse or autistic characters
A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey
Henry is a little boy with autism. And Henry wants a friend. He doesn’t quite know how to figure out who might be his friend. He considers the teacher, and all the children in his class, and even Gilly the goldfish. And Gilly helps him find his friend.
The Suitcase by Jane G. Meyer
The subtitle says this is a book about giving. It’s also a book about what happens when you accept a child with autism just exactly the way they are. (The book doesn’t say that Thomas, the main character, is autistic. But his behavior is almost entirely consistent with autism.)
A Miracle at Bates Memorial by Gin Noon Spaulding
Li-Li is a Black girl who has a speech delay and sensory issues, and Bates Memorial is her church. She loves her church. But sometimes church is too much for her. Sometimes, to avoid a total meltdown, she needs a miracle.
Picture books with characters who have other disabilities
There are many, many different kinds of disabilities. The main characters in the books in this section have disabilities that are less commonly seen in picture books.
The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane by C.M. Millen
Brother Theophane was a young monk in the Middle Ages. If he lived in another century, he might have been diagnosed with ADHD. He struggled to stay focused on his routines and on the tasks in the scriptorium, until he was given a job that kept him outdoors and moving most of the time.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz
In this book, Alan Rabinowitz tells the story of his childhood. He had a stutter that was so severe, he couldn’t get words out. Unless he was talking to animals. He told his pets, and a jaguar at the zoo, that if he ever found his voice, he would speak for them. As an adult, he kept that promise.
After the Fall by Dan Santat
Dan Santat wrote After the Fall as a love letter to his wife. The fall in the book is not Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden. It’s Humpty Dumpty’s fall from the wall. And this book tells the story of his recovery from fear. It’s one of the most powerful picture books I’ve ever seen.
Just Ask by Sonia Sotomayor
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book introduces children to a wide range of disabilities in a friendly and matter-of-fact way. From diabetes (which Sotomayor has) to Down syndrome, asthma to autism, the book encourages children to recognize and accept differences. And if people are different in ways you don’t understand, it’s okay to just ask.
17 Essential Picture Books for Orthodox Christian Kids: These seventeen picture books all have Orthodox Christian characters.
Six Exceptional Multicultural Easter Picture Books: If you want books that show people celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, start with these six books. They’re all fabulous.
And check out 3 Children’s Books with Disabled Main Characters, a Kidlit Karma review I wrote as a guest post on Angela Isaac’s blog. It covers A Splash of Red, a picture book biography of artist Horace Pippin, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, a middle grade novel, and The Dragon Slayer’s Handbook, a fantasy for tweens and teens. It was fun to review the books for older kids — and all three books are fabulous!