Books for young adults that address disability

Audio reading of the podcast

Welcome to our weekly CENMAC blog post

Books for young adults that address disability by Guest blogger Caroline Fielding, librarian at Charlton Park Acacdemy


This term I was asked to share some books for children and young people that feature disability. There is a real lack of good representation but there are some recent gems, many of which are own voices, so here are some of my favourites: 

Depression is a subject that is coming up a lot more frequently, particularly in YA

I have to begin with one of my now-favourite authors, Elle McNicoll. She is autistic and her debut, A KIND OF SPARK was published in early 2020, about autistic Edie and her campaign to get a memorial in her (Scottish) town for the women killed as witches in the 1800s. She wrote her second book during lockdown and it was published this year. SHOW US WHO YOU ARE again features an autistic girl (Cora) as the main protagonist but it is a completely different, dare I say even better, story about her friendship with Aiden (who has ADHD) and her involvement in trials for AI that recreates people in hologram form. For more excellent Autism rep, try CAN YOU SEE ME by (then) 11yr old Libby Scott who is autistic and has written about this and demand avoidance, with diary entries alongside a very engaging story about starting secondary school, with the help of author Rebecca Wescott. If you prefer your stories more fantastical, THE INFINITE by Patience Agbabi has a great autistic main character having adventures through time. For teens we have THE STATE OF GRACE by Rachael Lucas, about a 15yr old autistic girl, family, and first love, and for the youngest readers there are Rose Robbins’ picture books: ME AND MY SISTER and TALKING IS NOT MY THING, about an autistic girl and her neurotypical brother, and how they navigate the world together.  


Depression is a subject that is coming up a lot more frequently, particularly in YA, so just to highlight some recent brilliant titles: AND THE STARS WERE BURNING BRIGHTLY by Danielle Jawando is an absolutely devastating story of a teen whose beloved older brother commits suicide and he wants to know why. ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SAID by Yasmin Rahman explores how important friendship and understanding is, even if it won’t fix problems such as anxiety and grief, as well as including a main character who uses a wheelchair. GRIEF ANGELS by David Owen again looks at depression and how teen boys just don’t talk. BEAUTIFUL BROKEN THINGS by Sara Barnard, and its sequel FIERCE FRAGILE HEARTS, are both stunning stories of spiralling emotions and how friends can help but also hinder a teen’s mental health. AUBREY AND THE TERRIBLE YOOT by Horatio Clare is for younger readers, with our young protagonist experiencing his dad’s depression. There are lots of great picture books about dealing with feelings such as anxiety and sadness, including RUBY’S WORRY by Tom Percival and WHEN SADNESS COMES TO CALL by Eva Eland, while UP AND DOWN MUM by Summer Macon wonderfully conveys life with a bi-polar mother. 


As for physical disabilities, AMAZING by Steve Antony is a gorgeous picture book that features a wheelchair user. Two brilliant picture books featuring main characters with limb difference are WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU? by James Catchpole featuring a boy who is always asked what happened to his leg, while SPLASH by Claire Cashmore, Paralympic swimmer, is published this month. For older readers, in Frank Cottrel Boyce’s RUNAWAY ROBOT, Alfie, who lost his hand in an accident and is trying to get used to a prosthetic, meets a robot who has lost his leg…it is silly and heart-warming! Paralympian Ade Adepitan’s middle grade series CYBORG CAT is great fun (he also has a great autobiography for the same age of reader). 


I HAVE NO SECRETS by Penny Joelson (contemporary thriller) & A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY by Brigid Kemmerer (an epic YA fantasy, turning the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast on its head) are both YA featuring MCs with cerebral palsy, while THE AMAZING EDIE ECKHEART by comedian Rosie Jones is an own voices MG with brilliant friendships at its heart. 


