International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Children’s Books

The annual observance of the International Day of Disabled Persons was proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations General Assembly. The United Nations website states the occasion “aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. The 2020 theme is “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World.”

In her blog post “Representation Matters: 10 Children's Books with Disabled Characters,” Margaret Kingsbury, herself a disabled mother, writes eloquently about the importance of sharing books with kids that represent children like them, and also to share books with kids that represent children who are not like them. Her list of 10 books with disabled characters is noteworthy, and worth taking a look at. Below you will find excellent books for younger readers and nonfiction titles to help observe International Day of Persons with Disabilities Day and beyond.

Picture Books:

A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey & Mika Song
Preschool–Grade 1
OverDrive
Hoopla
Library Catalog
“‘Henry was looking for a friend.' Unfortunately, everyone is just too much: some kids are messy; others don't follow class rules. The story turns hopeful when Henry meets Katie, a quiet girl who enjoys reading. Song's pastel-hued ink and watercolor illustrations depict realistic social situations in a supportive and diverse classroom. The story never uses an autism-spectrum label for Henry, leaving readers to follow him without preconceptions.” –Horn Book

Can I Play Too? by Samantha Cotterill
Preschool–Kindergarten
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Library Catalog
“A young boy is excited to play trains with a new friend, but fails to notice the other boy's anger and frustration when he proceeds to completely take over their playtime. The tension continues to build until the two begin a tug of war that threatens to derail the new friendship before it has truly begun. Fortunately, a teacher finds a way to help the young boy learn some social cues by using traffic signals to indicate his friends' emotions and identify when things may be going wrong… A wonderful choice for anyone seeking books on social-emotional development or for use with helping kids on the spectrum better understand social cues.” –School Library Journal

I Will Dance by Nancy Bo Flood & Julianna Swaney
Kindergarten–Grade 1
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Library Catalog
“A girl who uses a motorized wheelchair longs to dance. The 10-year-old narrator can't blow out the candles on her birthday cake, but she has one wish: to dance. But how can she ‘swirl, leap, twirl’ when she can move only her head, arms, and fingers? Pretending isn't enough. At breakfast one morning (a spill-proof cup at the child's place adds cozy realism), one of her moms reads that the real-life company Young Dance is auditioning dancers of ‘all abilities, all ages.’ Though apprehensive, she needs to try…A gorgeous, immersive celebration of dancing and the grace within all bodies.” –Kirkus Reviews

King for a Day by Ruksana Khan & Christian Krömer
Preschool–Grade 2
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Library Catalog
“Spring has arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, and the celebration of Basant ushers it in with an annual kite-flying contest. Young Malik plans to win the self-proclaimed title of ‘king of Basant’ by capturing and/or setting free more kites than anyone else. He puts all his faith in his small handmade kite, Falcon, and enters the competition. Thus ensues the story of how Malik, who, incidentally, is in a wheelchair, sits on his balcony and, with assistance from his sister and brother, wins the coveted designation and defeats the bully next door. Mixed-media collage illustrations consist of an intriguing combination of cut paper, floss, yarn, cloth, and pencil sketches.” –School Library Journal

My Ocean is Blue by Darren Lebeuf & Ashley Barron
Kindergarten–Grade 2
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Hoopla
Library Catalog
“A young tot with short blond hair, pale skin, and a wondrous fascination with the ocean looks forward to spending the day at the beach. Incidental to the text but prominent in the illustrations, the child also uses forearm crutches. Cut paper that's been textured with watercolor, acrylic, and pencil crayon creates the scenes of pebbled sand, frothy waves, and quiet tide pools…The real delight, besides the intentional focus on detailed observations, is the ease with which the child's disability is slipped into the illustrations. At times, the crutches are laid aside, showing the tot swimming, kneeling, or playing in the sand. Any possible preconceived limitations are dashed—instead, childlike wonder and curiosity shine. A joyful marine romp.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Travelin’ Eye by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
Grades 1–4
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Library Catalog
“An upbeat look at how a creative little girl copes with vision problems and the challenge of being different. Jenny Sue was born with a ‘wandering eye.’ Instead of looking in the same direction at the same time, her eyes look in different directions. One eye sees numbers and acts as her navigator; her other, travelin' eye sees colors and is an ‘adventurer’ reminding her to look around—sometimes a little too much…Dr. Dave confirms that Jenny Sue has a lazy eye that needs to wake up, so he puts a plain patch over her good eye and gives her enormous thick red glasses. Overwhelmed by her patch and glasses, Jenny Sue can't seem to do anything right at school until her mother shows her how to design unique ‘fashion patches.’ Original multimedia illustrations provide a humorous look at the amazing world of irrepressible Jenny Sue, where the eyes definitely have it.” –Kirkus Reviews

Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap, NT is OK! by Clay Morton, Gail Morton & Alex Merry
Kindergarten–Grade 3
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Library Catalog
“Books about disability are often told from the point of view of those without disabilities. By turning this traditional framing and structure on its head, the authors emphasize that differences can be subjective. The narrator, who has autism, matter-of-factly outlines the ways that his friend Johnny, who is neurotypical (NT), seems strange. For instance, Johnny looks right into people's eyes when talking to them and doesn't have meltdowns when faced with a change in schedule. Ultimately, the main character appreciates that being different isn't wrong, which helps him connect with his pal.” –School Library Journal

All Kinds of Friends by Shelley Rotner
Preschool–Grade 1
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Library Catalog
The many faces of friendship are celebrated in this glorious visual display. There is no story line here—just the juxtaposition of diverse qualities that can serve to open young children's minds to the idea that comfort and pleasure come from people of all shapes, sizes, ages, skin colors, backgrounds, and abilities. ‘Friends with different ways to walk/ Friends with different ways to talk/ Friends with different faces and families from different places.’..An ideal book to share with preschoolers and primary grade children, this one drives home the point that every living creature—regardless of strengths or limitations—deserves a friend.” –School Library Journal

Rainbow Joe and Me by Maria Diaz Strom
Preschool–Grade 2
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Library Catalog
“Strom debuts with an determinedly exuberant book about a cool young African-American artist, Eloise, whose fondness for bold colors and boldly outlined shapes is happily echoed in the full-bleed acrylic spreads. Mama tells Eloise not to bother Joe when the two talk on the front steps, but it's hard for Eloise to contain her eagerness to tell her elderly friend about her paintings. Far from bothered, the blind man she calls Rainbow Joe for reasons apparent only at book's end loves to listen; he approves of her imagination. Rainbow Joe claims to make the colors he sees in his head. ‘I know how to make them sing,’ he says early on. ‘One of these days I'm going to show you…’ It isn't until Joe unpacks his saxophone and plays colors that Mama and Eloise can see them. This exploration of sensory differences and similarities is enlightening and enchanting.” –Kirkus Reviews

Easy Reader Series:

Emma Every Day series by C.L. Reid
Grades 1–2
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Library Catalog
“As Emma gets ready for her best friend Izzie’s birthday party, she worries about her gift—and whether she’ll understand her friends. Like the author of this early reader, Emma is deaf, wears a cochlear implant (CI), and signs in American Sign Language (ASL). This first installment in the Emma Every Day series opens with a visual guide to the white girl, her family, African American best friend, and pet fish, as well as a fingerspelling guide to the ASL manual alphabet and numbers. In three short chapters, Emma experiences both common kid events, such as dancing and playing games at a party, and those unique to deaf children, such as having to adjust her CI to interpret speech amidst loud noises. Accompanied by lively illustrations in an animated style and featuring a diverse cast, the text recognizes signed and spoken communication and includes manual spellings of fun words like mermaid. In a concluding ‘Learn to Sign’ section, a brown-skinned girl demonstrates how to sign birthday and other related words. A delightful, much needed #OwnVoices story.” –Booklist Reviews

Nonfiction:

I Am Not a Label by Cerrie Burnell & Lauren Mark Baldo
Grades 3 & Up
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Library Catalog
“English actor Burnell highlights the accomplishments of disabled people past and present. ‘Everyone deserves to see someone like them in a story or achieving something great,’ notes the author, who was born with one hand. To that end, she introduces a multiracial group of 34 noteworthy disabled people—with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome and spina bifida to depression and Crohn's disease—from around the world, using identity-first language and a straightforward, upbeat tone. Subjects include such historical figures as Deaf and blind American author Helen Keller and such contemporary trailblazers as fashion model Aaron Philip, a Caribbean trans woman with cerebral palsy, and Indian mountaineer Arunima Sinha, the first female amputee to scale Mount Everest.” –Kirkus Reviews

