20 Picture Books To Read For Disability Pride Month And Beyond by Margaret Kingsbury
July is Disability Pride Month. Being proud to be disabled is a complicated proposal. Disabled folk like me often feel chronic pain, and the lack of accessible spaces is a constant headache (often in a very literal sense). Yet, there is something empowering about claiming the space, in acknowledging the beautiful variety of the human body, in celebrating how our disabled bodies interact with the world. It’s not an easy pride to come by, for sure. But today, this disabled body of mine watched a blue jay leap from tree to mailbox and back again, sweated through a tank top in the summer heat, untangled my daughter’s hair. Every day I am here, I am disabled, I am participating in this world, and I am proud.
On July 26th, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Every July since has been unofficially celebrated as Disability Pride Month. Though I attended school mostly in the years following this act, the negative perception of disability still permeated my childhood. I never saw disabled characters on TV unless they were villains. I never read books with disabled characters, and disabled children in my elementary school were sectioned off into separate classrooms.
When I started having health problems in junior high school, it never occurred to me to seek answers or request accommodations. I suffered in silence, as I thought was the norm, until I finally sought and received a diagnosis in my twenties (and several more diagnoses following). I was an adult before I embraced the term disabled and realized I had been told a lie my entire life about what it means to be disabled. I did not know it was possible to be joyful, creative, powerful, competent, AND disabled at the same time. In a thousand and one ways, I had been sold a lie as a child.
That’s what makes disabled representation in children’s books so absolutely vital. Children’s books can help normalize disability and accessibility, can show the nuance and joy in the disability experience. Yet, good disability representation in picture books is rare. 26% of U.S. Americans are disabled, yet disabled main characters make appearances in just 3.4% of children’s picture books. Despite there being more picture books with disabled representation than there were when I was a child, it’s still far from the number it should be. How can disabled children be proud of themselves when they rarely see people like them, if at all? The support of family and friends is of course essential, but so is media representation.
I tried to choose a variety of disabilities and approaches in these twenty picture books with disabled characters, but there could be so many more, needs to be so many more.
What Happened to You? by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George
Many kids (and adults) with physical disabilities get bombarded with questions about their disability by strangers. In this book, disabled author James Catchpole centers a child’s discomfort when other children continuously ask him, “What happened to you?” at the playground. The child just wants to play! And by the end, that’s exactly what the kids do together. This is a vital picture book to begin a discussion with kids about what is and isn’t polite to say when talking to disabled folk. The backmatter provides helpful information for parents and caregivers. There’s even a lesson guide to go with it for classrooms.
Ali and the Sea Stars by Ali Stroker, illustrated by Gillian Reid
Ali Stroker is a disabled Broadway star, and she wrote this joyful picture book based on her childhood. A young Ali longs to be an actress on stage, and with the encouragement of a lifeguard, decides to put on the play Peter Pan at the beach where she lives. She and her friends and Dad make costumes and sets and have many rehearsals in preparation, but on the big day, there’s a terrible storm, and their costumes and set are ruined. However, with a bit of clever thinking, Ali repurposes debris after the storm and they’re still able to put on the play. This book is such a fun read! I also highly recommend reading Ali’s middle grade novel, The Chance to Fly.
My Ocean is Blue by Darren Lebeuf, illustrated by Ashley Barron
A child with cerebral palsy enjoys a day at the beach with her mom in this vibrantly illustrated and poetic picture book. This picture book contains incidental disability representation, which means the text never mentions the main character has cerebral palsy, nor does the story revolve around her cerebral palsy, yet the child is illustrated as being disabled and uses a mobility aid. It’s a perfect read before heading to the beach. The author and illustrator recently won the Schneider Family Book Award for their picture book My City Speaks, which also has incidental disability representation. The main character, a young girl, is visually impaired. Both books are equally lovely!
Best Day Ever! by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Leah Nixon
In this fun and sweet picture book, a young boy and his dog are having the best day ever until things start going wrong. When the dog rolls in mud and jumps on the boy, they both end up dirty and smelly. However, the boy can’t stay disappointed for long with such a sweet companion, and the boy and dog are soon having fun together once more. I love how this picture book shows a wheelchair user living his normal life!
