Recommended Reading List

Comments: 9



Over the past month, we’ve discussed a lot of the ways YA/MG lit can get disabilities wrong. It’s important to catalog and analyze all the many different tropes, to bring up specific examples of inaccurate and offensive portrayals, and to educate writers about the truth of living with various disabilities.

However, we also want to celebrate those books and authors that get it right. We asked our contributors to tell us which kidlit books they’ve read that handle disability well. So here’s the “recommended reading” list our contributors came up with!

(As not all our contributors are public with their personal disabilities, these recommendations are posted anonymously.)

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) – blindness

“Some will disagree with me on this, but I was pleased with the portrayal of Isaac. His experience is different from mine in that he goes blind as a teen, but I thought his reactions and frustrations were very real (even if his video games were not). Isaac isn’t as independent as I would like blind characters to be, but he’s still transitioning and he’s learning at a realistic pace. Also, he is a fully fledged character outside of his disability—he isn’t defined by being blind, even if he might worry that he is. So despite some reservations, I’d recommend this.”

Crazy (Amy Reed) – bipolar

“I had some issues with the book but virtually none were due to Amy’s treatment of bipolar disorder. She nails it (as a person with bipolar herself–openly–this isn’t too surprising*). It’s complex and ugly and life-swallowing. The letter format shows it from both her perspective and her love interest’s. Really good.”

* Ed. correction 1/18/2016: Although the author is open about her struggles with depression and anxiety, she does not have bipolar disorder.

Wild Awake (Hilary T. Smith) – unspecified, but likely bipolar

“As Kiri Byrd slowly descends into a manic episode, we have an opportunity to see mental health conditions depicted from the point of view of someone who has them, rather than friends and family, and Smith also brilliantly captures the bright, sharp edges of mania. I’d note that Smith also has a mental health condition (she’s written about it, I don’t know if she’s specified what it is).”

Colin Fischer (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) – autism

Colin Fischer is a murder mystery that only Colin and the school bully can solve, but Colin has problems of his own when it comes to reading people’s emotions effectively and navigating the world. Colin Fischer explores some of the experiences of autism authentically (ymmv when it comes to autism depictions and authenticity, of course), and again, features a disabled character as primary narrator instead of object. Zack (full disclosure—Zack is a friend and colleague) is on the autism spectrum disorder, as are his children, and he’s discussed this openly.”

Marcelo in the Real World (Francisco X. Stork) – autism

Marcelo in the Real World explores coming of age for a Latino teen who serves as the primary narrator in a novel about being forced into a series of social and ethical situations that make him extremely comfortable. One of the things I love about this novel is that his struggles with ethics and community are more closely linked to coming of age and maturing as a human than they are with his disability—while Marcelo sometimes struggles to read people in complex situations because he is autistic, this isn’t a story All About Autism.”

Knowing Joseph (Judith Mammay) – autism, ADHD

“Judith was my crit partner at one time, so I’ve had the honor of reading all her books which center on autism and AD/HD. I think her portrayals are very realistic, both for the person who has the disorders as well as the family members who deal with them and their valid feelings on the matter. This book is written simply, so it has broad appeal—from independent reader to classroom read for teachers to help fellow students gain compassion and understanding.”

The Boyfriend List (E. Lockhart) – anxiety, panic attacks

“So much to love here: Ruby’s frustration with a lack of diagnosis and her ambivalent feelings about being put on meds, her family’s reaction to her panic attacks, and how they affect her life (they’re the catalyst for why she goes to therapy and starts thinking about the boys in her life) without defining it. They reappear throughout the series. No magic cures here.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green and David Levithan) – depression

“This. Just, this: I had no doubt that Tiny thought he got depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. Still, what could I say? that I didn’t just feel depressed—instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? That if he got blue, I got black? That I hated those pills so much because I knew how much I relied on them to live?

No, I couldn’t say any of this because when it all comes down to it, nobody wants to hear it. No matter how much they like you or love you, they don’t want to hear it.

