We have a long way to go as a society when it comes to accepting those of us who learn differently. Most students understand that it would be cruel and wrong to make fun of someone who is in a wheelchair. However, they have no such qualms about making fun of someone who has a learning disability.
I can’t count how many times I have heard middle schoolers calling each other “sped,” “slow,” or “retarded” in the hallways and under their breaths. The stigma is so intense that most students with learning disabilities don’t speak up about their challenges in public. There is a sense of shame around learning differently–students and even teachers walk on eggshells around the subject.
One way we can help students develop empathy and understanding about these issues is through literature. There are so many good children’s/YA books these days, and many of them tackle difficult issues like bullying, poverty, abuse, and more. Other books have characters with disabilities. Today I’m going to talk about a few of those.
Tangerine by Edward Bloor is a novel about a boy who has a vision impairment. The novel uses language such as “IEP” and special education. I read it with a group of students with IEPs, and it was nice to see that represented in fiction. It’s a mysterious novel with twists and turns, and the story involves sports, (soccer and football) so it’s high interest for many kids. My students really seemed to like it.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. This book’s title comes from the well-known quote: “If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it’s stupid.” It’s a heartwarming book about a student coping with her dyslexia.
Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco is a children’s picture book about the author’s own struggles with dyslexia. The story describes how a special teacher helped her improve her skills in a time before learning disabilities were commonly diagnosed. Even though it is written for children, it’s a great read aloud for any age group, including middle and high school. Thank You, Mr. Falker would be a great way to tie-in growth mindset as well. Just make sure to have some tissues ready…it’s a tearjerker!
El Deafo by CeCe Bell is a really fun graphic novel/memoir describing the author’s hearing loss at a young age. (I love introducing kids to graphic novels–even my most reluctant readers can get engaged with them.) As the author states in the afterward, “out differences are our superpowers.”
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erksine is a National Book Award winner. It features a girl with autism who is also dealing with the fact that her older brother recently died in a school shooting.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is a book featuring a character with cerebral palsy. The main character has to answer the question “what’s wrong with you?” constantly. She maintains a sense of humor and reslience that kids will appreciate. Sharon Draper is a huge favorite of my students. Her writing is so engaging and relatable for the YA audience.
What are some of your favorite books featuring students with disabilities? Let me know in the comments!