Stephen Hawking: Celebrated Physicist by Matt Doeden
Grades 3–4
OverDrive
“The Gateway Biographies series (4 new titles) promises ‘highly readable' stories of some of the twenty-first century’s most prominent public figures, and in that it largely succeeds. These are your classic biographies, told straightforwardly through broad, chronological narratives, progressing through landmark moments, supplemented by quotations, full-color photographs, and occasional sidebars. Stephen Hawking chronicles the highlights of the iconic physicist’s long career and personal life. Each title is well-sourced, with back matter including thorough source notes, selected bibliographies, and further-reading lists, in addition to a recap of the biography’s timeline. These titles do a good job of distilling the stories of large figures into tightly crafted narratives.” –Booklist Reviews

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl's Fight for Americans With Disabilities Changed Everything by Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, Annette Bay Pimental & Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali
Grades 1–4
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Library Catalog
“A girl with cerebral palsy fights for the 1990 passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Whether she's horseback riding or starting kindergarten, Jennifer Keelan's ‘ready to GO!’ But all around her, places and people demand that she ‘STOP!’ From her wheelchair, a 4-inch curb is a ‘cliff,’ and she's not allowed to join her classmates in the cafeteria. Everything changes when Jennifer—knowing that ‘children with disabilities get ignored too’—joins a diverse group of disability rights activists. When Jennifer is 8, activists propose the ADA to ‘make room for all people, including those with disabilities.’ Dismissed by Congress, disabled activists crawl up the steps of the Capitol to be heard. When grown-ups say she's too young to participate, Jennifer drags herself ‘ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP’ on behalf of disabled kids everywhere. Ali's soft-focus illustrations deftly convey Jennifer's determined scowl and excited grin. Pimentel realistically acknowledges that the ADA hasn't fixed everything—’Slowest of all, minds have to change’ —but in her foreword, the adult Jennifer—now Keelan-Chaffins—notes that she keeps ‘using [her] voice to speak up’ and encourages readers to do likewise.” –Kirkus Reviews

Normal: One Kid’s Extraordinary Journey by Nathaniel Newman, Magdalena Newman & Neil Swaab
Grades 4–6
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Library Catalog
“Nathaniel Newman and his mother, Magda, recount how Nathaniel's Treacher Collins syndrome has affected their family. In alternating passages, the authors relate how, after being born with severe craniofacial deformities affecting his hearing, eating, and breathing, Nathaniel underwent ‘sixty-plus’ surgeries before age 16. Along the way, he and his family faced kids' curiosity and adults' insensitivity. Magda's poignant, sometimes absurdly humorous endeavors to raise Nathaniel and his little brother, Jacob, as normally as possible emphasize how Nathaniel's disability shaped their family; siblings of kids with disabilities will sympathize when Magda describes how Jacob's needs came second. Nathaniel is witty and matter-of-fact about his condition, concluding that ‘it would have been easier to be born ‘normal,' but far less cool…' Funny, compassionate, and thoughtful.” –Kirkus Reviews

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson
Kindergarten–Grade 2
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Library Catalog
“Thompson (Be a Changemaker) presents a warm, matter-of-fact overview of the life of Emmanuel Ofofu Yeboah, born in Ghana in 1977: ‘Two bright eyes blinked in the light,/ two healthy lungs let out a powerful cry,/ two tiny fists opened and closed,/ but only one strong leg kicked.’ Even before Thompson arrives at Yeboah’s efforts to change attitudes about physical disabilities through a cross-Ghana bicycle ride (the subject of a 2005 documentary, Emmanuel’s Gift), his determination to be seen for who he is—and not just for his disability—is made crystal clear. As a child, he “hopped to school and back,/ two miles each way,” and at age 13 he traveled to Accra on his own to support his family after his mother fell ill. Working in a palette of creamy oranges, teals, and gray-blues, Qualls (The Case for Loving) provides solid visual and emotional scaffolding for the setbacks and triumphs Yeboah faced while demonstrating ‘that being disabled does not mean/ being unable.’” –Publisher’s Weekly

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