In recent years, the world of children’s literature has expanded to include characters from more diverse cultural backgrounds and underrepresented walks of life than ever before. At Cardinal Rule Press, a reader may encounter Raja from Anita Nahta Amin’s Raja’s Pet Camel, who explores an Indian fair complete with “tabla drummers, sitar strummers, snake charmers, magicians, acrobats, and more.” A reader may also encounter Lucy from Maria Dismondy’s Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun, who, along with sporting different hair and eating different foods than the other kids, lives in a non-traditional household with her grandfather.
Stories like Raja’s and Lucy’s are valuable because every reader deserves to see themselves represented in the literature they are consuming. This is especially true for young readers, who may see a character who looks like them succeed at something and decide that they too, are capable of such success.
The Empowering Kids With Character Team is dedicated to encouraging strong, positive character traits in children – for that reason, we have developed The Ultimate Character Book List. It’s a FREE book list filled with 101 books that we recommend and endorse for young readers (and those that love to be read to!). These books encourage empathy, kindness and respect for those around you. Be sure to download the list and see which books you already have/read and which ones you should check out!
There are still strides to be made in terms of making sure every young reader gets the chance to see themselves and their situations reflected in the books they read. In 2019, a study from the Cooperative Children’s Book Council found that only 3.4% of all children’s literature featured a main character with a disability.
The following are books that comprise that 3.4% not only feature characters of varying ability levels and health statuses, but do it well.
1. Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis
Susan Laughs features a little girl whose physical disability causes her to use a wheelchair. But you wouldn’t know that until the very end of the book, following a comprehensive list of all the things Susan does. “Susan laughs, she sings, she rides, she swings. She gets angry, she gets sad, she is good, she is bad,” Willis writes. Susan does all the things an able-bodied child might do, and she also happens to use a wheelchair. Her disability is portrayed as an additional aspect of her identity rather than as her defining characteristic. Get to know Susan yourself by purchasing here or wherever children’s books are sold.
2. Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor
Written by associate Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, Just Ask! follows characters like Sonia, who has juvenile diabetes, and Rafael, who has asthma. Both Sonia and Rafael use special medicines and tools to keep themselves healthy, and they kindly explain this, along with their diagnoses, to the children around them. As a whole, the book encourages curiosity and openness when it comes to discussing disabilities, and it pushes the idea that different does not equate to bad.
“Addressing topics too often ignored, this picture book presents information in a direct and wonderfully child-friendly way.” ––Booklist
Exercise your own curiosity by checking out Just Ask! wherever children’s books are sold or utilizing your local library.
3. My Friend Suhana by Shaila Abdullah
My Friend Suhana is told from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl who volunteers at a class for children with special needs. Through empathy and art, she connects with a little girl named Suhana, who has cerebral palsy. Viewing Suhana from an outside lens allows the reader to learn about Suhana’s condition at the same pace and with the same positive regard as Aanyah.
“My Friend Suhana is a charming and perceptive book that will draw its readers into empathy while allowing them to enjoy this heartwarming story of two uncommon friends.”
–Chitra Divakaruni, author of Grandma and the Great Gourd
Learn more about My Friend Suhana here.
Like Susan from Susan Laughs, children with disabilities do all kinds of things, and that includes reading books. Showcasing characters who have physical and neurological differences could help readers with disabilities feel more represented while also raising awareness among the general public. Featured above are just a few of the children’s books that shed light on juvenile disabilities. The list can only grow from here.
Don’t forget to download the FREE Ultimate Character Book List. The list contains 101 books that encourage empathy, kindness and respect for those around you – all character traits that this world needs!
A senior in the University of Michigan-Flint’s Secondary English Teacher’s Certificate Program, Lauren is an aspiring writer and English educator. Along with interning at Cardinal Rule Press, Lauren works at UM-Flint’s Marian E. Wright Writing Center. She enjoys running, being outside, and (naturally) reading in her spare time.