Jo Cotterill’s A STORM OF STRAWBERRIES is about Darby, who has Downs Syndrome, and her family dealing with a disaster at their farm while her sister seems to prefer the company of a new friend. Other great Downs Syndrome rep is found in YA novel ROSIE LOVES JACK by Mel Darbon, part romance but mainly a thrilling adventure as Rosie runs away to find her Jack, who has been taken away, and THE GOOD HAWK by Joseph Elliot, which is the first in an epic fantasy series. 


THE WORLD BETWEEN US by Sarah Ann Juckes is from the POV of Alice, about her relationship with a boy who streams his day online for her to watch. It is very honest about the effect on dreams and friendships of an invisible, unexplained chronic illness. Non Pratt, who writes teen friendship *so* well, included a character with Lupus in her latest YA, EVERY LITTLE PIECE OF MY HEART while GUT FEELINGS by C.G. Moore highlights another invisible disability, Familial adenomatous polyposis, in a stirring verse novel. 


There are a few brilliant Middle Grade books with D/deaf main characters: SONG FOR A WHALE by sign language interpreter Lynne Kelly is about a brilliant girl who loves tech and wants to help a whale that is as out of place as she feels, while MAX AND THE MILLIONS by Ross Mongomery is a fantastical funny tale about a boy who finds a tiny civilization! Deaf author Samanth Baines has written an hilarious adventure, HARRIET VERSUS THE GALAXY, about a hearing aid using girl and the aliens only she can understand (also has a non-binary character). THE BOY IN THE JAM JAR by deaf author Joyce Dunbar and LIZZIE AND LUCKY: THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING PUPPIES by Megan Rix about a deaf family are both great for younger readers. EL DEAFO is a brilliant biographical graphic novel for all ages by Cece Bell. A new and wonderful picture book, CAN BEARS SKI by Raymond Antrobus was inspired by his childhood and is illustrated by hearing aid user, Polly Dunbar. FREDDIE AND THE FAIRY and WHAT THE JACKDAW SAW, both written by Julia Donaldson but illustrated by Karen George and Axel Scheffler respectively, feature Deafness and lip reading/sign language. I’ve also been given a sneak peek at a gorgeous picture book being published in September by Lantana, THE WALL AND THE WILD by Christina Dendy and Katie Rewse, which shows us a hearing aid user tending her garden. 

Some of my favourite picture books might not have a disabled protagonist but do show diversity in their scenes.

A QUIET KIND OF THUNDER by Sara Barnard is from the perspective of a girl with selective mutism who falls for a deaf boy. I mentioned the YA novel PET by Akwaeke Emezi in my LGBT+ post because the MC is trans, but she is also a selective mute. For younger readers, selective mutism/DLD or stammers are also shown in the fun WANDA’S WORDS GOT STUCK by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles, and the beautiful I TALK LIKE A RIVER by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith. And for those in between, middle grade THE BOY WHO MADE EVERYONE LAUGH by Helen Rutter was inspired by her son, who has a stammer and a wicked sense of humour. 


Some of my favourite picture books might not have a disabled protagonist but do show diversity in their scenes. The publishers Childs Play and Alanna Max are particularly good at this in their books for toddlers and young children. MAX THE CHAMPION by Alexandra Strick, Sean Stockdale, and Ros Asquith, has dozens of disabilities represented in its pages. 


As for non-fiction, a flurry of beautifully presented biographical series have been published in recent years, including LITTLE PEOPLE BIG DREAMS and LITTLE GUIDES TO GREAT LIVES, and they have included such people as Stephen Hawkins/Frida Kahlo/Greta Thunberg/Stevie Wonder. I AM NOT A LABEL by Cerrie Burnell (of CBeebies fame) illustrated by Lauren Baldo introduces even more, and Sinead Burke’s BREAK THE MOULD is full of ideas from this teacher, activist and little person, of how to be your best self and make a difference. Jessica Kingsley Publishers have lots of non-fiction by and about disabled people, especially some brilliant titles for autistic teenagers. 


BookTrust have listed some brilliant sources of sensory books and resources for children with vision impairment children here: BookTrust 

… sensory books and resources for children with vision impairment children …

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