ReadABILITY| Great Books Centering Disability Narratives

Ranging from memoir to fantasy, these titles star young people living with a range of disabilities. 

The term disability encompasses diverse realities. Indeed, people living with intellectual disabilities have different concerns than people with autism or individuals who use a wheelchair. But all face unique challenges, from accessibility to appropriate educational opportunities to gaining societal acceptance. According to the World Health Organization’s first-ever report on disability in 2011, 15 percent of the world’s population lives with some type of disability.

The publishing industry has been slow to offer books written by authors who identify as disabled or about people living with disabilities. But publishers are beginning to fill the void. Titles such as Cece Bell’s El Deafo and Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello Universe are beloved by young readers and considered contemporary classics. Listed here are additional offerings for middle and upper grade students; included are memoirs, realistic fiction, fantasy, and a couple of anthologies (nonfiction and fiction).

 

Middle Grade

Cotterill, Jo. A Storm of Strawberries. 240p. Yellow Jacket. Mar. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781499808384.
Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old Darby lives on a strawberry farm; she loves dancing to music videos; worships her older sister, Kaydee; and looks forward to the annual chocolate egg hunt. The tween, who has Down syndrome, tells the story of one tumultuous weekend when a tornado hits the farm, bringing with it emotional familial upheaval. With a literal approach to situations and an ability to recognize what’s important, Darby brings her family together after a confrontation in which Kaydee is outed.

Kelly, Lynne. Song for a Whale. 320p. Delacorte. Feb. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781524770235.
Gr 4-6 –At school, where Iris is the only Deaf student, she learns about the efforts of a conservancy group to tag a hybrid blue whale referred to as Blue 55. The whale’s unique song is emitted at a frequency of 55 hertz, while others of his species sing at 35 hertz or lower. Blue 55’s attempts to communicate with other whales are unsuccessful. Iris’s feelings of kinship toward the creature propel her on a mission to create a song that he can hear.

Philip, Aaron with Tonya Bolden. This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (NOT Disability). 192p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062403544.
Gr 3-7 –Philip is an artist, loves anime, and is a disability activist with an active Tumblr blog, Aaronverse. Born in Antigua and Barbuda, he moved to New York City with his family at the age of two to have his medical needs addressed, resulting in a diagnosis of cerebral palsy. The author writes humorously and candidly about the challenges that he and his family faced, including immigration and employment issues and homelessness, and about the many friends who helped them along the way.

Reeves, Jordan & Jen Lee Reeves. Born Just Right. 160p. S. & S./Aladdin. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534428386.
Gr 4-8 –Jordan Reeves’s message is to be proud of the body you have. She urges readers who have differences to speak up about them and make the world a better place. With her mother, the author chronicles her work with Project Unicorn, an organization that encourages those with differences to view them as superpowers. Through that organization, Reeves created a 3-D printed prosthesis that shoots glitter.

Uhlberg, Myron. The Sound of Silence: Growing Up Hearing with Deaf Parents. 240p. Albert Whitman. May 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780807531464.
Gr 3-6 –Uhlberg was born hearing in 1933 to Deaf parents; his first language was sign language. As soon as he learned spoken English, he was expected to interpret for his parents. During the early decades of the 1900s, Deaf people were often regarded as unintelligent, and Uhlberg witnessed many instances of cruelty directed toward his parents. A poignant meditation on the beauty of language—both signed and spoken—and the importance of communication.

Vaught, Susan. Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse. 320p. S & S. May 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534425019.
Gr 4-6 –Jesse doesn’t like itchy clothes, isn’t a fan of soap, and has trouble controlling her anger. But with the help of her dog Sam-Sam and her first real friend, Springer, the girl sets out to help her dad when he is accused of stealing from the library fund. With her mom deployed to Iraq, and a preoccupied parent at home, there are many opportunities for bravery—and sleuthing—when a tornado hits town in this heartwarming mystery.


 

YA

Brown, Keah. The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons To Fall in Love with Me. 256p. S. & S./Atria. Aug. 2019. Tr $17. ISBN 9781982100544.
Gr 10 Up –Founder of the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute, Brown writes about life as a black woman with cerebral palsy. Her essays about her passion for pop culture, an identical twin who doesn’t share her disorder, and navigating a world of mostly nondisabled white people are infused with wit and honesty.

Burcaw, Shane. Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse. 208p. Roaring Brook. Apr. 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781626727700.
Gr 9 Up –Vlogger Burcaw (Laughing at My Nightmare) works, travels, and lives with his girlfriend. Are there challenges living with spinal muscular atrophy? Heck, yes! Does he ever feel like the care he requires overburdens his girlfriend? You bet. Burcaw is frank about those challenges and explains that they have fostered an unparalleled intimacy. Readers will revel in the author’s humor.

Jensen, Kelly, ed. (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health. 240p. Algonquin. 2018. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781616207816.
Gr 8 Up –In this poignant anthology, dozens of authors, including YA favorites Libba Bray and Adam Silvera, write about life with mental health challenges such as eating disorders, anxiety, addictive behaviors, post-traumatic stress disorder, and body dysmorphia. Honest and compelling.

Kemmerer, Brigid. A Curse So Dark and Lonely. 496p. Bloomsbury. Jan. 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781681195087.
Gr 9 Up –Every season Prince Rhen turns into a monster and terrorizes his people. The curse can be broken only if someone falls in love with him. When Rhen sends Commander Grey to search for a candidate, Harper is transported to a parallel universe. Cerebral palsy held her back in her world, but not in Emberfall. This twist on the “Beauty and the Beast” story is the first in a fiction series.

Nijkamp, Marieke, ed. Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens. 320p. Farrar. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374306502.
Gr 8 Up –A collection of short stories featuring teens with disabilities by authors who identify as disabled. The disabilities of the authors and the characters include physical and neurodivergent differences. The protagonists face challenges, both internal and external. The struggle with the disability is the dominant challenge in some entries, while in others, the presence of a disability or difference is more subtle.

Steiger, A.J. When My Heart Joins the Thousand. 352p. HarperTeen. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062656476.
Gr 10 Up –Alfie Fitz wants to become an emancipated minor. For now she lives alone under the watchful eye of her social worker. The 17-year-old doesn’t like to be touched, and her only friend is Chance, a one-winged hawk at the zoo where she works. When Alfie meets Stanley, a kind and patient teen who walks with a cane, she makes another friend. A raw and honest depiction of friendship—and potential romance—between two atypical teens.

Thomas, Leah. Wild and Crooked. 448p. Bloomsbury. Jun. 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781547600021.
Gr 8 Up –Kalyn Spence prides herself on her toughness, but when she returns to her dad’s hometown and starts school, she uses a pseudonym: Rose Poplawski. Kalyn’s dad, after all, is in jail for murdering the town’s golden boy 17 years earlier. Gus Peake is known for two things: his cerebral palsy and that his dad was murdered before he was born. Worlds collide in this delightfully offbeat, poignant novel.


 


Ragan O’Malley is the head librarian at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY.

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