WOW Review: Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities
Around the world people of all ages face challenges in their everyday lives owing to emotional, perceptual, intellectual, and physical disabilities. This issue of WOW Review showcases children’s and young adult literature that authentically and sensitively provides insights into the lived disability experiences of people across the globe. Taking the lead on this issue is the USBBY (US Board on Books for Young People) committee that biennially selects titles from books sent by publishers to submit to IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) as nominees for inclusion in the IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities award list and annotated catalogue. USBBY is the national section of IBBY that “was founded to promote international understanding and good will through books for children and adolescents.” This mission reflects the continued goals of WOW Review—in this case, understanding the lives of those for whom some type of disability influences how they live, make decisions, and view society. Reviews of other titles suitable for young people with disabilities or with powerful insights into disability experiences that are not part of the IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities award list are also included in this special issue.
All the books reviewed challenge assumptions. Green, an inventive picture book, brings dramatic conceptual, visual and linguistic surprises to every page. Able to be read and understood at a variety of levels, this book will delight young readers with special needs. It is no wonder that “wonder” appears in three different titles of the books reviewed in this issue; the protagonists with disabilities we meet leave us in awe of their wisdom and abilities while simultaneously battling prejudice and discrimination on multiple levels. Exploring such narratives allows readers to reflect upon their lives as both similar to and different from the characters with disabilities that they encounter, and to consider how to meet life’s challenges with resilience and hope.
In several stories, in place of simplistic medical interpretations that frame disability as an abnormality to be cured or a personal tragedy, readers are presented with affirmation models of disability, learning that the experience of disability can contribute positively to the identity of an individual or a group. This is especially true of two books that transport us into Deaf culture. For instance, in The Smart Princess and Other Deaf Tales, a thought-provoking collection of stories written and illustrated by Deaf contributors, readers come to appreciate the advantages of signing over speech. In Wonderstruck, we learn that deafness can be an asset, as when Ben uses his deaf ear to tune out his bullying cousin’s annoying CB radio. These titles also include occasional sign and finger spelling visuals that may force hearing readers to slow down and give Deaf readers an advantage in understanding what is being communicated.
Themes of discrimination and prejudice are explored with great sensitivity in several of the books included in this issue, especially those that feature characters with developmental disabilities. Auggie Pullman, the 10-year old protagonist in Wonder, loves eating ice cream and riding his bike, but a congenital disorder has left him with severe craniofacial differences—no ears, eyebrows or cheekbones, a sagging face, as well as a protruding nose and bulging eyes. By the time Auggie enters 5th grade after a period of homeschooling, he is already accustomed to people recoiling or staring. But at his new school, Beecher Prep, he experiences teasing, disappointing friends who bow to peer-pressure, and bullying. In Words in the Dust, we meet Zulaikha, an adolescent girl who lives in a village in Farah Province in Afghanistan during the US military occupation. Born with a cleft palate, Zulaikha experiences incessant bullying and humiliation. In a society where a woman’s worth is measured according to her marriage prospects, Zulaikha believes that she has little to offer. Franny, the 14-year narrator of The Lovely Shoes has many things going for her, but a “birth defect” has left her with an undeveloped leg, a foot that curls under, and a limp. Walking in her heavy orthopedic shoes, peers call her “gimp” or “crippled.” At first, Franny responds by being super pleasant and overly generous, but after a mortifying experience at a dance, she retreats to her bedroom and vows she will never come out. In all three of these novels, readers learn that discrimination and prejudice are deeply connected to societal pressures for normalcy. Such pressure not only undermines tolerance, it interferes with our coming to terms with our own bodies. Although Auggie, Zulaika and Franny each wish to go unnoticed and at the beginning of their stories believe that surgery or ways of disguising their disabilities will improve their lives, ultimately they come to the mature realization that self-acceptance is an important factor in battling societal intolerance.
Several of the titles draw our attention to the fundamental role of mentor relationships. In Junkyard Wonders, a special education class with individuals who have diverse needs and very obvious abilities, the astute teacher, Mrs. Peterson, mentors the students to appreciate their own and others’ qualities and aptitudes. In Samurai Kids Book 1: White Crane, the legendary samurai master, Ki-Yaga, welcomes a group of students into the “Cockroach Ryu” who have been rejected from other samurai schools owing to their orthopedic, perceptual and emotional differences. Through Ki-Yaga’s unwavering belief as well as his exacting lessons, the remarkable students learn to overcome their fears, find their inner powers, work together, and teach others important lessons in humanity. Across the books, we learn that brilliant mentors are not always teachers in schools or devoted parents. Melody, the 11-year old narrator with cerebral palsy who cannot independently walk, talk, or eat, in Out of My Mind, has several mentors, but perhaps the one with the greatest insight into Melody’s intelligence and desire to communicate is the tough love and great expectations of her next-door neighbor. Waiting for No One is another novel with a female protagonist, Taylor Jane Simon, who tells her own story. Taylor is eager to get a job and to move away from home, but she knows she needs to work on aspects of her life that are associated with Asperger’s syndrome. Taylor becomes an advocate for Martin Phoenix, who has cerebral palsy. Taylor’s struggles to understand nuanced language and behavior, and her battle to be taken seriously, make her especially cognizant of the need to support Martin’s developing linguistic skills and to protect him from being babied.
This special issue of WOW Review provides insights into diverse disability experiences. Although many of the titles deal with painful issues of discrimination, readers will be inspired by their resilient and hopeful characters who prove unafraid to battle injustice. This is only a sampling of relevant titles that broaden perspectives on disability, so we welcome your suggestions and additions.
Chair, USSBY committee on Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities