Children’s books and disability

I believe that it is important that every child regardless of there background or disability can see themselves  reflected in books. A personal reason for this belief  is due to the fact that I had epilepsy as child. At the time I did not know many other people with the condition. Epilepsy for the most part is an invisible condition, with only occasionally people on television having a seizure and of course in the late 1980’s the Internet was not available. Along with my parents help the book which had the greatest  impact was  ‘ What Difference Does it Make Danny?’ by Helen Young. Illustrated by the wonderful Quentin Blake, (I was already a devoted Roald Dahl fan), it gave me an image of a normal child who happened to have epilepsy. Danny went to the hospital, took medication but he also did all the normal things too, went to school, played with friends and went swimming. This blue  paperback book  served as a mirror and helped me to make sense of  my condition.  Sadly this book is now quite out of date and appears  to be out of print  and there are still not many books out there on epilepsy.

Much later after graduating I became an early years librarian and discovered the parents’ collection int the library. This is a collection of books addressing children’s experiences in the form of non-fiction guides and picture books. These experiences included potty training, first day at nursery , the birth of a new sibiling but also disability, bereavement and loss. Much of this was of the  ‘ Jimmy is in a wheelchair’  type focusing exclusively on the differences in the child’s life and often aimed at children who did not have disability. Well written books of this sort certainly have their place but what I believer is more exciting is the emergence of picture books which feature children with disabilities as a matter of course. Notable examples include ‘ Animal Boogie‘ with a child in a wheelchair and Annie Kubler’s  nursery rhyme books with sign language andchildren with hearing aids  and eye patches.

It was with this background  that I attended the seminar on children’s picture books and disabilty at this year’s London Book Fair. The seminar was entitled ‘What’s the Story? Listening to Deaf and Disabled Children.’ Led by Alexandra Strick, children’s book consultant at Booktrust we heard a range of views from a panel of experts including current children’s laureate Julia Donaldson.

The importance of having positive representations of deaf people in books which deaf children can identify with and see themselves on the page. But also for hearing children to understand it is normal for people to be deaf or have disabilities.

The potential of e-books as a way for people with disabilities to access books and stories which they may not have been able to before. For example through enlarging the type-face ,audio versions and signed versions of the story.

Author Joyce Dunbar talked about how disabilty is still a not commerically visable and so deaf people are not seen or heard. But there are small things which could be done to increase the visibility of disability in picture books showing hearing aids, tactile pavement and teachers wearing hearing loops.

Aminder Virdee talked about the negative images of disabilites in traditional children’s stories such as  the evil Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. She noted that in Victor Hugo’s  original novel Quasimodo  gets the girl, in the more well know Disney version he does not.

There was also a  discussion about a number of difference books featuring disability  including:

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

For older readers written half in prose and half in pictures but with the important distinction that the pictures are not to illustrate the prose but to tell the story in themselves, it tells the story from a deaf girl’s point of view. Written by Selznick who also wrote ‘The Invention of  Hugo Cabret’ recently out as a movie and is in the same format. Apparently it’s a thick book but worth a read

Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donalson

Young picture book with message of clear communication, the importance of sign language, not turning your head or covering  your mouth while speaking to someone who is deaf.

Goat goes to playgroup

Another Julia Donaldson title and illustrated by the wonderful Nick Sharatt about goat and his friends including monkey who has a hearing aid.

Useful organisations and websites


Books and Disability run by Booktrust

Alexandra Strick

Disabilty consultant for Booktrust

Aminder Virdee

London Ambassador for the Trailblazers network at the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign

Life and Deaf

Poems by deaf children

Letterbox Library 

Website with children’s books celebrating equality and diversity

Heathly Books

Webpage hosted by CILIP health libraries, comprehensive directory of books for different issues

Report by Scope on children’s views of disability in books

5 thoughts on “Children’s books and disability

  1. My kids grew up with Sesame Street books and videos (imported from America) which always showed kids of every colour and description, including kids in wheelchairs and with hearing aids. It’s true Americans can sometimes go overboard on inclusivity, but I think Sesame Street did it in such a matter-of-fact way – that they were all just kids, just kids with some differences.

    • Very good point Deborah, no I think Sesame Street is amazing, they have always tackled issues but in such an everyday way. In a way I think some children’s TV might actually be ahead of children’s books.

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