Read these children’s books with characters in wheelchairs! A fantastic selection of characters with physical disabilities and special needs.
My 15-year-0ld daughter, PickyKidPix, has been working for a year to get our dog to pass the therapy dog test through Pets and People.
Her goal is to do library dog volunteer work with him. She signed up for about ten dog training sessions and our dog made great progress. She even practiced at home with him.
The issue is that our dog can do all of the different components of the test, but just not at the same time:
- Accepting a friendly stranger: The dog will allow a friendly stranger to approach it and speak to the handler in a natural, everyday situation.
- Sitting Politely for Petting: The dog will allow a friendly stranger to pet it while it is out with its handler.
- Appearance and Grooming: The dog will permit someone to check it’s ears and front feet, as a groomer or veterinarian would do.
- Out for a Walk (walking on a loose lead): Following the evaluator’s instructions, the dog will walk on a loose lead (with the handler/owner).
- Walking Through a Crowd: This test demonstrates that the dog can move about politely in pedestrian traffic and is under control in public places. The dog and handler walk around and pass close to several people (at least three).
- Sit and Down on Command and Staying in Place: The dog must do sit AND down on command, then the owner chooses the position for leaving the dog in the stay.
- Coming When Called: This test demonstrates that the dog will come when called by the handler (from 10 feet on a leash).
- Reaction to Another Dog: This test demonstrates that the dog can behave politely around other dogs. Two handlers and their dogs approach each other from a distance of about 20 feet, stop, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.
- Reaction to Distraction: The evaluator will select and present two distractions such as dropping a chair, etc.
What made our test more challenging was two things: 1) you can not use treats during the test, and 2) there are dog treats scattered on the floor that your dog walks past but can not touch or eat.
Our dog is not much of a barker, but here he would fail the Therapy Dog Test for barking because he got too excited when the evaluator acted in a deliberately excited way.
Today, I have the picture book debut of Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Patrice Barton. Maria has been following our Therapy Dog Training journey as a reader to my blog and was sympathetic when our dog failed his first attempt. I
n her picture book, Moose is a much better therapy dog candidate for Zara, his human girl. Moose’s therapy dog test was a little different from ours as each therapy dog organization has its own criteria and test.
If our dog fails the challenging Pets and People test again, we will try again with a different organization with less stringent requirements.
Children’s books with characters in wheelchairs
When Mia, master of many thoughtful and comprehensive booklists, kindly agreed to help me with yet another blog tour, she asked if I could write a post on books with kids using wheelchairs.
Though the main character in my story, Zara is a wheelchair user, it is not the main focus of the story. Above all, it is a story that celebrates the bond between Zara and her devoted dog, Moose, who only wants to say “hello,” never “goodbye.”
Since I am a writer of picture books, I began my research focusing on picture books. I am also a reader of picture books, many picture books. Since I started keeping track a few years ago, I have read (upon writing this post) nearly 1500 picture books.
Some of these are re-reads; some books I’ve read and studied more deeply than others, but I knew that among all of these books, I could only recall one recent book that even featured a kid in a wheelchair at all, Stacy McAnulty’s Beautiful, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff.
I admire Beautiful’s subversive message. Though the refrain, “Beautiful girls” seems to point to superficial and stereotypical notions of what it means to be a “beautiful” girl, the illustrations show REAL girls who are beautiful because they are smart, adventurous, imaginative and creative, and that is true beauty.
The third spread in the book reads: “Beautiful girls move gracefully.” And that page features athletes of all kinds, including two wheelchair-using girls playing basketball.
Another female character in a wheelchair appears towards the end of the book. The text reads, “Beautiful girls deserve compliments,” and it shows a skateboarding girl; a girl in a wheelchair playing a tambourine, and a girl high in a tree.
The book takes place in Pakistan during the spring kite festival of Basant. Malik wants to be “King of Basant,” the best kite fighter. With his kite named Falcon, Malik defeats the bully next door, Goliath.
No mention is made in the text of the fact that Malik is using a wheelchair—it is only incidental to the rest of the story. In the end, it presents the powerful message that Basant is for everyone.
