10 YA books about disabilities your students will love

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Here are 10 YA books that have characters with a disability and a message your students will love.

We all love a story with a main character who is spunky, courageous, and memorable. Even better, if that main character is representative of a population that may be less seen. Here is a quick summary of 10 of my favorite books about disabilites and some activities you can incorporate into your lesson plans.

1. Wonder by RJ Palacio

In Wonder, Auggie is finally going into 5th grade after being homeschooled due to health issues. Auggie was born with significant facial deformities and has had very little social interaction up until this point. But, he is ready!! Auggie’s realization that it is okay to stand out and not blend in is a lesson for all to learn.

Here are some activities you can add to your plans for this book.

  1. What does ordinary even look like? Have students create a collage of what they think of when they hear the word ordinary using pictures from magazines. Then compare the finished products to see how different ordinary really is.
  2. Dealing with change. Have students describe how change makes them feel and come up with 3 strategies to help deal positively with change.
  3. What to do when you someone different. Give students several sets of 2 choices of how to act and what to say when they see a person who is different.
  4. Friend or bully? Auggie has a hard time telling the difference between someone who is being nice to him and someone who is being mean. Create a Venn diagram to compare friends and bullies, paying special attention to those areas that overlap.
  5. Going on a sleepover. Auggie gets to go on his first sleepover. Students can write their own story about going on a sleepover. And, if they have not, then write a story about what they imagine it would be like.

2. A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

What makes A Kind of Spark so fascinating is that it was written by a young woman who has autism. She writes about Addie who is 11 years old and becomes infatuated with the witch trials that took place in her hometown decades ago. She campaigns to have a memorial erected to the women unfairly put to death simply because they were misunderstood, much like herself.

Here are some activities I would recommend for this amazing book:

  1. Places to be quiet. Addie loves the library because it is quiet. Show the students pictures of various places. Which are the ones you need to be quiet in/at and which is it okay to be noisy?
  2. Reading facial expressions. Being able to read nonverbal cues is a challenge for people who have social and emotional challenges. Collect pictures of various people and either have students tell you what that person may be feeling, or tell students a scenario and have them find the picture with the person who may be in that situation.
  3. Ways to remember someone. Addie wants to erect a memorial to remember those who died. Students can brainstorm different ways we can pay tribute and remember a person who has passed.
  4. Reasons people cry. Addie has a hard time interpreting how people may be feeling. So she assumes when a person cries he/she must be sad. Have students think of all the different situations and reasons a person may cry.
  5. Safe and unsafe choices. At one point, Addie takes off to the university on her own to find her sister. Given her age and naivety, this was not a safe choice. Give students various choices and situations they may find themselves in and sort them into those that are safe and those that are not safe.

3. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Fish in a Tree is a wonderful story about Ally who has dyslexia. Because her family is in the military she moves a lot and no one has noticed her difficulty reading until now. In the past, she was seen as lazy, stubborn, or just a troublemaker. The truth was she truly struggled with reading and writing. But, then one teacher figures it out and changes everything, opening up a whole new world for Ally. Ally’s tenacity and one teacher’s dedication will make you cheer her on to the very end.

Here are some activities your students are sure to love:

  1. Interest inventory. There are things Ally definitely likes and does not like about school. Have your students complete a survey or inventory about the things they do and do not like about their typical school day.
  2. If I were invisible. Sometimes Ally just wishes she were invisible so the teacher would not call on her to read out loud. Have students write a story about what they would do if they were invisible.
  3. Fair and not fair consequences. There are always consequences to our actions. Give students various situations where a person does something wrong. What do they think a fair consequence would be?
  4. Alternatives to fighting. Ally is worried about her friend Albert. He keeps showing up to school with bruises. He tells Ally they are from a group of boys who try to get him to fight, but he does not believe in fighting. Have students brainstorm things they can do instead of fighting with someone. (This can mean physical OR verbal fighting.)
  5. Unlimited supply. Mr. Daniels, the teacher, asks the students what they would want an unlimited supply of and they write an essay about why they made that choice. Put various things on index cards and then put them in a bag. Have students draw a card out, and decide what they could do with an unlimited supply of whatever is on the card.

4. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

Freak the Mighty is the moving story of two boys who become best friends despite being complete opposites. Each boy has his own unique challenges yet finds ways to help each other overcome some of the same obstacles. Max is a very big kid who struggles in school and has had a tough home life in the past. Kevin, or Freak, is just the opposite and is a very small, fragile boy who is brilliant with an expansive imagination.

