Song for a Whale – Iris is a deaf tween and tech-genius, who feels isolated and unheard as the only deaf person at her school. After learning of a whale who also cannot hear, which isolates him from other whales, she decides to create a song that he can hear. Iris is fiercely determined to find a way to get her song to Blue 55. Throughout her journey, the novel explores the power of deaf community, sign language, and being heard.
Planet Earth Is Blue – Nova is a nonspeaking young girl growing up in the 80s, interested in space, the stars, and the Challenger space mission. I love Nova’s insights into the people around her, as well as the way she holds fast to her own value — even when everyone around her needs a serious wake-up call. This book beautifully explores Nova’s talents and strengths, while highlighting the ways that systems meant to support, such as foster care special education, can dehumanize. Content warning: Nova’s teacher does engage in discrete trial teaching, forced eye contact and physical prompting. I wish the book had more strongly highlighted how wrong these are, but the author does show how painful these things can be from Nova’s perspective.
OCDaniel – I love both Daniel — who has OCD — and Sara — who is bipolar — in this book. Sara owns her mental illness and way of being in the world in a way that is rare to read. I wish more time was spent on their friendship, rather than on Daniel’s crush on Raya. The author based the novel on his own experiences, so Daniel’s feelings, obsessions, and rituals all feel true. With the way that “I’m so OCD” is thrown around so casually in our language, it is powerful to read a fictional story that features a true representation of OCD and anxiety. It also closes with Daniel realizing that he will need professional support and to tell his parents what’s happening with him, which is not something that happens commonly in middle grades or YA novels.
Rain Reign – Rose is autistic, intensely fascinated by homonyms, and best friends with her dog, Rain. She’s also the daughter of an absent, alcoholic father — which allows for the exploration of the ways that trauma impacts our lives. Ann M. Martin does a fairly good job of presenting Rose as a character with depth and determination, rather than as a caricature of autism — a rare find in a non-autistic author.
Out Of My Mind – I debated putting this book on here, but I love Melody’s personality so much. Melody is a nonspeaking elementary school student who gets her first communication device — also a story that is not frequently told. It explores the journey to be heard and seen by her classmates and teachers. However, the “locked-in” character with a genius level IQ and photograph memory can unintentionally play into ableism about intellectual disability. Her teachers begin to respect her and classmates become her friends only once they realize she is “smart”, rather than because she is a human being with inherent value.
A Curse So Dark & Lonely – Seriously, this is one of my favorite books ever. I stayed up until 3am finishing it on a school night — that’s real love and dedication. The protagonist, Harper, has cerebral palsy — but the book isn’t about her cerebral palsy. It’s about adventure, friendship, and discovering your strengths. She’s smart, brave, fiercely loyal, and also makes mistakes. It’s rare to read a work of fiction that features a disabled character without the entire theme of the book being about their disability.
Throne of Glass series – Later in the novels, Sarah J. Maas introduces Elide Lochan, a main character — including times when the story focuses solely on her and her story — who has a physical disability. Like Harper in ACSDAL, she doesn’t have to eliminate or “overcome” her disability in order to be fierce, clever, and brave. At times, they do use magic to support her (similar to crutches or a cane) or relieve her pain. But they never cure her, and she is perfect as she is.
The Kiss Quotient / Bride Test Series, Helena Hoang – These books feature autistic main characters in two well-written romance novels. Helena Huang is autistic, which means her characters have the richness and depth of real autistic people — rather than being stereotypes or caricatures. When I read Bride Test, I felt like I was finally reading a book where the lead and I had SO much in common. Note that both books contain detailed descriptions of sex and intimacy.
Note: I am increasingly reading protagonists and supporting characters who are autistic, deaf, or physically disabled. I’m also seeing an increase in characters with chronic illness. But I still rarely see 1 – main characters with disabilities in books that would otherwise not be about disability (fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, etc), or 2 – main characters with intellectual disabilities. If you read books that fit either of these holes, please let me know about them!