“Seconding this recommendation very strongly. The way Will Grayson talks about experiences of depression is both painful to read because it feels so true, and fantastically expressive.”

Lovely, Dark, and Deep (Amy McNamara) – depression

“Wren Wells wants to hide herself away in the wake of a horrific car accident, and she’s almost dragged under by the strength of her own depression. Lovely, Dark, and Deep explores not just the experience of situational depression, but the role of therapy and other tools for managing depression without shame or judgement. This is also a fantastically beautifully written and intense novel, so there’s that too.”



  1. Definitely good books but a misuse of the word disability after The Fault in Our Stars. All the rest are mental issues.

    I would have included The Color of Silence by Liane Shaw and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.

    • Hi Amy,

      Our definition (and many other people’s definitions) of disability includes mental disorders/illnesses of all kinds

      Consider this description on Wikipedia:

      “Disability is the consequence of an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these. A disability may be present from birth, or occur during a person’s lifetime.

      Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

      An individual may also qualify as disabled if he/she has had an impairment in the past or is seen as disabled based on a personal or group standard or norm. Such impairments may include physical, sensory, and cognitive or developmental disabilities. Mental disorders (also known as psychiatric or psychosocial disability) and various types of chronic disease may also qualify as disabilities.”

  2. Only one physical disability out of a list of ten books, and that one isn’t even in a main character? I know pickings are slim, but they aren’t quite *that* slim! And since books with good portrayals of physical disabilities or illnesses are so rare in kidlit, it seems like this blog would be just the place to encourage authors to be more inclusive and to give a boost to those books that do it right.

    • kodykeplinger on

      Hi Katy!

      To follow up what Corinne said – as someone with a physical disability (blindness) I struggled a lot with recommending even one book. And I did that even with reservations. Keep in mind the problem maybe be that a lot of our contributors don’t have/can’t think of books they feel actually portrayed their disability well. For instance, I can’t think of a single book that features legal blindness beyond “total darkness.” That’s a problem for me and a reason I struggled.

      Pickings are slim, and among those pickings, very few actually hit the mark. While I was able to recommend one book, others may not feel they can recommend any that feature their disability. We asked that people only recommend books with disabilities they have personal experience with.

      But, with all that said, we definitely welcome more recommendations in the comments here – as Corinne said, this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means.

      • Ok, yeah, I can see where you’re coming from there. (Although – I read a YA book a while back about a blind teenage girl who could still see light and color out of part of one eye.
        I remember being surprised, because I had no idea that was possible. I wish I could remember the name so I could tell you! argh! I will think on it.)

        I’ve never read a single work of fiction in any genre portraying my chronic illnesses (accurately or otherwise) but as a part-time wheelchair user I recommend Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay. One of the supporting characters (a kid) uses a wheelchair most of the time, but she can still walk a little. The reader never gets to know the specifics of why, but I was thrilled to see a character who uses a wheelchair even though she can (GASP!) still walk a bit. I feel like most fiction writers don’t even realize people like this exist! Also, she is a fully drawn character with a great personality. AND it’s a really good, funny book!

  3. Re: physical disability, Marybeth Caldarone portrays the main character in her MG “Arlene” series with honesty and depth while still engaging and entertaining young readers. It was an honor to help her accomplish her vision of writing a book series for her daughter who lives with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (causes mobility challenges). See ArleneOnTheScene.com. http://arleneonthescene.wordpress.com/

  4. Pingback: April Discussion – Colin Fischer by Ashley Miller & Zack Stentz | Tomes and Teachers

  5. Carolyn Hancock on

    Hi – I’m a librarian at a private elementary school. My one and only employee is a man with autism who is very high functioning and who grows every year through his experience with students, just as I do. I would hate to run my library without him. Our small school gets a trickle of students with autism as well and our faculty is very interested in information on the topic. In my experience, we take an individual approach to each student, but we are always interested in resources that broaden our community and our knowledge. I look forward to using your site to help me select informative library material. I will just put in a plug for books for young children. Many books tend to aim at YA and I am very excited when I find books my elementary students can access. Thanks for your efforts!