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. Saying hello. Max struggles with saying hello to Freak when they first meet. Have students act out the best steps to saying hello to a new person.
  2. What do you do in the summer? Max and Freak have lots of adventures in the summertime. Have students sort activities best done in the summer and those best done in the winter.
  3. Camouflage. Freak and Max wear dark colors to blend into the night. They want to be camouflaged. Lots of animals use camouflage to hide in the wild. Look in magazines and youtube for examples of animals that use camouflage.
  4. Family resemblance. Many people tell Max he looks just like his dad. What are some ways you look, dress, or act like your parents?
  5. What does a hero look like? Not all heroes are big and strong. Freak is definitely a hero in this book. Create a collage of different people students consider a hero.

5. Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe won the Newbery Medal in 2018. It is about a shy boy, Virgil, who wants to meet a girl who is deaf because he has a crush on her. Virgil enlists the help of Kaori, a 12-year-old psychic, who also happens to be helping Valencia, the girl who is deaf. This whole book takes place over only 2 days, but it is packed with excitement and action.

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. What is your sign? Kaori uses astrology in her psychic readings. Using their birthdays, have students learn what their zodiac sign is, and what it means.
  2. Insult or compliment? Chet, the bully in the story, only has mean things to say to Virgil. Have students sort examples of insults and compliments. How can they change some of those insults so that they are compliments?
  3. Reading a business card. Kaori makes up business cards for her business. Reading information in all different formats is an important skill. Gather some business cards and see what information students can learn from them.
  4. Causes of deafness. There are lots of reasons a person may lose their hearing. Explore and talk about some of those reasons and how they are different.
  5. Rescuing someone who is trapped. Virgil gets stuck in a well. Show students various places a person may get stuck and brainstorm the best thing to use to get them to safety.

6. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Out of my Mind is a brave story about 12 year old Melody who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. All anyone sees is her chair and her limitations, but inside she is full of wit and wisdom. With the help of her parents and her neighbor, Melody breaks free of the stereotype and label other students and teachers have tried to put on her. You will cheer her on and cry with her at opportunities missed.

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. What type of music do you like? Melody and her parents like different types of music. Bring in some samples (of play from YouTube) of different types of music and see which are the most and least popular in your classroom.
  2. What does perseverance look like? Melody has so much perseverance to accomplish even the most simple of tasks. What does that feel like? Freeze a quarter in an ice cube (one per student). Tell them they can keep the quarter if they have the perseverance to hold it tight until it melts.
  3. Tally up types of pets. Melody finally gets a pet. Make a large bar graph on the board with each column being a different kind of popular pet. Using post-it notes, have students fill in the bar graph. Tell them to put as many post-it notes as pets they have. So if they have 3 dogs, then put three post-it notes in the dog column. Tally up the most and least popular pets.
  4. Accessibility. This is a big issue in this book. Walk around the school grounds, how many places can you find that would not be easily accessible if you were in a wheelchair?
  5. Hard and soft foods. Melody can only eat soft foods. Go through some flyers, magazines, or coupons and sort foods into those that are hard and those that are soft.

7. Out of my Heart by Susan Draper

Out of my Heart is the continuation of Melody’s story. In this book, Melody decides she wants to go to summer camp. She researches and finds a camp that is accessible and geared toward kids that have various disabilities. But, she has never been away from home on her own before. There are many challenges to overcome, but her experience at camp is more than she could have hoped for.

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. Who has been to summer camp? Take a poll of the students in your class, and see who has been to summer camp. Have them share the experience, and if they plan to return.
  2. What are some activities you might do at summer camp? Before getting too far into the story, brainstorm some activities you might find at most summer camps. Do you think these are things Melody can and will experience?
  3. Introduce yourself. Melody has to introduce herself to the other kids and counselors at camp. Practice introducing yourself to a group. What are some things that are important to share?
  4. Sink of float. Melody is convinced she will sink once she gets into the pool. Gather various objects and hypothesize which would float and which would sink. Test out your guesses.
  5. Colors have meanings. Both Melody and her friend Noah see music as a color (different colors). What do certain colors remind you of? Can music have a color? Assign colors to certain sounds, emotions, or other items of interest.

