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Tenacious Instigators – Kids Books Celebrating Disabled Heroes
[Image Description: Interior illustration from Frida, by Jonah Winter & Ana Juan, featuring Frida Khalo in profile, painting her pain onto an easel.]
This is the fourth of a four-part series: In this post, you’ll find stories featuring disabled heroes throughout history, learn about the fight for disability rights, and discover how to recognize ableism in biographies written for children.
Raising Anti-Ableist Kids
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Disability 104: Disability History
Disabled people have fought for recognition and human rights throughout the history of humanity. We teach our kids about self-advocates, heroes, and the contributions of disabled bodies and minds so they understand the value of an inclusive society that values all voices.
Fight the dominant narrative in that tells us disability renders us incompetent and irrelevant. The stories below fight the erasure of disabled history – and shows us how far we have left to go.
Able-Washing In Kidlit
These books are not perfect, and they should not be read word-for-word. The following books are rife with historical error and hyperbole, sanitized and white-washed. Reading and discussing them requires you work.
Until makers create engaging stories that expose inequity, it’s on us grown-ups reading aloud to recognize the ableism inherent in these stories and call it to the surface so our kids learn to identify it, critique it, and fight against it.
These stories inspire my kids 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.
BALANCE PLEASE! Avoid feeding into the idea that only disabled savants have value as humans. Sprinkle in books about disabled savants, like the ones below, with even more books normalizing average folks with disabilities. While people with disabilities are powerful and deserving of our admiration, disabled people who don’t have savant skills also have a right to agency and human rights.
We don’t need to make up for our disabilities by being helpful to abled folks – every human has a right to exist on this planet regardless of our contributions to humanity.
Honoring History’s Tenacious Instigators
- Disabled heroes from a range of backgrounds and intersecting identities.
- At least a few life details beyond their identity as an outsider.
- A clear stance against forced labor, unwilling institutionalization, forced sterilization, abuse, murder, etc.
- Calls to action for readers to continue fighting for equity and inclusion.
- Respectful, inclusive language that has been vetted by #ActuallyDisabled adults.
- Inclusive accessibility. If you’re writing about (and profiting from) the experience of a blind person – create a braille edition.
- One-dimensional stereotypes [problematic: The Rosie Project.]
- Inspiration porn, pity, supremacy: empowering some types of disability at the expense of others. [Problematic example: We’re All Wonders, Wonder]
- Excuses for the abuse, subjugation, or murder of disabled people [Problematic: Caroline’s Comets]
- Glorification of the assimilation & characters who can only be happy once they can do the same things as non-disabled folks. [Problematic: Let’s Hear It For Almigal, Wilma Unlimited]
- Ableist slurs like ‘r-ard’, ‘d-mb,’ and ‘st-pid’ as a pejorative. Implications that disability is a failing and a flaw to be ashamed of. Example:”Down Syndrome is no one’s fault,” [Problematic: ‘I Just Am,’ ‘Wonder‘]
- Inaccessible to those with the same disability, such as a lack of braille on a book about the maker of braille. [Problematic example: ‘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.
- An Apple For Harriet Tubman: Abolitionist & US Spy (Epilepsy/Narcolepsy – unclear).We’ve read like 20 picture books on Tubman, and no author is willing to portray this powerful hero in US history as disabled – but she was. This story comes closest to addressing her disability, but never quite gets there. Either way, our kids should be aware that one of the fore-mothers of equality and civil rights was disabled – and she was competent and capable.
- Maya Angelou – Writer & civil rights activist (Selective mutism)
Heads up: briefly reference her ‘attack’ at a young age (no details, but this was our intro to child assault). Check out Read Families of Color Monterey County’s spectacular review outlining the whitewashing in this book. Read it with these criticisms in mind so you can learn what to look out for in similar stories.
- ‘A Boy And A Jaguar: Alan Rabinowitz: Scientist & animal rights activist (Speech impediment – stutter)
- ‘I Am Helen Keller‘- Writer & civil rights activist (Deaf & Blind). Caveat: Keller was a eugenicist, and this book contains insufficient (and erroneous) braille. Despite all this – it’s still an amazing book that makes me happy-cry. Also worth checking out: Helen’s Big World.
- ‘Amy, The Story Of a Deaf Child‘ – Amy Rowley: Education Rights Activist (Deaf)
This book was published in tandem with Amy’s supreme court fight for inclusive school accommodations, which they lost, but set the path for later legislation like the IDEA– although you wouldn’t know Rowley was a hardworking advocate for inclusive education based on the story – she’s just a regular kid in the book. It’s the single best book I’ve ever read both normalizing and educating a real-life girl balancing everyday kid stuff with typical accommodations for living in a primarily Deaf family.
- Hiawatha And The Peacemaker – Deganawida, also known as ‘The Peacemaker,’ Spiritual & Political Leader (Speech impediment, stutter). Carefully screen this for sensitive kids and kids under 6. Mentions murder of family, has some scary illustrations of a snake-headed monstrous character. But it’s a WONDERFUL book if you can get past that.
Deganawida partnered with the gifted speaker, Hiawatha to form alliances between the five (and later six) nations now known as Iroquois Nation. Together, they founded a peaceful government based in restorative justice, peace, collective action, and forgiveness – a modern government still in place today. The US government drafted major portions of our constitution based on the democratic principles created by Iroquois Nation.
- What Do You Do With A Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan – Civil Rights Activist, Lawyer, Educator, Politician (Multiple Sclerosis)
- The Champ, Muhammad Ali, Civil Rights Activist, Athlete (Parkinsons) – There are sooo many biographies about Muhammed Ali and almost none of them refer to his work as an activist after his athletic career. Makers just will.not. accept. that Ali was still a valuable, effective human worth celebrating after he became disabled while living with Parkinson’s disease. This book isn’t perfect (and the illustrations are not my thing) but it’s the closest we were able to come to recognizing that Ali had an impactful life after his boxing days were over.
