Kids' books embrace themes of disabilities, differences and acceptance

In the past, finding appropriate books for kids about disabilities has been a challenge. However, in the last several years, writers and readers have embraced the concept of reading about disability. The subject has become so important that in 2004 the American Library Association started an annual award that honors an author or illustrator who embraces the disability experience. Below are some recent favorite books that discuss disabilities in a kid-friendly way. Look for them at your local library.

The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

By Josh Berk

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

For teens

Will Halpin (known online as Hamburger) is deaf. But that's the least of his problems. He is transferring to the local high school. He has to ride the bus, and he's trying to dodge a friendship with Devon Smiley, the weirdest kid in class. Halpin uses his keen observation skills (mostly due to his lip-reading ability) to figure out how the social caste system of high school works. He does this with great wit and sarcasm: "The bus driver is a wiry and dangerous-looking man with a bizarre beard that rings his tanned face like an upside-down halo. Even though it is pretty cold out, he is wearing sandals, which reveal unnervingly long toenails."

These skills come in handy when, on a field trip to a local mine, one of his popular classmates is murdered and Devon and Will team up to uncover the mystery surrounding the mine. Will they be able to identify the correct killer -- even when someone close to Halpin becomes a suspect?

Through humor, Berk conveys that Will's deafness is not a handicap, simply something that makes him different. Berk uses his character's disability as a tool to allow Will to outsmart the other kids in his class.

FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code

By Maura Conlon-McIvor

Warner Books, 2004

For ages 12 and up

This is the memoir of Maura Conlon, who grew up in California in the '70s. She is fascinated with her dad's job as a special agent for the FBI. Maura is a shy girl at the local Catholic elementary school, dealing with the pangs of growing up, transferring to public school and dealing with her brother born with Down syndrome. When Joey Jr. is born, Maura and her other brothers and sisters know something is different, as he is not welcomed home with the usual well wishes and letter of congratulations from dad's boss, J. Edgar Hoover.

This book is an excellent example of how culture about special-needs kids has changed over a short time. For example, Maura's teacher says, "God will bless your family ... and your Mongoloid brother." Maura is naturally upset about this comment: "Mongoloid sounds bad ... like you are a monster with three eyes who is too weird and ugly to love. I want to scream at her that he is not Mongoloid at all, but I don't." Maura's family never doubts that Joey should live at home and go to a public school (which is still controversial during this time), but Maura is shaken when a family friend suggests that Joey be institutionalized, and when she receives taunts from classmates. In time, Maura forms a close and unique bond with her youngest brother, and Maura's dad becomes an advocate for group homes for mentally challenged adults.

This is a touching story about a real girl dealing with real-life problems, and it adequately portrays what it's like to have a special-needs sibling.

It's Okay to Be Different

By Todd Parr

Little, Brown and Co., 2001

For ages 3-6

Todd Parr is one of my favorite author/illustrators because he has such heartwarming themes and accompanying bright cartoonlike pictures.

In this book, Parr tells his audience that it's OK to be different in all sorts of ways. The first page shows a child with five teeth with text that says, "It's okay to be missing a tooth (or two or three)." The next page shows a girl walking with a service dog, and her illustration's text says, "It's okay to need some help." A happy boy in a wheelchair is also featured, and he proclaims that it is "okay to have wheels." Other differences are covered too, like having a different skin color, coming from a different place or even being adopted. In general, this book is about inclusion and helps kids understand that it is perfectly acceptable to be OK with exactly who and what you are.

Best Friend on Wheels

By Debra Shirley; illustrated by Judy Stead.

Albert Whitman & Co., 2008

For ages 6-8

This is the rhyming story of a girl and her best friend Sarah. The girls are alike in many ways, except one: Sarah is in a wheelchair. The audience learns that the friends are "both good at Frisbee. We like a good ballad. We both pick the peppers off pizza and salad." Sarah's best friend tells how the two became friends in second grade.

She is asked to show the new girl around school but is not sure how to act when she sees Sarah in her chair. She is nervous that she might say the wrong thing, even though she really wants to get a "good look" at Sarah's chair. Sarah's best friend even talks about saying the wrong thing, when at a sleepover she asks Sarah about getting her chair in bed. This is a good introduction to kids with physical differences. The illustrations are happy and focus on the kinds of things kids like to do together -- rock collecting, reading and watching movies.

A Mango-Shaped Space

By Wendy Mass

Little, Brown and Co., 2003

For ages: 10-13

This is the story of 13-year-old Mia. Mia has synesthesia, a neurological condition where people associate different colors with sounds, letters and numbers. Mia has always known that she understands letters and numbers differently, but she has never told anyone about what she sees until now. Readers journey with Mia as she discovers her diagnosis and learns more about her condition. What is most relatable is how Mia connects with others who share her rare condition through online chat groups. Mia bonds instantly with these newfound friends and portrays how important these relationships are to those who have similar differences. Mass makes interesting observations about how Mia's relationships with her parents and best friend go through growing pains as she comes to terms with her diagnosis as well. Readers will find Mia's story fascinating, and kids who have been through a similar experience of being diagnosed with a difference will relate to Mia on many levels.

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything

By Lenore Look, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006

For ages: 7-10

Spirited Ruby Lu is all grown up and in the second grade. Ruby Lu is so excited that her deaf cousin Flying Duck has moved from China with her parents and is staying with Ruby. Ruby is asked at school to be Flying Duck's Smile Buddy, which means you are responsible for helping new students feel welcome. But how will she communicate with Flying Duck when she does not know any Chinese sign language?

This is a great book about acceptance, and children will enjoy the crazy antics that Ruby Lu and her cousin find themselves in. This is another reassuring story where the kids are the focus of the book, not the challenges a disability can create.