The best middle grade and YA books with heroes who have a disability

Gina McMurchy-Barber Author Of Free as a Bird
By Gina McMurchy-Barber

Who am I?

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when people were often uncomfortable with anyone who had a disability. My sister had Down syndrome and this drew a lot of negative attention. I struggled with being overprotective of her and often angry at those who treated her differently. When I grew up I became an advocate, not only for my sister, but for others who struggled with being accepted because of physical or developmental disabilities. Early on I worked in a pretty awful institution. What I learned there inspired my novel, Free as a Bird. Like my sister, I moved on to do other things, including archaeology, journalism, and teaching for 27 years.


I wrote...

Free as a Bird

By Gina McMurchy-Barber,

Book cover of Free as a Bird

What is my book about?

Sometimes a hero is someone who saves a stranded cat from a burning building. And sometimes a hero is someone who survives a life of neglect, abuse and ridicule but still finds joy in life and can love others. Such a hero is Ruby Jean Sharp. Ruby Jean was born with Down syndrome at time when being a mentally disabled person could mean growing up behind locked doors. As a child, her mother abandons her at Woodlands Institution. She must learn to survive isolation, boredom, and every kind of abuse. Just when she can hardly remember if she’s ever been happy, she learns a lesson about perserverance from an old crow.

Shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature and five other book awards.

The books I picked & why

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The Crazy Man

By Pamela Porter,

Book cover of The Crazy Man

Why this book?

Twelve-year-old Emmaline and her mother are desperate for help with their farm and agree to take on Angus who has just been released from a hospital for patients with mental illness. At first they have the same fears and prejudice as people in town, but they come to learn that Angus is gentle and extremely knowledgeable. Thanks to him they have the best crop they’ve ever had. The most heroic point in the story is when one of the locals, Harry Record, leaves Angus far from town during a snowstorm with the expectation he will die. But as Angus struggles for safety he finds Harry’s little boy who was accidentally stranded in the storm and near death and gets him to the hospital in time to save his life. 

Quote: "That man is from the mental, stay away from him." 

This book was lovely to read because it was written in verse, but also because its message touches the heart—each of us are valuable beings no matter our exceptionalities or background. It won the Governor General’s Literary Award.

The Crazy Man

By Pamela Porter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Crazy Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is 1965, and 12-year-old Emaline, living on a wheat farm, must deal with a family that is falling apart. When her dog, Prince, chases a hare into the path of the tractor, she chases after him, and her father accidentally runs over her leg, leaving her with a long convalescence and a permanent disability. Even worse, from Emaline's point of view, is that in his grief and guilt, her father shoots Prince and leaves Emaline and her mother on their own.

Despite the neighbors' disapproval, Emaline's mother hires Angus, a patient from the local mental hospital, to work their…


Everyday Hero

By Kathleen Cherry,

Book cover of Everyday Hero

Why this book?

Thirteen-year-old Alice moves to a new town where no one knows she has Asperger’s syndrome. When she behaves in a way her teachers feel is inappropriate she gets sent to detention. It’s there she meets Megan, a hard-core “bad girl” who becomes the only person to make a meaningful connection with Alice. 

Alice likes rules, Megan likes to break rules. Yet somehow the two girls manage to become good friends. Megan’s home life is bad and she decides to run away. Despite the angst and the inner voice telling her not to, Alice goes with Megan to protect her.

Quote: “Is a hero average in type, appearance, achievement, function, and development?” Alice asks.

This book stands out for me because it shows that we all can “go farther” than any perceived limitation, be it developmental, physical, or emotional. 

Everyday Hero

By Kathleen Cherry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Everyday Hero as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alice doesn’t like noise, smells or strangers. She does like rules. Lots of rules.


Nobody at her new school knows she is autistic, and soon Alice finds herself in trouble because the rules here are different. When she meets Megan in detention, she doesn’t know what to make of her. Megan doesn’t smell, she’s not terribly noisy, and she’s not exactly a stranger. But is she a friend? Megan seems fearless to Alice; but also angry or maybe sad. Alice isn’t sure which. When Megan decides to run away, Alice decides that Megan is her friend and that she needs…


Wonder

By R.J. Palacio,

Book cover of Wonder

Why this book?

In a society that puts so much emphasis on looks, what can you do if your appearance attracts immense negative attention? This is the problem ten year-old Auggie must deal with due to a genetic condition that disfigured his face. There are two kids in his class brave enough to be his friend, but at great cost to their own acceptance.

This story is authentic in its portrayal of the emotional roller coaster a child like this endures. Auggie so wants to fit in, but being “normal” is never going to happen. But then is “normal” the only value marker in life? In Auggie’s case he’s the bravest child in the whole school—just for getting out there and for accepting himself “as is”.

Quote: “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.”

Wonder

By R.J. Palacio,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Wonder as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Has the power to move hearts and change minds' Guardian

'Tremendously uplifting and a novel of all-too-rare power' Sunday Express

'An amazing book . . . I absolutely loved it. I cried my eyes out' Tom Fletcher

Read the award-winning, multi-million copy bestselling phenomenon that is WONDER in this new tenth anniversary edition.

'My name is August. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.'

Auggie wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things - eating ice cream, playing on his Xbox. He feels ordinary - inside. But ordinary kids don't make other…


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon,

Book cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Why this book?

Fifteen-year-old Christopher has ASD (autism spectrum disorder). This is never stated, but it comes out in his behaviour. He relates better to animals than humans, so when his neighbour’s dog is found murdered he decides he has to solve the mystery. But his probing uncovers a lot more than just who killed the dog. It unravels a lot of family secrets that his parents had kept from him. This story is funny and moving, but most importantly it gives a window into the challenges someone with ASD faces, as well as the toll it can take on family members.

Quote: "My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,507.”

 FYI Plenty of colourful language.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Mark Haddon,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year

'Outstanding...a stunningly good read' Observer

'Mark Haddon's portrayal of an emotionally dissociated mind is a superb achievement... Wise and bleakly funny' Ian McEwan

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the…


All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr,

Book cover of All the Light We Cannot See

Why this book?

This is actually an adult novel but I think YA readers would really enjoy it. This beautifully crafted story takes place before and during WWII. As you read the narratives of two strangers, far apart, you see how their lives are destined to collide. Marie-Laure is a blind girl growing up in France and Werner is an orphan boy growing up in Germany. How and why their paths cross has a lot to do with their common knowledge and passion for the transistor radio. This is an exciting read and the tension ratchets up steadily. There’s far too much going on in this story to include in this recommendation, but let me say that when I finished it I turned around and started reading it again.

Quote: "Why do any of this if not to become who we want to be?"

All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked All the Light We Cannot See as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2015 PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR FICTION

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.'

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic…


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