[Featured Image Description: Book cover for ‘Frida Khalo: Little People, Big Dreams.’ The rest of the images in this post are book covers from the preceding text].
This is the fourth of a four-series post: In this post, you’ll find books about disabled civil-rights activists throughout history to read with young kids. Click here for more BFL books fighting for disability rights.
If you are about this topic, I’m assuming you’re already familiar with the disability rights movement and are looking for real-life disabled role models through history to read with your kids. So I’ll spare you an explanation of the social model of disability and humanity’s long history of child abuse, eugenics, and murder of disabled populations and today’s excuses for perpetuating ableism.
Highlighting disabled historical figures helps kids understand that disability does not render us incompetent or irrelevant. We see how the fight for civil rights when it comes to disability, race, gender, and other identities fosters a compassionate, more inclusive society – but also how far we have left to go.
Don’t stop here
One thing we should note here is that children’s books, especially those written for the under-8-crowd, are never historically accurate. The purpose of books for this age group is to inspire curiosity, compassion, and an impulse to grab the torch.
The following books are rife with historical error and hyperbole, sanitized and white-washed. This is not ideal – but it’s understandable. These tame, simplified stories engage my littles, and that’s the main goal right now.
Remember – these dudes still eat their own boogers. We’re not ready for nuance and gray areas.
I use these stories inspire my boys to keep learning – to dig deeper and ask questions, to talk about role models with friends, and find solace and courage in the people who cleared a path for them to follow.
But these books are not perfect, and they should not be read word-for-word. Reading and discussing them requires you work. Until makers create stories that expose inequity while remaining engaging, it’s on us grown-ups reading aloud to recognize the whitewashing inherent in these stories and call it to the surface so our kids learn to identify it, critique it, and fight against it.
Clearly – this book list is weak – it’s meager and skews white and male, because the pickings are slim and I can’t read books that don’t exist. We need to start these discussions, and right now this is the best we can do. (Authors and illustrators, feel free to consider this a call to action. Make the radical books we need, not the vanilla drivel publishers love.)
We need more stories on disabled people of color, disabled women, etc. These people exist in droves – makers just need to pay more attention. Beyond that – we need more books normalizing disabled characters. Because everybody is worthy of respect, safety, shelter, and dignity, whether they’re savants, tragically average, or face profound daily challenges.
Honoring the contributions of those who came before us
- Centered on disabled people from a range of backgrounds and intersecting identities over race, gender, sexuality, etc.
- Topical on at least a few life details beyond their marginalized identity
- Clearly against against forced labor, unwilling institutionalization, forced sterilization, abuse, murder, etc.
- Concluded with a call to action in the continued fight for equity and inclusion
- Written with respectful, inclusive language according to the wishes of people with the disabilities in the book
- Accessible to readers with the same disability as the person featured in the story
- One-dimensional views of people as a walking stereotype with [problematic example: The Rosie Project.]
- Inspiration porn, praising disabled people for existing, not their actions [Problematic example: We’re All Wonders]
- Filled with excuses for the abuse and subjugation of a disabled person [Problematic example: Caroline’s Comets]
- Ended on a falsely happy note suggesting ableism has been solved and things are fine now OR suggesting that the happiest goal for a disabled person is to be no longer, or less, disabled. [Problematic example: Let’s Hear It For Almigal]
- Full of bleist slurs like ‘r-ard’, attributes neutral terms like ‘dumb’ to mean cognitively impaired rather than non-speaking, or uses language implying disability is a failing, such as ‘[Disability] is no one’s fault,’ [Problematic example: ‘I Just Am‘]
- Inaccessible to those with the same disability, such as a lack of braille on a book about the maker of braille. [Problematic example: Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille, ‘The Sound of Colors‘]
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons got ‘the gist’ of the story with discussion & alternative readings – most contain text for much older ages.
Q enjoyed this cartoonish mini-bio on ‘Frida Kahlo‘ around age 4 for a read or two. ‘Dorothea’s Eyes‘ is a special favorite of mine since documentary photography is a thing I do. ‘Henri’s Scissors‘ is simple and shows how we can use our limitations to inspire innovation. I actually haven’t read ‘A Splash Of Red‘ in years so I can’t remember much about it – but I remember being surprised by how good it was, since I tend to get sucked in by the beauty of Melissa Sweet illustrations only to be terribly disappointed by the ‘meh’-ness of collaborations.
‘Black Disabled Art History’ is too advanced for us to screen with my Littles, but this compilation was created by a black disability rights activist and artist to address the lack of visible role models for black disabled children. Because publishers weren’t interested in Moore’s book, he had to publish it on his own and it reads that way. It’s a textbook, not a story (not something we typically cover at BFL), but it demonstrates the need for more books on disabled artists of color.
We loved ‘Emmanuel’s Dream,’ not only for the example of working hard to get over obstacles, but for the presumption of competence Emmanuel’s mother maintained throughout his childhood – and the difference her mindset made. ‘The William Hoy Story‘ showed us how players with disabilities can inspire league-wide disability accommodations that help every player.
Disabled Writers & Activists
‘A Boy And A Jaguar‘ is a simple book weaving several complex themes of animal rights, ableism, gratitude, and striving against all odds. What I love most is how the book addresses behavioral training and shows how learning to pass as non-disabled doesn’t make someone not-disabled – it just makes them feel broken.
I was nervous to read ‘The Girl Who Thought In Pictures,’ and I was surprised to adore this delightful simple story in rhyme with cute pictures. Temple Grandin is a controversial figure widely criticized within the autism community. As wealthier white woman raised in the 50’s, she says some pretty terrible things about those of us who aren’t her type of speaking, savant autistic. Since she’s the only openly-autistic woman given a voice in the mainstream media, this is a problem. That said, every person in history is a real person with real flaws and regressive ideas (history, yeesh) and this book glosses over them and focuses on the (relative) progress Grandin has made for autistics and provides my family with at least one (imperfect) role model for people like us.
‘Maya Angelou‘ went over surprisingly well with my 2.5yo, I think it’s the adorable illustrations. But the text is better for 4+, and I should warn you it does briefly reference her ‘attack’ at a young age (no details, and this was our intro to child assault at age 4). Read Families of Color Monterey County’s spectacular criticism outlining the examples of whitewashing in this book. I suggest you read it with these criticisms in mind so you can learn what to look out for in similar stories.
‘I Am Helen Keller‘ never fails to inspire and excite my sons, it makes me cry and I genuinely like this book. But of course, it’s got problems! Aside from the ornamental braille (bumpy but not useful) containing a typo (thanks Amanda for noticing this), the book doesn’t default to braille. So anyone who is blind can’t read about this important woman in Blind history. While the story does mention that she went on to become a civil rights advocate fighting for women’s rights, anti-racism, made huge progress for Deaf rights, etc., it conveniently neglects to mention that H.K. was a eugenicist. Again – not something necessary for a children’s book, but underlines what we need to remember – our heroes have flaws.
Follow history in the making
Listen to disability activist writers who are clearing a path as we speak – follow the blogs and social media feeds of Lydia X. Z. Brown, Leroy F. Moore, Jr., Kerima Cevik, Alice Wong, and Jack Sanders, to see the enormous labor disability activists put in daily so we can all enjoy a more inclusive society.
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
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