Article: Books about Children with Disabilities

By Linda Lucas Walling

Sometimes children with disabilities like to read about other children who have disabilities similar to their own, and sometimes they do not. Materials about children with disabilities are frequently intended for and read by children without the disabilities presented. Unfortunately, much that has been published is boringly didactic and/or presents children with disabilities as more different from other children than they are similar. The focus is on the disability, and the books tend to reinforce negative stereotypes. They are rarely told from the perspective of the person with the disability. Many of them do not meet the basic criteria for good children’s books, although many recent ones do.

The Division of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (MRDD) of the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has established a biennial award “to recognize fictional children’s books with positive portrayals of individuals with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.” To be eligible for the Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award, the books must meet the following criteria: (a) inclusion of a character with mental retardation or developmental disabilities, (b) recognition as a picture book or chapter book written for children or young adults in story format, and categorization as fiction. The first picture book to receive the award was Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism, which is described below.

First of all, books about children with disabilities should meet basic criteria for good children’s literature. The story should be interesting and well-told with well developed characters. The story should be understandable, the writing direct, straight-forward, and appropriate for the child. Stereotypes should be avoided, and the language should be of high quality. Illustrations should establish the mood, theme, characters, and setting. The visual interpretation should be unique and valid. Pictures should add, clarify, and contribute to understanding. The pictures should be of high quality and the page layout must be well designed. The artistic style should be appropriate to the content. The size of the book should be appropriate to its content and use. The paper, typeface, and other design elements should be appropriate to the book’s content and age group.

In a picture book about a child with a disability, an interesting and entertaining story should present the child not as “special” or “different,” but as an ordinary child who is learning to cope with the obstacles in his or her world. Stories should not present people who “overcome disability” by hiding it. They should not play on sentimentality. The disability should be presented accurately as only one important characteristic of the child. The child should be presented as a whole child. In the best stories, realistic children, disabled and non-disabled, face realistic problems and learn to solve them. The children should be portrayed as involved in life as active, not passive, participants. Stories can help non-disabled children learn how to change their actions and attitudes so that they are not setting up more barriers. Within the context of the story, the child with the disability should be portrayed as involved with other children with disabilities as well as with non-disabled children.

The books described in this section have been chosen because they generally meet basic criteria for good children’s books. Their limitations are pointed out.

Brown, Tricia. 1984. Someone Special, Just Like You. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Photos by Fran Ortiz.
The reader goes through a day in the life of a small child. Black and white photos show active children with different kinds of disabilities. The reader is encouraged to “Meet someone special, just like you.” Children with disabilities are portrayed as ordinary children who can do things. There are only a few words on each page. The print is large with good contrast.

Carlson, Nancy. 1990. Arnie and the New Kid. New York: Viking.
The “new kid” is a dog named Philip who uses a wheelchair. Arnie is a cat who teases him. One day Arnie breaks his leg, and Philip befriends him. When Arnie’s cast comes off, Philip is afraid their friendship is at an end. But when Arnie is invited to play baseball, he says, “…as long as I can bring my coach.” The drawings are bright and outlined in black. The print is fairly small, and there are often many words on a page. Many words are on colored backgrounds with little contrast.

Clifton, Lucille. 1980. My Friend Jacob. New York: Dutton. Illus. by Thomas DiGrazia.
Sammy is a young boy who lives next door to Jacob, a teenager with mental retardation. They are best friends. Jacob teaches Sammy to name cars. Sammy teaches Jacob to knock before he enters Sammy’s room. The black and white drawings are somewhat muted and may be difficult for some children to see. The print is rather small and there are many lines of print on a page, but there is good contrast.

Cosgrove, Stephen. 1981. Leo the Lop. Los Angeles: Price/Stern/Sloan. Illus. by Robin James.
Leo’s ears hang down, but all the other bunnies’ ears stand up. They laugh at him. Leo tries everything to make his ears stand up, even hanging from a tree limb. The possum tells Leo that he looks normal with his ears hanging down when he hangs upside down in the tree. Leo tells the other bunnies that they aren’t normal because their ears don’t hang down. They try to make their ears hang down, too. The possum tells them that they look normal with their ears standing up. The answer to the question “What’s normal?” is: “Normal is whatever you are!”

Cowen-Fletcher, Jane. 1993. Mama Zooms. New York: Scholastic.
In this book, it is the parent who uses a wheelchair. Mama has a zooming machine. “Every morning Daddy puts me on Mama’s lap and we’re off!” “Mama zooms me down a smooth sidewalk.” Throughout the book, the child and his mother zoom together through many adventures until “Mama zooms me right up until bedtime.” The bright, large illustrations are full of energy and movement. The figures are outlined, which makes them easier to see. The print is large with good contrast, but there is some glare on the pages.

Emmert, Michelle. 1989. I’m the Big Sister Now. Niles, Il: Whitman. Illus. by Gail Owens.
This book focuses on the relationship between two sisters: Amy, who has severe cerebral palsy, and her younger sister, Michelle. Michelle describes the things her sister can’t do and her sister’s life at home, at school, and with her friends. Michelle also talks about what Amy contributes to Michelle’s life and to the life of the family. The book shows how people interact positively with Amy and how she responds. The print is small, and there are many lines on each page which may make it difficult for some children to read. In a section at the end of the book, a medical doctor describes cerebral palsy. The pictures are colorful, but not sharply outlined. They realistically portray Amy’s disability, but they also show her individuality and personality.

