Occasionally the media focuses on those with particular challenges, such as animals with special needs and people whose likenesses – in the form of unique mannequins – shed light on the meaning of “perfect.”
But the truth is, positive depictions in the public sphere of people and nonhuman animals who have special needs are not all that common.
That’s true for children’s books, too. For example, a study from a few years ago discovered in award-winning children’s books from 1975 to 2009 a “disproportionately smaller percentage of children with disabilities and ethnic diversity than actual classroom numbers.”
Introducing children — including very young children — to stories whose characters have physical or mental challenges, especially when the framing is healthy and positive, helps expand their concept of “normal” and exposes them to a wider array of experiences, building empathy and acceptance.
Here are 13 children’s picture books featuring human and nonhuman characters who have special needs.
1. Good Night, Commander by Ahmad Akbarpour
2008. Grades 3–6.
A young boy who has lost his leg — and his mother — in the war acts out imaginary battles against his enemies, seeking revenge, until he “sees” that the “enemy” is young, too, and also has experienced loss.
2. Goose’s Story by Cari Best
2002. Grades PreK–3.
When a girl and her dog greet the geese as they return in the spring, she discovers one of the geese is missing a foot. The other geese shun the injured goose at first, and the girl’s parents warn her not to interfere. But the girl feels compelled to watch out for her. One day the goose is gone. After worrying all winter, the girl and her dog discover the goose with one foot has returned … with her new mate.
3. My Brother Sammy Is Special by Becky Edwards
2012. Grades K–3.
Sammy has autism, and sometimes his older brother gets frustrated with how “special” Sammy is and wants a different brother who is more like him. But then the older brother realizes that to Sammy, he is the “special brother” and begins, to his delight, to try things the way Sammy likes them.
4. Just Because by Rebecca Elliott
2011. Grades PreK–2.
Toby talks about his relationship and adventures with his sister and best friend, Clemmie, who happens to be in a wheelchair.
5. Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound by Beth Finke
2007. Grades K–3.
Seeing-eye dog Hanni tells the story of how she helps her guardian, Beth, who is blind, and keeps her safe.
6. Keeping Up With Roo by Sharlee Glenn
2004. Grades 1–3.
Gracie and her Aunt Roo, who has a cognitive disability, have been best friends who play and learn together, until Gracie starts to grow up. On the day that Gracie brings her friend Sarah home, she at first feels embarrassed about Roo’s difference. When, in showing Sarah around, Gracie realizes all that Roo has taught her, she introduces Sarah to Roo, and they all play together.
7. Featherless/Desplumado by Juan Felipe Herrera
2004. Grades 1–4.
Tomasito, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, is having trouble adjusting to his new school. To try to cheer him up, his father brings him a featherless bird as a pet. Tomasito wants nothing to do with Desplumado, until Tomasito finds a place on the soccer team and discovers there’s more than one way to fly.
8. Molly the Pony by Pam Kaster
2008. Grades K–3.
Molly survives Hurricane Katrina, but when a dog injures her leg, it must be amputated. With a prosthetic leg, Molly learns to walk again and finds a new life of friendship.
9. Moses Goes to a Concert by Isaac Millman
1998. Grades K–3.
Moses and his classmates, who are all deaf, attend a music concert featuring a percussionist who is also deaf.
10. My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete
2010. Grades K–3.
Callie and Charlie are twins who adore each other and have a lot in common. They’re also different. Charlie has autism. Callie talks about many of the things she loves and admires about Charlie — and about some of the challenges of living with a brother who has autism.
11. All Kinds of Friends, Even Green! by Ellen B. Senisi
2002. Grades K–3.
When Moses’ first-grade class is assigned to write an essay about a friend, Moses, who has spina bifida, considers classmates, his teacher, neighbors and others before deciding to write about his friend Zaki, an iguana who is missing her back toes.
12. Kami and the Yaks by Andrea Stenn Stryer
2006. Grades K–4.
Set in the Himalayas, in the midst of a search for the family’s yaks, a storm hits. Kami finally finds them, but the baby yak has his leg caught in a crevice. Kami rushes to his father and brother, and because he is deaf and cannot speak, he uses his resourcefulness to share with his family what has happened. The yaks are rescued, and Kami’s courage and determination are rewarded.
13. Susan Laughs by Jean Willis
2000. Grades PreK–2.
Simple rhyming text shows the many things that Susan does. Only on the last page do we see her wheelchair.
Looking for more titles like these? The Schneider Family Book Award honors books that embody “an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”
Check out more suggested children’s books in our Solutionary Hub.