[Featured Image Description: Book cover for ‘King For A Day.’ The rest of the images in this post are book covers from the preceding text].
This is the third in a three-series post: You’ll learn to normalize disabled characters in children’s books and find stories that foster an inclusive society that respects and empowers individuals with disabilities. Click here to start at the beginning.
Normalizing disabled characters and smashing tropes
In our previous post, we learned the urgency of accurate representation of disabled experiences in children’s books. Later, we’ll learn about some kick-ass disabled figures who fought for equality and inclusion. But first – the most important books you need for your bookshelf – stories that normalize disabled characters and includes us in everyday narratives.
Normalizing disabled characters teaches kids that our disabilities aren’t the only thing that define us – we have more things in common with non-disabled people than not.
Step 3 of 3: Destroy disabled tropes & normalize complex disabled characters
- Regular disabled characters, with flaws and agency just like any one else
- Characters of various races, genders, and interests outside of their identity as disabled people in ordinary circumstances most kids can identify with without.
- Challenges and plot-lines that have nothing to do with disability.
- Accommodations and acceptance of disability without any whining
- One-dimensional disabled character filling in as a non-disabled protagonist’s friend, a helpless victim, or villain. [Problematic example: The Snow Rabbit, Becky The Brave]
- Disability tropes like sage blind grandmas, misogynistic autistic men, etc. and uses disability as a Chekhov’s gun. [Problematic example: Walking Through A World Of Aromas, Peter Nimble, French Toast]
- Disabled characters doing ordinary things for the inspiration of non-disabled people – aka inspiration porn.
- Celebrates non-disabled characters as heroes for basic human decency toward disabled friends and family, or contains excessive whining about how burdensome disabled people ruin their families lives. [Problematic example: My Brother Charlie, Just Because, Shelley The Hyperactive Turtle, My Brother Is Autistic.]
- Dismisses or minimizes real obstacles and dangers [Problematic example: Dylan the Villain]
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.
Regular kids doing regular stuff – disabled main characters
‘King For A Day‘ is a gorgeous story of dedication and mastery of a craft, plus kindness and generosity with a bit of suspense thrown in. Also the main character uses a wheelchair. Actually – I’m downplaying this. This book is AMAZING. It’s absolutely everything I want in a book that both empowers and normalizes kids with disabilities. GO READ IT.
‘Clean It!‘ features a young family cleaning around the house. The main character wears a leg splint and his dad uses an inhaler. I adore every book in this series, but this is the only one with a disabled main character. ‘I Can, Can You?‘ is a regular toddler board-book featuring photos of tots with Down syndrome doing everyday kid things.
‘Dad And Me In The Morning‘ features a Deaf main character and a quiet morning sunrise with his dad. ‘Susan Laughs‘ features an active, boisterous little girl going doing typical kid stuff, who happens to use a wheelchair.
‘Amelia Bedelia’s First Apple Pie‘ is one of the few Amelia Bedelia books where she isn’t shamed and ridiculed for her literal understanding of idioms. Her grandparents just accept her as she is and they are awesome. BTW: Amelia Bedelia is so obviously autistic. I grew up thinking she was the only reasonable character in a series of books about aggressively mean people who don’t know how to speak properly. The newer versions by the original creator’s nephew are the bees knees, and the adults in her life are kind and inclusive.
It means a lot to my son to have someone like us so well-represented in kids books, even if the original books by Peggy Parish foisted her as a burden on her employers and friends and she was treated with kindness only when earning her humanity via her autistic area of interest – baking. (Which is actually pretty realistic.)
Regular kids doing regular stuff – disabled secondary characters
‘Beautiful‘ is similar to ‘Lovely,’ but with more action and less diversity. The text reads like a sexist etiquette primer, and the images spin common stereotypes on proper little ladies with mud-slinging, active, goofy, rough, and tumble girls – some of whom are physically disabled. I’m not reading it to my sons because of the text – they don’t yet know that ‘beautiful’ is a value our culture holds for women (no boys in this book) and I prefer not to introduce that concept yet.
‘Happy In Our Skin‘ runs along the same lines, but for even younger children, and includes several mixed-race, interfaith, and gay families in addition to characters with vitiligo, wheel-chair users, facial birth marks, and one little girl with a conspicuous brow-line, which could be a marker for an unspecified disability (or not). One caveat: one line equates skin color in terms of food (which is a demeaning device often used to describe POC in literature.) It’s something to be aware of.
‘Have Fun, Molly Lou Melon‘ centers on a non-disabled girl (depending on how familiar you are with the series, as she is explicitly celebrated as an empowered, kick-ass Little Person in ‘Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon‘) and her best friend uses arm crutches for mobility. It’s never addressed in the story and I love that.
Inclusion & Acceptance – characters with unspecified disabilities
‘Ernest, The Moose Who Doesn’t Fit‘ is about a Moose who doesn’t fit in the book. (Obviously.) The solution is an allegory for inclusion – change the book, not the moose.
‘Ada Twist, Scientist‘ is about a science-minded, hyper-focused little girl whose parents reject her interest in science and worry about her lack of speech until an advanced age. Like Amelia Bedelia, she’s also a neurodivergent super-hero without explicitly stating the obvious. Eventually her parents come around and stop trying to force her into behaving neurotypical.
‘Charlotte And The Quiet Place‘ isn’t explicitly about sensory processing disorders, but helps all children begin to understand the need to escape from painful, overwhelming sensory input.
Up next in part 4: Real-life heroes
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
Did you enjoy this article and learn something new?
Consider supporting my work on Patreon, so I can continue to help parents & educators like you raise the next generation of kind & brilliant leaders.. For as little as $1 a month, you can get access to exclusive bonus content, sneak peeks, and free resources you can’t find anywhere else.