8. Air by Monica Roe

Air is another great story about a girl in a wheelchair. 12-year-old Emmie lives with her father who is struggling after Emmie’s mom unexpectedly dies. Emmie is brave, fearless, and a bit of a daredevil. Her dream is to participate in wheelchair motocross and she practices on the quarter pipe her dad built in the backyard. There are SO MANY important messages in this book, the biggest being the importance of self-advocacy.

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. Easier with two. Emmie realizes that practicing the ramp in the backyard is a lot easier with the help of her best friend Ale. Have students sort jobs that are definitely easier with two people.
  2. Wheelchair etiquette. Do you students know about wheelchair etiquette? Many people don’t. Do a little research and talk about the best way to approach and help (if needed) a person in a wheelchair.
  3. Sassy Sayings. Emmie designs handbags for wheelchairs. She gets a request for a bag with some sassy sayings. Have your students decorate a bag with some sassy sayings of their own. Here are some examples:
    • lightning fast
    • need a lift?
    • looking for trouble
    • too cool to slow down
    • gone fishing
  4. Famous. Emmie has to do a report on a famous person. Come up with a list of famous people. Who would you want to do a report on and learn more about?
  5. Motocross. Look on YouTube for some good videos of what wheelchair motocross is. This was totally new to me, and it was super interesting to watch. Here is a good choice about a very inspirational competitor that is appropriate for all ages: https://youtu.be/ZssWpUQHnvc

9. Rules by Cynthia Lord

Rules is the story about an autistic boy, David, told from the point of view of his 12-year-old sister Catherine. Being a sibling of a person with a disability comes with an entirely different set of challenges. But, Catherine is a good sister and loves her brother. She simply wants to find her own identity in the family separate from David’s sister (an all too common goal.)

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. What makes you embarrassed? Catherine is often embarrassed by her brother’s odd actions. Have students brainstorm things that make them feel embarrassed.
  2. Waiting. David has a very hard time waiting and does not understand what a few minutes really means. Sort activities that take a relatively short (minutes) or relatively long (hours) time.
  3. What goes in an aquarium? David likes to put all kinds of things in the family’s aquarium. Draw a large picture of an aquarium. Go through magazines and cut out pictures and place them either in or outside the aquarium depending on where they belong.
  4. Communication devices. In the story, Catherine meets Jason who uses picture cards to help him communicate. What types of devices can people use to communicate?
  5. Make a wish. Catherine often wishes her brother was normal. If you had 3 wishes, what would you wish for? Use magazines and other materials to make a collage.

10. Restart by Gordaon Korman

I saved my favorite for last. Restart is the story about Chase, an eighth-grade football star who also turns out to be a really big bully. But, then Chase falls off the roof, hits his head, and loses his memory. Because he can’t remember who he was, he has a chance to start over, and turn his life around. It is a chance he does not squander, and when he finally does remember who and what he was, he vows to never become that person again. I know amnesia is a bit of a stretch for a disability, but Chase has to start over and navigate a new world without the benefit of his memories (luckily).

Here are some activities you can do with this book:

  1. What do you remember? Test your memory. Can you remember what you had for dinner last night, last week…
  2. One handed? Chase breaks his arm in the fall and only has the use of one arm for a while. He finds cutting his chicken at lunch almost impossible. What are some things you can do one-handed and what are some things you cannot? Test it out.
  3. After-school activities. This is a great thing to do with middle and high school students. Look through last year’s yearbook. What are some clubs and other activities your school offers? Are there any that your students would like to know more about and possibly participate in?
  4. Sticky/not sticky. One of the characters in the book ends up covering himself with syrup. Why? You will have to read to find out. Students can sort things that are and are not sticky.
  5. Second chances. Talk about the idea of getting a second chance. Have you ever done something you wish you could do over?

Well, those are some of my favorite novels that have main characters with a disability. Strong characters, good stories, and lots of ways to make it relatable and accessible to your students.

If you would like a complete novel study for any of these books, then be sure to click on the titles below and check them out in my store. Each book has 1 or more activities for each chapter and 5 comprehension questions for each chapter. Both use lots of pictures to make it accessible, yet still age-appropriate, for our older students who struggle with reading and comprehension.

Christa

2 Comments

    • I have not done a novel unit yet with a character with that disability but would love to include one. Do you have a favorite you could recommend?

      Reply

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