Books for Littles is an online curated list of children’s books that features strong, empowered and diverse voices. In their website post, The Uhura Test: Making Space for Peers and Equals, they establish a simple set of guidelines for black characters based on the strong, ground-breaking character Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek. The guidelines can be applied to characters from any marginalized group, including the disabled population. They suggest that characters with differences need to meet the following criteria:
- People of color or with disabilities, especially girls, should have agency and be the stars of their own story.
- The author writes from a lived experience, or has done the research to fill gaps in their knowledge.
- The plot is universally engaging, regardless of gender or ability.
- The book’s message connects with everyone, rather than offering a child with differences up as a person to be learned from or studied.
- The characters have value outside the gaze of a typically-functioning, white, male population.
Does this seem a bit heady for children’s books? Not really. Children with disabilities (which make up about 20 percent of the population) deserve to hear their own voices instead of reading about characters who offer a growth opportunity for their neuro-typical peers. Here’s a list of some favorite middle grade books that allow differently-abled kids a chance to see themselves.
1. Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
The plot: Ellie has Cerebral Palsy and wants to be a professional baker. She and her mom have to start over in a new town and neither is happy about it, until Ellie starts to make friends and wants to stay.
Why we love it: This funny book for ages 10 and up was written by the mom of a son with CP. The best part is Ellie’s emerging independent voice as she bares her soul to famous pastry chefs in adoring and poignant letters, and her candid frustration with navigating the world in a wheelchair.
2. Can You See Me? by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott
The plot: Sixth grader Tally has Autism and only her friend Layla knows. For some reason, Layla is having problems with Tally’s sensory differences for the first time in their friendship. In striving to appear normal to maintain friendships, Tally feels like she will lose her true self.
Why we love it: Co-written by an 11-year-old Autism activist and a special education teacher, this story is essentially the voice of author Libby Scott and the challenges she faces daily. The book doesn’t flow like a typical mid-grade story. The narrative seems odd until you realize it’s the inner voice of a young author with Autism. Her diary entries are unique, informative and funny and were our family’s favorite part of the book.
3. Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
The plot: As a non-verbal child with Autism, Nova is incredibly undervalued and ignored in the foster care system. Her older sister is missing, but Nova knows she’ll be back to watch the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The two share a passion for space, and Nova’s sister is the only one who understands her. With the right foster parents, everyone may soon discover how smart Nova really is.
Why we love it: Written by a former aide of students with disabilities, Panteleakos’ book displays understanding and love. NASA lovers will enjoy the space shuttle program references and those who know what happened in 1986 will have a nostalgic look back. This is the best book on our “read together as a family” list.
4. The Truth According to Blue by Eve Yohalem
The plot: Thirteen-year-old Blue has Type 1 Diabetes and a Diabetes alert dog to help her recognize scary symptoms. She spends the summer with her dog and a new annoying friend, searching for her grandfather’s legendary lost treasure.
Why we love it: This story perfectly highlights the importance of People First Language, as Blue is known as Diabetes Girl around town. Striving to prove to the world that her disease will not hold her back, Blue is fierce and real. The book is a fast-paced, fun adventure; we gobbled it up in two nights.
5. The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor
The plot: This award-winning novel follows Mason, a boy with learning disabilities, whose best friend dies, leaving him alone and sad. He befriends the tiny Calvin; and the odd couple hide out in their special space to avoid being bullied by peers.
Why we love it: From the lauded author of Waiting for Normal, this book is a truthful look at bullying and how even adults in power can misjudge and disbelieve disability. The heart of this book is friendship and the important fact that just one friend can make a difference. Part mystery and part coming of age novel, we all agreed we want to be Mason’s friend as well.
6. The Brave by James Bird
The plot: Collin has been raised by his dad, but Collin’s OCD has become so problematic that Dad sends him to live with his estranged mom on an Ojibwe reservation. In a new setting with nothing familiar except his loyal dog, Collin finds a sense of family he never knew and is challenged to face his OCD by new neighbor, Orenda. Orenda lives in a treehouse and believes she is becoming a butterfly. Her fantasy is masking a scary secret that changes Collin’s outlook.
Why we love it: Author James Bird is Ojibwe and was raised by a single mom. He had a similar childhood learning disability, in which he saw letters of the alphabet as stories, but he developed the “weakness” into a screenwriting career. This story seemed so real to us that our youngest high-schooler felt like he wanted to befriend the characters.
Emily Dolton is resource specialist and mom of two boys, one with 22q 11.2 Deletion Syndrome.