Stories with Disabled protagonists
QUIET! by Kate Alizadeh
AMAZING by Steve Antony
ME AND MY SISTER by Rose Robbins
ISAAC AND HIS AMAZING ASPERGER SUPERPOWERS! by Melanie Walsh
It is important that children see Disabled characters in all areas of literature and not just confined to particular genres or narratives. Similarly, they should sometimes feature as part of the action but also get to star as protagonists in their own stories. Although children’s books are becoming more inclusive, it is still common to see such characters in the context of overcoming bullying or succeeding ‘despite’ their impairments – and this, while it may generate sympathy, is not necessarily helpful in promoting genuine inclusion. We don’t want Disabled children to feel that they are more likely to experience bullying or that they have to be better than everyone else – and we don’t want others to see them that way either.
In this section, we focus on books that feature lead characters who are disabled. You will notice that, with one notable exception, the stories are still not ‘about’ their disabilities per se and neither are these explicitly mentioned in the text. Just as in life, the protagonists’ identities may be apparent (Amazing) or less obvious (Me And My Sister) – and some may want to talk about them (Isaac And His Amazing Asperger Powers!). While their disabilities may affect how they interact with the world (Quiet!), they do not limit their participation in it. Crucially, these characters are not primarily defined by their impairments but by their interests and aspirations.
Quiet!, which could be read to or by nursery and KS1 children, describes a child’s evening and bedtime routine via a huge range of sounds. It is amazing what you can hear if you stop and listen! The protagonist’s visual impairment is entirely incidental to the story but subtly revealed when we see them reading a braille book (with pages that rustle).
A story for everyone which highlights lots of things about our home environments that we take for granted. All of us perceive them in a variety of ways – we can hear, touch, see, feel, taste – and perhaps we can also learn something from people who experience the world in different ways from us.
- What are all the different ways that we experience the world around us?
- Can you describe a particular experience in terms of all your senses – how does it sound, look, taste, smell and feel?
- Does everybody describe it in the same way? What are some of the differences you notice?
Amazing is full of action and joy – and features a singing, dancing, basketball-playing dragon (although he’s not quite as good at the last one). Zibbo belongs to a little boy who uses a wheelchair and together they take part in a huge range of activities, alone and with other children, culminating in an unfortunate candle-related incident at a birthday party. However, all’s well that ends well and the conclusion that anything is possible and all of us are amazing is all we could wish.
Me And My Sister is about the relationship between a boy and his autistic sister. He discusses their similarities and differences – which will be common experiences to anyone with a sibling or close friend. Sometimes the world doesn’t see his sister quite like he does – and it can be frustrating when he gets told off and she doesn’t – but they love each other. He can comfort her, even if she prefers high-fives to hugs and, although she doesn’t use words, she says a lot!
You could use the book to talk about how we all sometimes need to do things differently and that there are positive and negative aspects to all relationships. It is written by one of Inclusive Minds’ young ambassadors (www.inclusiveminds.com/inclusion-ambassadors) based on her own experience of having an autistic sibling – although there is no direct reference to autism in the text and everyone should be able to relate it to their own experiences of relationships and family.
- Think about your sibling – or discuss in pairs with other children. What do you have in common and what is different about you? What are some of things you both enjoy - are there things that only one of you is interested in?
- Are there times when you like to be quiet or on your own - and other times when you don’t?
- What are the different ways that you could comfort someone if they were upset?
Isaac And His Amazing Asperger Superpowers!
Isaac And His Amazing Asperger Superpowers! – in which our hero (complete with cape and mask) explains his various superpowers (including knowing lots of facts and having lots of energy), discusses the challenges he faces (forgetting to say hello and taking words rather too literally) and shares his strategies for overcoming them (using a fidget toy and looking at people’s foreheads).
References to superpowers in children’s books that feature Disabled characters can be controversial. However, the fantasy and science fiction genres are incredibly popular and it would be a shame if Disabled characters were excluded from them. Some adult carers have also identified a need to ‘explain’ disability which this book does in a clear and amusing way – Asperger’s, we are helpfully reminded, rhymes with hamburgers. Crucially, the whole superhero concept is debunked at the end when Isaac reveals that he is not a superhero – it’s just a game he and his brother like to play.
We’ve largely steered clear of books that ‘explain’ disability in this resource but some find them useful and this one is one of the best. Such books should not form the basis of a collection but they can add value if used with care. Unlike some, this one is hugely positive and many children who are not on the autistic spectrum will have things in common with Isaac. Of course, his is only one experience of Asperger syndrome and you may wish to share it with families of autistic children before reading it with a class as everyone’s circumstances will be different.
Everyone has gifts – or superpowers, if you will – and this book could be used as part of conversations about the things that all of us are good at or love doing.