Kids Chapter Books That Feature Other-Abled Main Characters

I've noticed that a lot of kids I've worked with, mainly ages 8-12, are really into chapter books that feature other-abled protagonists. This makes me smile, not just because it's wonderful to see kids learn how to appreciate differences in others through literature, but also because I think it reflects how much more open-minded kids can be than adults to experiences with which they aren't necessarily familiar. Kids have a natural, positive curiosity about people who are other-abled, so childhood is the perfect time to start a lifelong habit of acceptance towards others. Novels, of course, are one of the most engaging means we have of stepping into the experience of a stranger. So, we can combine childhood openness with quality literature to enhance compassion, curiosity, and understanding of others, traits that all of us need.

Petey by Ben Mikaelsen

I cried when I read this book. And I read a lot. It's simply beautiful. Petey was born in 1922 and committed to a state hospital due to his severe disabilities. (He has cerebral palsy, which wasn't a diagnosis back then.) Fast forward about 80 years and he is befriended by a young teen. Do not let your child (or yourself!) miss this touching book about the power of friendship and the resilience of humankind.

Rain Reign by Ann Martin

I'm very excited to share this new chapter book with you, which was written by an author I particularly admire. Rose, the main character, has high-functioning autism, and an obsession with homonyms. I expect this book to appear on forthcoming "best of" awards lists for 2014. Here are some review blurbs from several major journals:

"Rose is a character we root for every step of the way. She is resilient, honest, and, in her own odd way, very perceptive; a most reliable narrator." - The Horn Book, STARRED REVIEW
*"Though Rose's story is often heartbreaking, her matter-of-face narration provides moments of humor. Readers will empathize with Rose, who finds strength and empowerment through her unique way of looking at the world." - School Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW
*"Simplicity, clarity, and emotional resonance are hallmarks of Rose's first-person narrative, which offers an unflinching view of her world from her perspective . . . A strong story told in a nuanced, highly accessible way." - Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
*"Martin has penned a riveting, seamless narrative in which each word sings and each scene counts." - Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW
*"Newbery Honor author Martin (A Corner of the Universe) is extremely successful in capturing Rose’s perspective and personality..."- Publishers Weekley, STARRED REVIEW

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff

My voracious readers, who are 9 and 11 years old, named this to their top five chapter books of 2014. It features a fifth grader who struggles with learning. Read my full review here

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

A memoir of the author's childhood growing up deaf and using a large hearing aid. This book is written in graphic novel (comic strip) format, which makes it super accessible to kids. It was another of my daughters' favorite picks of 2014 and has been highly critically acclaimed. Take a look at my full review here

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

This is a winter survival story that features a young girl who would be diagnosed with dyslexia, had the term been invented in the 1870s. Read my full review here

Paperboy by Vince Vawter 

This Newbery honor-winning chapter book is the fictional account of a young boy growing up in segregated Memphis in the 1960s. He also happens to deal with a serious stutter. Read my full review here

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

Mockingbird features a fifth-grade protagonist with Asperger's, and it's been praised for its clear portrayal of her thought processes. It also deals with grief and the loss of the main character's older brother in a shooting, so may be most appropriate for readers ages 10 and up. Mockingbird was awarded the prestigious National Book Award in 2010,

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

It's hard to do justice to this profound book. I can tell you that I have yet to meet a girl or boy who read it who didn't come back to me and tell me how much they liked it. It's the story of a gifted girl who can neither talk nor write. Here's what the author had to say about this special book:

People often ask me, "What was your inspiration for Out of my Mind?" I reply, "All great stories emerge from deep truths that rest within us." But the real truth of a story often can be found in places that not even the author has dared to explore. I suppose the character of Melody came from my experiences in raising a child with developmental difficulties. But Melody is not my daughter. Melody is pure fiction--a unique little girl who has come into being from a mixture of love and understanding. Out of my Mind is the story of a ten-year-old-girl who cannot walk or talk. She has spirit, determination, intelligence and wit, and no one knows it. But from buildings that are not wheelchair--accessible to classmates who make fun of her she finds a strength within herself she never knew existed.

I was fiercely adamant that nobody feel sorry for Melody. I wanted her to be accepted as a character and as a person, not as a representative for people with disabilities. Melody is a tribute to all the parents of disabled kids who struggle, to all those children who are misunderstood, to all those caregivers who help every step of the way. It's also written for people who look away, who pretend they don't see, or who don't know what to say when they encounter someone who faces life with obvious differences. Just smile and say hello! 

King of the Mound: My Summer with Satchel Paige by Wes Tooke

King of the Mound has a very creative plot line: A young, talented pitcher is crippled by polio and fears he'll never play baseball again. Through his father the boy meets Satchel Paige, who's disability comes in another form -- the color of his skin. Paige teaches the boy that all barriers can be overcome when you believe in yourself and refuse to give up. This isn't just a typical sports chapter book. It also happens to be one that I've noticed both boys and girls like to read.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (series) by Jack Gantos

Joey has ADHD, and Gantos chronicles the life and misadventures of his protagonist with humor, empathy, and readability. With the 2014 release of the fifth installment in this series, the story continues. Gantos has received multiple accolades for these tales, which make excellent read-alouds. 

Al Capone Does My Shirts (trilogy) by Gennifer Choldenko

It's 1935 and Moose's life is upended when he and his family must move to San Francisco to find a school that will accept his autistic sister. Much like the Joey Pigza series, this one relies on humor and has been beloved by kids for more than ten years. And also like Jack Gantos' books, Choldenko's series has garnered accolades from reviewers. I like that this one tells the story of an other-abled character from the perspective of a sibling.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Once again told from the point of view of a sibling, this is the story of a girl trying to cope with her autistic brother, who often embarrasses her, and whom she feels gets the bulk of their parents' attention. The protagonist's obsession with "normal" is altered when she meets a non-verbal paraplegic boy who helps her see the world from a different perspective.  Rules is a warm read that kids have received well. It also won two major book awards. 

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Two stories are paralleled in this unique novel, one of a young girl who is deaf and living in the past, and one of a modern-day boy who becomes deaf himself. One story is told through images and the other through words, and both intertwine. Wonderstruck garnered enough critical acclaim to take up at least ten lines of this blog post to list. It's a profound meditation on human connection. I've yet to meet a kid who didn't love it. 

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Auggie is a fifth grader with facial disfigurement caused by a genetic condition. He also has multiple scars due to surgeries. He's always been homeschooled, and this is the story of what happens when he goes to a public school away from home. Needless to say, he isn't the only student changed by the experience. Publisher's Weekly echoed the sentiments of many reviewers: "Few first novels pack more of a punch: it's a rare story with the power to open eyes—and hearts—to what it's like to be singled out for a difference you can't control, when all you want is to be just another face in the crowd."

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