I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith
In this absolutely stunning picture book, the author describes his childhood experiences with stuttering through rich, poetic language. In class, the narrator’s teacher asks him to describe his favorite place, but he’s unable to respond. His father picks him up from school and takes him to a river, where the father tells him he talks like a river. This becomes a moment of epiphany for the boy as he realizes his voice can be as strong and beautiful as the river. From the beautiful language to the gorgeous illustrations, this picture book is a work of art and one of my all-time favorites.
We Move Together by Kelly Fritsch and Anne McGuire, illustrated by Eduardo Trejos
This vibrantly illustrated picture book celebrates disabled bodies, accessibility, and disability justice. Each page spread joyously presents disabled bodies moving in the world, whether they’re moving fast, waiting in line, or marching for justice. It doesn’t shy away from some of the frustrations in navigating inaccessible spaces, and calls for accessibility to be a priority while still focusing on the child reader. It’s such a fun read that generates lots of discussion with young readers.
Can Bears Ski? by Raymond Antrobus, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
Little Bear doesn’t understand why everyone keeps asking him, “Can bears ski?” When Dad Bear takes him to an audiologist, Little Bear is fitted with hearing aids and realizes people were asking him, “Can you hear me?” not whether he could ski or not. While before he had hearing aids, Little Bear experienced the world through vibrations, he now has to cope with how LOUD everything is. Thankfully he has a supportive father to help him. Written by an award-winning deaf poet, this is an adorable picture book.
It was Supposed to be Sunny by Samantha Cotterill
This is one of my favorite birthday picture books. Laila, who is autistic, has planned the perfect small unicorn birthday party. Schedules are essential for Laila; however, soon things start going wrong. First, it begins raining, and they can’t do unicorn races outside. Then her mother accidentally drops the unicorn cake. Everything is going wrong, but with some readjustments to the schedule, doggy snuggles, and a little alone time, Laila has a blast at her birthday party. This is one book in Samantha Cotterill’s Little Senses picture book series, which helps children process sensory overload. I love every book in the series so far.
Too Sticky!: Sensory Issues with Autism by Jen Malia, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
In this STEM picture book, Holly, an autistic child, feels a little put off by the idea of making slime at school that day, even though science is her favorite class. Sometimes strange textures make her feel uncomfortable, but with the support of her family, teacher, and accommodations, she participates in and enjoys the slime-making activity. This book includes a recipe to make slime in the back.
Let’s Go for a Walk by Ranger Hamza, illustrated by Kate Kronreif
All three children in this rhyming search-and-find picture book are illustrated as disabled: one wears a cochlear implant, one wears glasses, and one has a prosthetic leg. The three children take a walk around their neighborhood with Ranger Hamza, and along the way they play an “I spy” game. They go to the playground, the city, a garden, and notice so many things about the world around them. It’s such a fun interactive book to read with kids, and I love the incidental disability representation!
A Kids Book about Disabilities by Kristine Napper
The mission of the Kids Books About… series is to help empower children and powers to have meaningful conversations about diversity. This book, written by a disabled author, demystifies and normalizes disability. It provides helpful information about how common disability is and how to talk to people with disabilities. Every book in the series uses neat typography that centers on the information rather than illustrations. It’s an excellent book for caregivers and children alike to start thinking more critically about disability.
A Blue Kind of Day by Rachel Tomlinson, illustrated by Tori-Jay Mordey
Childhood depression is not often addressed in picture books, and this beautiful picture book does an excellent job of showing how depression feels and how family members can respond. Coen is depressed. Everything feels murky and heavy and blue. Instead of getting up and playing, he goes back to bed. One by one, his family tries to cheer him up and get him out of bed, but nothing works. All Coen wants to do is cocoon himself under the covers and feel his emotions. When his family gives him the space and support to do so, his feelings eventually dissipate, and he gets out of bed to play with his family.