Fassler, Joan. 1975. Howie Helps Himself. Chicago: Whitman. Illus. by Joe Lasker.
Howie has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He is frustrated because he can’t wheel his own chair. One day when his daddy comes to pick him up at school, Howie is finally able to wheel to him. The book’s illustrations show Howie as a cheerful, energetic little boy who likes to wear a cowboy hat, in contrast to the text, which emphasizes his disabilities and downplays his abilities.

Lears, Laurie. 1998. Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism. Morton Grove, Il.: Whitman. Illustrator, Karen Ritz.
Ian is a small boy with autism who “thinks differently.” His two older sisters take him on a walk to the park to feed the ducks. Along the way, Ian focuses on many unusual things that he sees, hears, smells, feels, and tastes. His sisters are impatient and want to hurry him along. Bored, they ignore him for a moment, and he disappears. They realize how much they care about him, and they find him by remembering what he especially likes to do. On the way home, they walk with Ian as he wants to walk, seeing and hearing along with him although they still do not understand his fascinations. The illustrations support the story’s message that Ian focuses “differently.” They are colorful and bright but not outlined. Still, most of them probably could be easily distinguished. The print is large and there is adequate white space to make reading easier. (Adults who would like to have a better understanding of what Ian perceives may want to read Barron’s There’s a Boy in Here or Grandin’s Emergence or Thinking in Pictures. In the former book, a young man with autism and his mother describe his growing up autistic each from his/her own perspective. In the latter books, a world-renowned animal scientist talks about her childhood and life as a person with autism.)

Millman, Isaac. 1998. Moses goes to a Concert. New York: Farrar, Straus.
Moses is deaf. He and his classmates go to a concert. After the concert, the orchestra’s deaf percussionist talks with the children about her career, signing her message. The book teaches some American Sign Language. There are instructions at the beginning of the book, and the manual alphabet is illustrated at the end. On some pages ASL signs appear for some words. In some sequences, double page spreads show a long message sign by sign. The print is small, and there are often many words on each page. The pictures are bright and clear, but the pages are often cluttered.

Muldoon, Kathleen. 1989. Princess Pooh. Niles, IL: Whitman. Illus. by Linda Shute.
Patty’s big sister, Penny, uses a wheelchair. Patty is jealous of all the attention Penny gets. She calls Penny “Princess Pooh” and the chair, a “throne on wheels.” One day when Penny is asleep, Patty decides she’ll ride in the throne and practice being the princess. She discovers that using a wheelchair is hard work, especially when it rains and she is stranded far from home with the wheels rolled full of mud. When she sees her parents coming, she assumes they will be mad at her for damaging the chair. She’s surprised to discover that they are more concerned about her safety than they are about the chair. That night Patty and Penny talk about Penny’s life and the wheelchair. The print is small, and there are usually many words on each page. The illustrations are colorful. Most are easy to see even though they are not outlined.

Rabe, Berniece. 1988. Where’s Chimpy? Niles, IL: Whitman. Photos by Diane Schmidt.
Misty has Down Syndrome. Her daddy is putting her to bed when she realizes she’s lost Chimpy, her toy monkey. Daddy asks, “Where were you and Chimpy playing today?” She and Daddy look for Chimpy but find many other things instead. Finally, Misty finds Chimpy, but now Daddy has lost his glasses. Misty helps him find them. Daddy reads her a story, and Misty counts the things she found and goes to sleep. The book’s print is small, and there are many words on most pages. This is a book that focuses on Misty’s abilities. Most children can relate to the story, and children with Down Syndrome can delight in seeing pictures of someone who looks like them. Clear, brightly colored photos of Misty and her daddy illustrate the book, but some may be confusing. For example, Chimpy is pictured in the swing, and it’s only the second page! A child might not realize that the picture shows Misty remembering Chimpy in the swing and may wonder why Misty doesn’t see him.

Yolen, Jane. 1977. The Seeing Stick. New York: Crowell. Pictures by Remy Charlip and Demetra Maraslis.
A Chinese Emperor offers a reward to anyone who can make his blind daughter see. An old man takes up the challenge. He takes his walking stick and his whittling knife and heads for Peking. Along the way, he carves pictures of people and places on his “seeing stick,” what he calls his walking stick. He shows the stick to the princess and tells her the story of his trip as he guides her fingers over the images he has carved. He has her touch his face and then his image on the stick. The princess believes that she has grown eyes on the tips of her fingers. It is only at the end of the book that the reader learns the old man is blind, too. The print is somewhat small, and there are often many lines on a page. The illustrations subtly mirror the degree of sight. At the beginning of the book, the illustrations are black and white, very light, and not easy to distinguish. As the princess learns to see, soft colors are added, but the pictures are still not easily distinguished. The illustration on the last page, where we learn that the old man is blind, is again black and white.
It is encouraging that authors and publishers are beginning to produce books about children with disabilities that support their acceptance in the mainstream of life. Such books can be read and enjoyed by children who have no disabilities as well as by those who do.


Barron, Judy and Sean. 1992. There’s a Boy in Here. New York : Simon & Schuster.

Grandin, Temple. 1986. Emergence: Labelled Autistic. Novato, CA : Arena Press.

___. 1995. Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports From My Life With Autism. New York : Doubleday.