- She Touched The World: Laura Bridgman, Educator (Deaf-Blind)
- Turning Pages – Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice (diabetes)
You might also like: Raising Luminaries: Must-Have Kids Books For Tomorrow’s Leaders
- Frida – Frida Khalo, Painter (Spina Bifidia, Polio survivor, mobility disabilities)
There are plenty of picture books about Frida Khalo, but this is the most engaging one that highlights Frida’s experience with disability and how it intersects with her life and career.
- ‘Dorothea’s Eyes‘ –Dorothea Langue, Photographer (Mobility disabilities). Also check out: Dorothea Lange
- Henri’s Scissors‘ – Henri Matisse, Visual artist (Mobility disabilities). Also check out: ‘The King Of Color‘
- ‘Black Disabled Art History’ – Compiled by Leroy F. Moore, Jr. This text book is too advanced to screen with my Littles, but it 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.
- ‘A Splash Of Red‘ – Horace Pippin, Painter (Motor disabilities)
- ‘This Kid Can Fly’ – Aaron Philip, Illustrator (Cerebral Palsy). This chapter book is a bit above our Little’s heads, but I enjoyed it and it gives us some insight into the intersection of how race, wealth, and citizenship status affects disabled kids and teens.
- Silent Days, Silent Dreams James Castle, Artist (deaf, possibly undiagosed autistic & dyslexic) This is a semi-biographical but fictional account of James Castle’s life. It’s well written but controversial, so I’m not sure where it belongs. Say imitated Castle’s work and some of his biographers claim this is a complete work of fiction that denigrates Castle’s family. It’s also one of the only books I can find that celebrates the work of a multiply-disabled autistic artist and gives kids insight into how disabled people are often treated by family and educators. We’re never going to have a family who admits to treating their disabled family member this way. So it will live here for now, with those caveats.
- The Junkyard Wonders Patrica Polacco, Author, Illustrator (dyslexia) Polacco’s autobiographical story of being segregated in school and bullied for her learning disabilities. This is a validating story for kids segregated into special ed classes, so some of the language feeds into an ableist narrative. Read with caution if your kids are outsiders.
- Painting In The Dark: Esref Armagan, Artist (Blind) – This is a very ugly book and rather didactic and bland, but it’s about a fascinating artist. Completely blind from birth, Esref taught himself to paint. Due to his skill, he was constantly challenged as if he was faking his blindness, which is a good book to challenge the presumption of incompetence that many disabled people face.
- Stand Straight Ella Kate: Ella Ewing, Performance Artist (Growth hormone disfunction) I’m on the fence about whether this is a particularly empowering or two-dimensional depiction of Ella. She was ridiculed as a child, but eventually grew to embrace her size and intellect using her fame to pay off her family’s debt. There was very little on what she liked or did outside of being a spectacle, so I’m not 100% thrilled with this. Until we get more complex stories of people with Ella’s condition, this will have to do.
You might also like: Dismantling Cissexism In Kidlit with Maya & Matthew
- ‘Emmanuel’s Dream‘ Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, Cyclist (Motor disabilities)The kids loved this 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 – William Hoy, Baseball Player (Deaf)This story showed us how players with disabilities can inspire league-wide disability accommodations that help every player.
- Sisters & Champions – Venus & Serena Williams, Tennis Players (Physical injuries, unspecified lung condition). While the story doesn’t address it, this was a good story to start talking to my kids about Serena’s experience being ignored by doctors because of her gender and race.
You might also like: Kids Books About Civil Disobedience & Disrupting Injustice
Disabled Scientists & Mathematicians
- ‘The Girl Who Thought In Pictures‘ – Temple Grandin, Scientist & architect (Autistic).
Grandin is a controversial figure. As wealthy white woman raised in the 50’s, she says terrible things about those of us who aren’t her type of speaking, savant autistic, and has failed to acknowledge that autistics who don’t have her skills and resources deserve equal rights. Since she’s the only openly-autistic woman given a voice in the mainstream media, this is a problem. But until we have a better pop-culture icon for autistic women, this book is amazing and perfect for littles.
- ‘The Boy Who Loved Math‘ – Paul Erdös, Mathematician (Executive functioning disabilities)
- ‘Odd Boy Out‘ – Albert Einsten, Mathematician (Learning & communication disabilities, unspecified). Also check out: I Am Albert Einstein.
- Stephen Hawking – Theoretical physicist & cosmologist. (ALS, mobility disabilities, wheelchair & assisted communication device user)
- Six Dots: Louis Braille – Louis Braille, Inventor, Musician (Blind)
- Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor – Zoologist (Chronic illness) – While we see her in a wheelchair at the very end of the book, the story doesn’t address her disability, which is a shame.
- Ada Byron Lovelace And The Thinking Machine – Ada Lovelace, Computer Programmer (Chronic headaches, measles-induced childhood paralysis)
You might also like: Making Friends Is Hard – Reassuring Books For Kids Who Don’t Fit In
- Little Stevie Wonder – Stevie Wonder, Musician (Blind). The writing falls apart in this (it’s kinda a song – but kinda not?) The visuals are jazzy and stylish, but I’ll admit it’s not an engaging read unless kids already know and like Stevie Wonder.
- Ray Charles – Ray Charles, Musician (Blind). This is gorgeously written, but completely over my 5 year-old’s head.
- Knockin’ On Wood – Peg Leg Bates: Dancer (Prosthetic leg)
You might also like: Kids Books About Education Rights
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Smash The Kyriarchy
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