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Literature Heroes for Students with Disabilities

The Scholastic Book Fair is visiting my school this week, and as I watch my excited students look at and select books, I notice that most of them choose a book with a ‘hero’ or main character they feel like they can relate to.  As a teacher, the ‘relatability’ of a protagonist is one of the primary factors in my choosing a book that will interest a group or individual, so I thought today I would share with you some of the books I read to, suggest for, or study with my upper elementary students with disabilities.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (Jack Gantos)Joey pigza
Joey Pigza is a poster child for ADHD, impulsive behavior and everything.  Joey’s antics become increasingly dangerous, ranging from sticking his finger in the pencil sharpener and injuring himself to running with a pair of open scissors and he badly hurts one of his classmates.  This leads him to be transferred to a special education program at another school, where an observant and caring teacher helps him learn self control skills and ensures that Joey get the appropriate medical care for his condition (he eventually returns to his home school).  This book is a must-read for any student struggling with ADHD, and the story is humorous and personal enough to hold the attention of even a class of students as a shared novel. 

Yours turly shirley Yours Turly, Shirly (Ann M. Martin)
This book by the author of The Babysitter’s Club follows Shirley, a girl with dyslexia, who has to learn how to read, negotiate the stigma of attending resource room, and bond with an adopted little sister all in the same year.  Sounds challenging?  What if your sister, as an English Language Learner, was also a genius?!?  This story is great for students with dyslexia or learning disabilities who also have high-achieving siblings, and teaches a nice lesson about how everyone is strong and special in their own way.

Multiple choiceMultiple Choice (Janet Tashjian)
In this story about a girl with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Monica Devon’s need to be perfect overshadows her relationships with her friends and family.  When she invents a game to help her become more spontaneous, Monica’s rigid obsession with the rules of her game lead her to alienate her best friend.  Eventually, she seeks help and learns that it’s never too late to apologize, and that your true friends will always accept you for who you are. 

Inside out Inside Out (Ann M. Martin)
In this book, which will appeal to siblings of students with severe disabilities, Jonno and his sister Lizzie learn to adapt to and help their 4-year old brother James while being concerned with their own image with the ‘in’ kids.  This book is especially great for teaching the lesson that what is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right.


Lightning thiefPercy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan)
I read an excerpt from this book to my class this year because I have a high number of students with ADHD combined with a learning disability, and my students would not let me get away without turning it into our class read-aloud and a huge associated unit on Greek mythology! Little did those students know that they are potentially experiencing these things because they are demigods, or heroes!  Throughout this faced-paced adventure fantasy rooted in Greek mythology, Percy learns that his disabilities can be assets.  Kudos to Rick Riordan for writing such a wildly popular book starring a hero with disabilities!

Gathering blue Gathering Blue (Lois Lowry)
In this companion to The Giver, Lowry explores an alternative community (potentially of the future?) in which a physically disabled and orphaned girl named Kira is spared from the usual demand from perfection because of her gifted weaving.  Kira has an ability with the threads that no one else possesses, and in that ability she serves her community more fully than most others.  This book is philosophically and linguistically challenging and as such is best for Grade 5 and up, but is worth reading for its frank treatment of the difficulties a physical disability creates as well as Kira’s strength in coping with it.Rules

Rules (Cynthia Lord)
At age 12, Catherine has spent much of her life teaching ‘rules’ of behavior to her brother David, who has autism.  When a new friend moves to town, Catherine’s behavior becomes the rule-breaker, and she faces some truths about social rules that surprise her.  This book is also appropriate for students whose siblings are severely disabled.

Freak the mighty Freak the Mighty (Rodman Philbrick)
I don’t know how I managed to teach in a special education inclusion class for so long without reading this ultimate example of how celebrating difference can make individuals stronger.  Max Kane is a big, goofy-looking learning-disabled eighth grader who is the son of an imprisoned convict and generally doesn’t get along well… that is, until he meets Kevin, an undersized and physically-disabled genius.  The two unlikely friends pair up and discover that through their combined strengths, they can take on the world.  This book does contain some language and more mature themes, and should be previewed before giving it to a student. 

I always read Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco toward the beginning of my school year as well to introduce the idea of struggling with academics and 'getting what you need' as well.  What books have you found to be winners and inspirations to your students with disabilities?  Share your favorites here by commenting using Mozilla Firefox, or email me directly at azelkowitz@schools.nyc.gov!

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Strategies for Special Education & Inclusion Classrooms are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.