In the United States alone, more than 61 million adults are currently living with disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of that, I find myself continuously searching for ways to raise an empathetic child who will show kindness and understanding to those different than himself.
Books have given me a way to do that. By reading these children’s books aloud, parents can start talking about how people around the world move, listen and speak differently.
“Stephen Hawking” by Sanchez Vegara and Maria Isabel, illustrated by Matt Hunt
Like the other titles in the “Little People, Big Dreams” series, this story fits a big character into a small, kid-friendly picture book. We learn that young Stephen was given two years to live due to a rare genetic condition, but he survived for decades, becoming one of the most well-known scientists in the world. While this story doesn’t go into his discoveries in depth (it is, after all, a children’s book), it does discuss how Stephen was able to succeed even after his body failed him and his voice started to fade.
Overall, this book provides a good reminder that even with weak bodies, people can still have exceptionally strong minds — a more inclusive take on the “Never judge a book by its cover” adage!
“King for a Day” by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Kromer
This book is not about a boy in a wheelchair, though the hero of this tale does happen to be in a wheelchair. It’s a wonderfully written story about a boy in Pakistan who flies his kite during Basant (a popular kite-flying festival). He uses his wits to outsmart a mean-spirited bully who is running around town picking on neighborhood kids. As you follow the main character through the story, you’ll be mesmerized by beautifully colored illustrations that seem to jump off the page.
If you’re looking for a book that normalizes different types of mobility, this is it. By not discussing the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, the author turns his set of wheels into a fact of life rather than a symbol of “otherness.”
“We’re All Wonders” by R.J. Palacio
If you’ve seen the movie “Wonder,” featuring Auggie, a young boy with an exceptional face, this book will feel familiar. It’s written by the same author, but is geared toward younger audiences. While this version doesn’t discuss the deep implications of living with Auggie’s unusual face, it does do a wonderful job of teaching empathy to young children.
Although Auggie is a wonder, other kids only see someone who is different. That doesn’t stop Auggie though — he realizes that he can’t change the way he looks, but maybe people can change the way they see him. This story lends itself to a great discussion with little ones about how we can view our fellow humans with kindness rather than judgment, regardless of how they look on the outside.
“Hello Goodbye Dog” by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Patrice Barton
Moose is a dog, and like every dog, he hates it when his owner, Zara, says “goodbye.” Throughout the book, Moose finds increasingly daring ways to be with his best bud, even when she’s at school. Eventually, Zara’s family comes up with an idea: What if Moose became a therapy dog? After plenty of training, his dog dreams come true, and he gets to follow Zara wherever she goes.
While Zara’s use of a wheelchair isn’t the main focus of this story, it does relate to Moose as a therapy dog. This book is a great way to introduce therapy animals and assistive devices to children who may not be familiar with their use.
“El Deafo” by Cece Bell
Although written for readers ages 9 and older, the language in this 2015 Newberry Honor Book is suitable to be read aloud to younger children. This graphic novel follows Cece from the time she is 4 years old. During the story, she goes from being just an average kid to one being stricken with an illness that causes her to lose her hearing. The explanation of her learning how to use a hearing aid and reading lips is perfectly written for kids who might not be familiar with how those things work. The rest of the story goes on to explain Cece’s experiences in school, where she imagines herself as “El Deafo, Listener for All,” a welcome fantasy when the other kids tease her.
Not only does this story explain the details of day-to-day life with hearing loss, it also gives parents a chance to discuss bullying and how important it is to treat others with kindness and understanding.
By seeing more characters like these, fully able children will come to better understand the diverse ways people move through our world. Hopefully, with time, they will become better friends and advocates for those who are differently able.