Diversity is a popular topic in children’s book publishing. When discussed, this most often refers to racial and cultural diversity. However, just as important is the need to highlight mental and physical diversity, especially in literature for children and young adults. An article published by The Children’s Writer’s Guild highlights:
“People of all ages have a variety of physical and mental abilities/illnesses. Kids whose lives have not been affected in any of these ways still benefit from knowing about these situations. It helps them understand and empathize with their classmates, and it helps prepare them for challenges they could face in the future.”
Exposing children to protagonists with physical or mental differences helps create a feeling of belonging for children with those same challenges and empathy for children who have not faced those circumstances. Here is a list of eight books with amazingly different protagonists.
1. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Wonder introduces us to Auggie Pullman, a ten year-old boy with a craniofacial disorder. The novel follows Auggie as he enters middle school and navigates the ups and downs of friendship, bullying, and kindness. This heartwarming story created the Choose Kind campaign and a huge following of fans both young and old.
2. Skinny by Donna Cooner
Skinny is a young adult novel about Ever, a 15 year-old girl who weighs over 300 pounds. Ever makes the tough decision to undergo gastric bypass surgery, however, her struggle to quiet the voice of “Skinny” in her head continues even after the weight comes off. This is an excellent book to read to try and understand the struggle of weight through the eyes of an overweight protagonist.
3. El Deafo by Cece Bell
El Deafo should be required reading for elementary aged children. This Newbery Honor Book is a graphic novel depiction of Bell’s childhood experience with hearing loss and using hearing aids. Bell creates a story that is humorous and relatable. This book is appropriate for children (and adults) of all ages.
4. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Mockingbird, a National Book Award winner, is written from the point of view of Caitlin, who has Asperger’s. As Caitlin’s story unfolds, we see the challenges she faces while coming to terms with the loss of her older brother in a school shooting. This book offers an excellent portrayal of, not only the challenge of Asperger’s, but also the burden of grief and loss.
5. Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser
In her debut novel, Kissing Doorknobs, Hesser takes on the tough topic of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At age 11, Tara transitioned from a fear that something bad could happen to the compulsion that she must perform certain rituals or something bad would happen. Hesser gracefully explains OCD from Tara’s perspective allowing the reader to see into the mind of this disorder.
6. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
Out of My Mind is a beautifully written, must-read novel. Award winning author Sharon Draper introduces us to Melody, an 11 year-old genius with cerebral palsy. Because of her disease, she is unable to communicate. She cannot talk, walk, or write. Her genius is hidden until Melody discovers a way to be heard. This compassionate novel is appropriate for middle grade ages and up.
7. Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Paperboy is a coming of age novel based on Vawter’s real experience with a speech impediment. The middle grade novel offers a first person point of view into the challenges of an 11 year-old boy with a debilitating stutter. This Newbery Honor winner is set in the late 1950’s segregated south and tells of Vince’s brave journey as a paperboy who must learn to communicate.
8. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan
Farizan’s novel tackles diversity on two fronts: her protagonist is Iranian-American and a lesbian. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel is an entertaining coming of age story about the struggles of young love and fitting in. This is an excellent read for girls trying to understand the complex nature of crushes especially when their emotions may not always fit the traditional mold.
What books do you recommend that highlight characters with mental or physical differences?
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