Two and a half years ago, Rebecca Butler compiled a list of ten books in which disabled characters play an important part. Since then she has completed her studies for a doctorate in education. Her project studied the way schoolchildren at Key Stage 2 (7 to 11 years) responded when they met a motor impaired character in a story and how those responses shaped the needs for teaching about disability. Her choice of ten books with a theme of disability reflects that research.
Out of my mind
Sharon M. Draper, Athenaeum Books for Young Readers (2012), 978 1416971719, £6.99, pbk.
Melody Brooks is an eleven year old in the USA. She is a wheelchair user and also lacks speech. She finds her experience at school highly frustrating. Because she can’t speak she is regarded as lacking intelligence. She is still working on the entry-level curriculum. Then she is given a communication aid: she types and the machine speaks. Her real intelligence is revealed. How will her new capabilities be greeted by her able-bodied peers? Draper’s book is one of the most moving I have read in a long time. It obliges us to confront the way we – adults and children alike – treat disabled people.(10 +)
By Any Other Name
Laura Jarratt, Electric Monkey (2013), 978 1405256735, £6.99, pbk.
When Louisa Drummond witnesses a murder, she and her family must be given new identities in a witness protection programme. Louisa’s sister Katie is autistic. She alone is not given a new identity, because she would not be able to cope with it. Louisa becomes Holly. The relationship between Holly and Katie is realistic and beautifully drawn. A friend’s brother returns from Afghanistan in a wheelchair. He also is sympathetically and convincingly drawn. (14 +)
If You Find Me
Emily Murdoch, Indigo (2013), 978-1780621531, £7.99, pbk.
Carey’s eight year old sister Jenessa is selectively mute. Initially she speaks only when alone with her sister. The relationship between the sisters, in these testing circumstances, is described with enormous skill. Portraying a character like Jenessa in ways that will command the understanding and fellow feeling of the reader is a massive task for the writer. Revealing the causes of Jenessa’s silence, Murdoch tells a fascinating tale. Don’t expect me to spoil it by revealing too much here. (14+)
Chrissie Keighery, Templar Publishing (2012), 978 1848775466, £6.99, pbk.
Demi Valentino is a sixteen year old Australian who has become profoundly deaf as a result of meningitis. She tried to return to mainstream school but found it too difficult to keep up with the curriculum. She has now transferred to the high school for the deaf. The striking feature of this book is the way the change between communities is portrayed. The author depicts with powerful realism the conflicts that arise not only between disabled people and the non-disabled, but also between groups of disabled people with different impairments. The internecine strife between groups of disabled people is a subject usually avoided for reasons of good taste. Here it is portrayed with savage clarity. (14 +)
All The Truth That’s In Me
Julie Berry, Templar Publishing (2013), 978 184877914 3, £10.99, hbk.
This is a sombre story of recovery after trauma set in eighteenth century America. Judith Finch must learn to survive after suffering terrible abuse. Her brother Darrel must adapt to living after the loss of a leg in a wartime injury. Judith, in aphasic shock, must learn to regain the power of speech. Such a struggle is notoriously difficult to portray convincingly in text. Berry succeeds in achieving this portrayal with powerful effect. Berry’s book is not a light read, but the honesty with which it narrates terrible events is refreshing. (14+)
Max the Champion
Sean Stockdale, Alex Strick and Ros Asquith (illustrator), Frances Lincoln Children’s Books (2013), 978 1847883807, £11.99, hbk.
The children in this book have a variety of disabilities. But the reader does not discover their impairments all at once. They are presented just as children. The reader may make quite a detailed study of the illustrations to discover the nature of some of the impairments, which emerge in the course of the narrative. In children’s literature, the incidental portrayal of disability – the inclusion of characters whose disabilities emerge naturally as the narrative requires rather than being the sole focus on them – is still a rare achievement. (5+)
The Boy from France
Hilary Freeman, Piccadilly Press (2012), 978 1848123014, £6.99, pbk.
Just once in a while a reader will encounter a book where the author’s sheer daring takes the breath away. This is just such a book. Victoria, aged fourteen, is the main carer for her mother, who has multiple sclerosis. This is a situation fraught with danger. How do Victoria and her mother cope? They often use black humour. When her mother insists on wearing high heels for an evening out, Victoria warns her that she will certainly fall over. Yes of course, they agree, but so what? Defiance against the odds is, as Freeman so clearly sees, an essential element in coping with disability. Recognising this truth is a rare and impressive achievement. (12+)
Matthew Crow, Much-in-Little (March 2014), 978-1472105516, £12.99, hbk.
Francis Wootton is a boy of fifteen. He lives with his mother and older brother, Chris. As the book opens, a sombre announcement is made. Francis has leukaemia. The question now is how he and his family will deal with this situation. Francis’s situation doesn’t diminish the opportunities for black humour and unruly fun. When Chris wants to get Francis out of school, he simply rings up the school and says that his brother has a medical appointment. What better way of bunking off?
Francis and a girl he knows decide they need money to buy Christmas presents. How can they raise some cash? They decide to sell cannabis. They are heading for the city centre where they hope to do good business, but they get caught offering weed to passengers on the train – teenage breaking bad.
Crow has put his finger on a very significant point. When a character receives a diagnosis which is life threatening, how does the reader wish that character to respond? If the response is unrelieved gloom, it’s not likely to be a compelling read. So the reader welcomes the ability of such a character to act idiotically. But does that diagnosis in any way justify bad or illegal behaviour? (13+)
Boys Don’t Cry
Malorie Blackman, Corgi Children’s (2011), 978 0552548625, £6.99, pbk.
This is a complex and powerful novel by the current Children’s Laureate. It demonstrates, among other things, the different ways in which someone can become disabled, permanently or temporarily. The protagonist of the story is Dante. His brother Adam is gay. Adam finds himself in a wheelchair as a result of a homophobic assault. Another complexity is that Dante, while waiting for his A Level results, becomes a father to baby Emma. Emma’s mother is so reluctant to embrace her role as a young parent that she hands the baby over to Dante: he must see to her upbringing.
Upon this powerful narrative complex, Blackman hangs an emotional nexus of stunning subtlety and conviction. No one can read this book without examining their own prejudices and beliefs – not to be missed. (13+)
Michael Morpurgo, Christian Birmingham (illustrator), HarperCollins Children’s Books (2011), 978 000739615, £6.99, pbk.
This is a campaigning book by Morpurgo, drawing attention to the fate of those who become disabled when they take up arms for their country. Sergeant Brodie is serving in the British Army in Afghanistan when he is blinded in an explosion. The conventional and simple plot development at this stage of a campaigning novel would be for Brodie to die. There could be an affecting scene at his graveside and a moving testimony by a fellow NCO or his commanding officer. With his customary skill Morpurgo avoids the trap of a conventional ending. Brodie survives and must now confront his very different life. Adapting to a disabled life will demand just as much courage as taking on the Mujahideen on the field of battle. (10+)
Rebecca Butler writes and lectures on children’s literature.