In Quentin Blake’s The Five of Us, each of the five fantastic friends in this book has some kind of amazing superpower:
And Mario is very strong in spite of the fact that he is a wheelchair-user.
However, Mario is not any more powerful than the others, he’s one of the groups, one of the fantastic five. They’ve all equally contributed to the rescue of Big Eddie, the only adult in the story.
I had to dig more deeply to find other characters using wheelchairs, again, with the focus of the story not being wheelchair use itself.
I discovered a book published almost twenty years ago: Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross. The book is written in quatrains, and opens, “Susan laughs,/Susan sings,/Susan flies,/Susan swings.” It is a series of Susan’s actions: riding, hiding, swimming, dancing.
Feelings Susan has: happy/sad; loud/proud.
It is not until the very last page that we even see Susan in her wheelchair: “That is Susan/through and through–/just like me, just like you.”
I think I understand the choice the writer made—to show that Susan is “just like you,” but the way it’s presented, it makes it seem as if Susan is only “normal” without her wheelchair. By not showing her wheelchair until the very last page, readers are forced to see Susan as other, and different.
The very sad truth is there are still very few picture books featuring kids who are wheelchair users.
Just last month I read a New York Times opinion story entitled, “Stories About Disability Don’t Have to Be Sad,” by Massachusetts teenager and activist, Melissa Shang.
In the article, Shang laments the lack of happy wheelchair-using kids featured in books, so much so that she authored a book herself: Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School.
Shang is a typical teenager who happens to have a congenital degenerative nerve disease, a form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth, which causes her arm and leg muscles to atrophy over time. When her book was submitted to and rejected by publishers, many of the comments were the same.
Shang writes, “for a girl who was in a wheelchair with a degenerative nerve disease, Mia Lee was just too happy.”
Shang goes on to say, “… Mia Lee, my sassy, YouTube-loving heroine, differed too much from the convention of what a disabled kid is supposed to be like. There are very few stories about kids in wheelchairs, and there are even fewer with a disabled person who is cheerful and happy. Disability is always seen as a misfortune, and disabled characters are simply opportunities to demonstrate the kindness of the able-bodied protagonists.”
Shang ends her piece by saying, “For once, I want to see the disabled kids not in the hospital, but in the school cafeteria eating lunch with their friends. I wanted young readers to think of disabled kids not as miserable people to be pitied, but as people living normal lives in spite of their challenges. I want young readers to see disabled kids as friends, people to gossip with, to take selfies with and to go see movies with on the weekends. Not having books that show disability in a lighthearted way makes it harder for everyone else to see disability as a normal part of life.”
I hope in some small way Hello Goodbye Dog can be that kind of book for you, Melissa, for other wheelchair-using kids out there, and for all of us to see that we are more the same, than we are different; that every day can be a hello.
I will close this post with a few images from the book, including a cafeteria scene.
This is just a small sampling from my research. If you know of any other picture books, please feel free to add them to the comments for Mia.
Thank you again, Mia, and thanks to Roaring Brook Press for generously donating THREE copies of Hello Goodbye Dog for Mia’s readers (for US residents only—sorry about that)!
Hello Goodbye Dog 3 Book GIVEAWAY!
Please fill out the Rafflecopter below to enter to win one of three books. Due to the high cost of shipping, I can only mail to U.S. addresses.
p.s. More books for kids with physical disabilities:
HELLO GOODBYE DOG BLOG TOUR!
GIVEAWAYS EVERY DAY!!
*Monday, July 24th: Pragmatic Mom + THREE book giveaway!
*Wednesday, July 26th: Homemade City
*Thursday, July 27th: Kid Lit Frenzy
*Friday, July 28th: Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook
*Monday, July 31st: Picture Books Help Kids Soar
*Tuesday, August 1st: Bildebok
*Wednesday, August 2nd: The Loud Library Lady
*Thursday, August 3rd: DEBtastic Reads!
*Friday, August 4th: Mamabelly’s Lunches with Love
*Monday, August 7th: Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)
EXTRA: August 25th: Kidlit411—Interview with Patrice Barton
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.