It was World Book Day a couple of weeks ago and primary school children across the land dressed up as their favourite characters, to celebrate the power of stories. This got me thinking about the books I loved as a child, and the stories about disability and neurodivergence which I looked for but never found.
I remember searching the library for books that related to my ‘neurodivergence’s’: I did this secretly as I’d already internalised the idea that there was something shameful about the way my body and brain worked. I would’ve loved to have come across disabled characters having exciting adventures, particularly if the stories had been written by disabled people.
Even on the rare occasions when disabled characters are present in children’s books, the writers are usually non-disabled. This isn’t a bad thing in itself because it’s important for non-disabled writers to reflect the diversity of the world in their books. This is an issue I raised in my open letter to Jacqueline Wilson a few years ago. But knowing a story has been written by a disabled person as well as featuring disabled characters adds power and authenticity.
I wanted to celebrate World Book Day by taking some action, however small, to get books by disabled authors into places where disabled and non-disabled children would encounter them. So, I made three gift packages of six kids’ books I love, written by disabled authors, and I’ve given them to three primary schools near me. I chose books suitable for children from Nursery to Year 6 and I gave these books, along with a letter about them, to each school.
Sadly, I can’t do this for every school in the country! Instead, I’m sharing details of the books I chose so that any schools wanting to ensure that a diversity of bodies and minds are reflected in their libraries have a good place to start.
1) We Move Together – (Ages 3-6) By Kelly Fritsch, Anne McGuire and Eduardo Trejos. This is an incredible picture book with disability justice at its heart, gorgeous illustrations, and lots to get young children thinking and talking. You know a book is for disabled communities when it has an access tools page to make sure everyone can enjoy it. This book makes my heart sing!
2) What Happened To You? – (Ages 3-6) By James Catchpole. This is a book I read with my niece, and we used it as a starting point for conversations about how people might sometimes react to me and my wheelchair.
3) Sticky Mcstickstick – (Ages 4-8) By Michael Rosen. I’m not sure if acclaimed author Michael Rosen would identify as disabled but writing about your loving relationship with a mobility aid as he does in this book feels very much a part of disability culture to me. What I love about this book is that it shows mobility aids for what they are, tools – which we can use differently at different times.
4) Wild Child – (Ages 6-11) By Dara McAnulty. Dara’s a teenage autistic author, naturalist, and conservationist. His book Wild Child is a stunning deep dive into the natural world.
5) The Cyborg Cat – (Ages 7-11) I bought Ade Adepitan’s Cyborg Cat series for a friend’s child a few years ago. I read the books before gifting them and loved the honesty and playfulness of these stories about friendship and adventure.
6) The Secret of Haven Point (Ages 9-12) Lisette Auton’s debut children’s book came out earlier this year. She’s an incredible disabled artist and her deep knowledge of disabled lives, friendships and solidarity is woven into this magical story. It features mermaids, a wheelchair accessible lighthouse, and a brilliant straightforward introduction to identity first language.
The two other books I’d like to mention aren’t written by disabled writers, although disabled people have been involved in shaping them. These both feature central characters with tics. The first is The Curiosities by Zana Fraillon and Phil Lesnie, a beautiful book and great for younger children (Ages 4-8).
The second is The Right Way to Rock (Ages 9-12) by Nat Amore which has a special place in my heart because I was a ‘sensitivity reader’ for it. This means I read it before it was published and gave Nat feedback on the story, in particular on the character with Tourettes. This is a story about the power of art, the importance of being true to yourself and the transformative potential of collective action.
Not all books that feature disabled and neurodivergent characters do this well. Sometimes non-disabled writers’ good intentions result in clumsy or stereotyped portrayals. One way of avoiding this is by using sensitivity readers with relevant lived experience to ensure characters and stories are authentic.
Teachers and school librarians won’t always be able to judge if a story does disability well or not. As a disabled adult who knows the incredible possibilities that books can open up, I’m always happy to give recommendations or opinions.
When I was a child, the closest I came to seeing myself represented in books was in Mr Bump! Thankfully there are way more stories that embrace disability now, but we need to keep working to make sure that everyone has access to them.
I hope the children at the schools I’ve gifted books to enjoy them as much as I do.