Aaron Slater, Illustrator by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
The newest picture book in The Questioneers series (Ada Twist, Scientist) depicts a dyslexic main character, Aaron. Aaron loves stories and dreams of being a writer one day. However, Aaron has trouble reading and writing. The letters just won’t hold still! Aaron despairs when his teacher Ms. Greer assigns the class a writing project. However, with the support of Ms. Greer and, most importantly, his imagination, he finds his own way to tell a story—through illustrations. This rhyming picture book is a blast to read aloud, and it’s printed in a dyslexic-friendly font.
Sam’s Super Seats by Keah Brown, illustrated by Sharee Miller
In this joyful picture book by the author of The Pretty One and creator of the #DisabledAndCute movement, Sam, a girl with cerebral palsy, goes to the mall with friends to find the perfect back-to-school outfit. When her legs get a little tired, she needs to find the perfect seat to rest and recharge. But none of the seats are as super as the ones at home. How is she going to find the ideal place to rest? This super fun picture book doesn’t release until August, so keep an eye out for it!
Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born in Ghana with a missing right tibia. As an adult, he bicycled almost 400 miles across Ghana with one leg to raise awareness for disability rights. An activist and athlete, he’s influenced perception and policy about disabled people in Ghana. In 2006, Ghana passed The Person’s with Disability Act. This vibrantly illustrated picture book biography chronicles Yeboah’s life and his impact on disability justice.
Mommy Sayang by Rosana Sullivan
In this beautifully illustrated picture book, Pixar illustrator Rosana Sullivan tells the story of the special relationship between a mother and child as they play together in a Malaysian village. However, when Mommy is too sick to play, the child must play with herself. The text never states what precisely the mother has that keeps her bed-ridden. It’s a lovely, lyrical read, and in the end, mother and daughter are playing once more.
A Walk in the Words by Hudson Talbott
In this gorgeously illustrated autobiography, Hudson Talbott relates how, as a child, he struggled with reading and writing due to his dyslexia, though he loved drawing and telling stories. He couldn’t read as fast as the other kids in his class, making him feel frustrated and like an outsider. However, when he permits himself to read slowly, he discovers he can, in fact, read and that he loves doing so. Some of the illustrations in this picture book are just stunning. I love the message that taking things slowly does not lessen the joy in an activity, something many disabled people (like myself) understand deeply, though it can still often be frustrating.
We Want to Go to School!: The Fight for Disability Rights by Maryann Cocca-Leffler & Janine Leffler
This nonfiction picture book covers the 1972 case Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia and how it led to the ruling that all disabled children would receive a free public education. The author, Janine Leffler — who has cerebral palsy — was able to attend public school because of this ruling. This is an informative yet accessible read with engaging illustrations. I wish it had a section on the continued work that needs to be done, but I appreciate the historical importance of this case, and there needs to be more books like this for kids.
Another Way to Climb a Tree by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Hadley Hooper
Lulu loves climbing trees more than anything, but she has to stay inside when she's sick. From the window, she watches the trees and longs to climb them. When the sun casts a tree's shadow on her wall, she uses her imagination to do what she loves most: climb. I love this portrayal of illness and the power of imagination. At the end, the illustrations show the child with what appears to be chicken pox, which is no longer much of an issue thanks to vaccines, but I think this picture book would be an excellent read for any child who experiences a prolonged illness.
What’s Silly Hair Day with No Hair by Norene Paulson, illustrated by Camila Carrossine
Bea has alopecia areata, which means she can’t grow hair. It’s spirit week at school, and the last day is “Silly Hair Day.” Bea is worried; how can she have silly hair with no hair? With some support from a friend and a little ingenuity, Bea comes up with the perfect solution. I love the colorful illustrations, fantastic story, and especially the disability allyship in this wonderful picture book.
Margaret Kingsbury posts about children’s books on Instagram @BabyLibrarians. She writes for Book Riot and BuzzFeed Books, and her essays have also appeared in Parents, The Lily, School Library Journal, and more. In her free time, she writes children’s books she hopes will be published one day, hikes with her daughter, and rearranges her books.