Interest in kids’ books about special needs has never been higher. Recent bestsellers like John Green’s “cancer kids” opus The Fault in Our Stars, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose teen narrator/sleuth is on the autism spectrum, and RJ Palacio’s Wonder, about the mainstreaming of a boy with an extreme facial deformity, are now widely taught in area middle school reading classes. Younger children connect with the topic through popular picture books like Hooway for Wodney Wat and grade school–skewing fiction like Jack Gantos’ five-book Joey Pigza ADHD series. This trend not only gives kids who share the hero’s challenges a cultural touchstone; it also means that more youngsters than ever are getting a crash course in empathy, as special needs stories and fiction tend to engagingly illuminate the physical challenges, emotional issues and social bullying kids with special needs often grapple with. Here are a few titles worth reading.
By Jennifer Elder (Jessica Kingsley Pub; ages 8-12)
Special subject: ASDs
Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll, Dian Fossey and Andy Warhol are just a few of the famous, influential people who found it difficult to fit in, just like main character Quinn, who has Asperger’s.
By Margot Finke (Guardian Angel Publishing; ages 5+)
Special subject: dyslexia
Grade-schooler Horatio worries that his classmates will think he’s “dumb” when his teacher tells his parents he has dyslexia. This rhyming book gives hope and humor to kids with learning disabilities.
By Jennifer Moore-Mallinos (Barron’s; ages 4+)
Special subject: physical disability
In this illustrated storybook, a boy who needs a wheelchair proves how hard work, passion and dedication can help him through feelings of isolation — he learns to play basketball to combat being left out by his classmates.
By Sam Goldstein (Specialty Press; ages 7-9)
Special subject: ADHD
This Seussian-style storybook depicts the thinking processes of kids with ADHD in entertaining ways, injecting positive reinforcements that can help readers be more comfortable in their own skin.
(JayJo Books; ages 4+)
Special subject: multiple disabilities
This series helps kids understand the lives of peers with a variety of special needs and chronic conditions — everything from autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome to diabetes, food allergies and Tourette’s. Each story ends with a quiz and teacher tips about the main subject.
By Kathryn Erskine (Puffin; ages 10+)
Special subject: Asperger syndrome
The heroine of this National Book Award winner has Asperger’s and a beloved brother who’s killed in a middle-school shooting. The way she reconciles the two defining realities of her life makes for a visceral read.
By Sharon M. Draper (Atheneum; ages 9+)
Special subject: cerebral palsy
Melody can’t walk or talk, but she refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. This compelling tale follows a discovery that allows her to voice her opinions for the first time.
By Cynthia Lord (Scholastic Paperbacks; ages 8-12)
Special subject: autism
The question “What is normal?” is at the core of this novel, written from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl whose family life revolves around her brother with autism.
By Jason Reynolds (Atheneum; 12+)
Special subject: Tourette syndrome
A trio of boys who live in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood includes Needles, who knits to control his Tourette syndrome yet finds he shares the same external struggles as his brother and their friend.
By RJ Palacio (Random House; ebook only)
Special subject: bullying prevention
This companion ebook to Wonder recasts the events of the popular novel through the eyes of its ostensible bully.
Deneia Washington is a MetroKids intern and journalism student at Temple University.