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Fiction with a Disabled Main Character

Boots for a Bridesmaid
by Verna Allette Wilkins, illustrated by Pamela Venus
(Tamarind)
Nicky is a tomboy who prefers cricket to wearing frilly dresses, so she's not thrilled by the idea of being a bridesmaid. She particularly doesn't want to wear dainty shoes, so she only agrees on the condition that she can wear boots. Finding red boots for a bridesmaid proves more difficult than she'd expected and she's surprised when her mum buys a matching pair for herself. It's not until the day of the wedding that she discovers that Mum is a bridesmaid too.
The pictures reveal that Mum is a full-time wheelchair user, but this is never referred to in the text.
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Freak the Mighty
by Ronan Philbrick.
(Usborne Books.)
Thirteen year old Max - a stumbling, angry giant of a boy – hides down in the dark basement of his grandparent’s house. Max hates himself and everyone, knowing that as he grows he looks more and more like his infamous father, the convict Killer Kane.
     Max’s reclusive life opens up when Kevin, a boy of restricted growth, arrives nearby. Kevin, aka the Freak, is smart and demanding. Full of ideas, words and stories, he faces the world with a combative attitude, and drags Max along with his enthusiasm. Kevin even lets Max know his own big secret: his monthly hospital visits are because the scientists are developing a bionic robotic body for Kevin.
Where does the book’s title come from? On the 4th July, Max sits Kevin on his shoulders so they can both see the fireworks. Unfortunately, this visibility leads to them facing and, acting as one, escaping from a truly nasty bit of bullying. Kevin decides that they are “Freak the Mighty”, someone known for strength and cleverness.
     Kevin insists Max must be his companion in class. Gradually, as Max helps Kevin manage the physical problems of his stature, Max begins to have confidence in his own awkward body and learns to communicate. We know this because the story is told in Max’s unsentimental and bemused voice, unable to hide his admiration for his tough little friend. It also gives a picture of how Gram & Grim struggle to cope with their giant grandson and their own sorrows, and how Kevin’s single mother, “The Fair Gwen of Air” supports her son’s need for independence.
     However, though both the main characters are disabled in some way, I’d say that Freak the Mighty’s claim for any readers attention is that it is an exciting, scary, fast moving action story, where the two odd-ball boys - possibly allowed more freedom than many ordinary children - face dangerous places and people together, with the end of the action and the end of the story bit being equally moving. What more could you ask? Go and read this book!
(reviewed by Penny Dolan)
Ages 10+
(NB Kevin has Morquio's syndrome - mucopolysaccharidosis IV - and dies before the end of the book.)
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Seal Surfer
by Michael Foreman
(Andersen Press)
This picture book answers the need for disabled children to see characters like themselves without actually being about disability. The story follows the seasons as it tells of a boy’s growing relationship with a seal cub. Only the pictures show that he uses a wheelchair and crutches - the text never mentions this. Keeping the emphasis on what he can do rather than what he can’t, his ability to swim well is much more important part of the plot.
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Ringo the Flamingo
by Neil Griffiths, illustrated by Judith Blake
(Red Robin Books)
Ringo’s parents knew he was different as soon as he hatched, because his legs didn’t work properly. Luckily the other flamingos are supportive and help him, even chasing away a visiting bird that teases him about his strange feet. But Ringo often feels sad and useless, until a forest fire helps him discover something he can do well. This gentle picture book could be a useful starting point for discussing how it feels to be disabled.
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Moonbird
by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Jane Ray
(Doubleday)
Young Prince Orla is unable to hear the sounds of the earth so he doesn't learn to speak. No matter what his parents and their advisers do, he remains locked for five years, in a bubble of unearthly silence. Then one day as he plays in the palace garden, the silent prince is visited by a moonbird with magic in its song. Thanks to this moonbird, and with the help of a silver monkey who cares for him, Orla learns to listen with his eyes and speak with his hands.
      In this parable, Orla, who is deaf, is portrayed as differently abled, indeed gifted, and, with the help of the Moonchild, he is able to unlock the King and Queens's inability to understand and communicate with him.
Jane Ray's glowing illustrations, which set the story in a magical, mythical kingdom, are intricately patterned and exquisitely ornate.
(reviewed by Jill Bennett)
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Private and Confidential
by Marion Ripley, illustrated by Colin Backhouse
(Frances Lincoln)
When Laura starts writing to an Australian pen-friend called Malcolm, she waits for weeks for a reply. Then, at last, she gets a letter from his sister explaining how Malcolm, who cannot see well, uses Braille at school and has had to go into hospital for an eye operation.
   Laura decides to learn braille and soon she and Malcolm are using it to write to each other. As a result, their letters are private and confidential - non-braille readers can't understand them. The final double spread includes a letter from Malcolm for readers to decode.
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Looking After Louis
by Lesley Ely, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
(Frances Lincoln)
Told from the viewpoint of a girl in newcomer Louis’s class, this story relates how her classmates and teacher gradually discover how best to accommodate the particular needs of Louis who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. It’s not only Louis’s uniqueness that is brought out in Polly Dunbar’s quirky illustrations of school life; her drawings are a celebration of the individuality of each and every member of the school community.
There is an informative postscript written by a psychologist and a page of teaching ideas at the end of the book. Every primary school should invest in at least one copy.
(reviewed by Jill Bennett)
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Stoner and Spaz
by Ron Koetge
(Walker Books)
This book is about the relationship between Ben, who has cerebral palsy, and Coleen, who's hooked on drugs. As I lack personal experience in either field, Josh (who also has CP) kindly agreed to help. He says "I like the way Ben was just an average boy doing the stuff that kids of his age do. I also like the relationship with Coleen, as she was able to bring him out into the world away from the strict strain of his grandmother. This produces humour mixed in with pressure. Even though Coleen is a drug taker, her intentions are good, but at the same time she doesn’t feel sorry for Ben - she like’s him because of his character. Ben is intelligent and can use his brain, whereas Coleen is able -bodied so their relationship is based on helping each other. At the time when I was reading the book I was going through a difficult stage in my life. The book helped me realise there were other sociable teenage boys out there who like being in the middle of the action and it helped me feel I wasn’t on my own. Prior to reading the book I had just finished reading Ben Elton’s Gridlock and this is about a professor with ‘Cerebral Palsey’. I could make the comparison with Ben and the professor as they were both happy to get on with their life, no matter what difficulties they had.
For teenagers (contains explicit language)
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Best Friends
by Rachel Anderson Illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
(Collins Jets)
When Jessy's sister brings her friend, Becky, home for tea, Jessy feels left out, jealous and angry. If Anna can have a special friend, then Jessy wants one, too. Rachel Anderson is such a sensitive writer, and gives us a warm, involving story with a satisfying ending. The equally sensitive illustrations reveal what Rachel omits from the text - Jessy has Down's Syndrome.This story explores the feelings and reactions not just of Jessy, but of Anna, Becky, and Mum, too and shows how such a situation can be difficult for everyone.
(reviewed by Valerie Wilding)
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Blue Bottle Mystery
by Kathy Hoopman
(Jessica Kingsley)
When Ben and his friend, Andy, find an old blue bottle in the school grounds, life starts to change in mysterious ways. The resulting story is exciting enough to keep you turning the pages and so well written that it helps you understand what it feels like to have Asperger's Syndrome like Ben. The subject matter and the clear, well-spaced print could prove particularly popular with children with special needs.
Ages 8 up
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Joey Pigza swallowed the Key
by Jack Gantos
(Corgi Yearling)
Joey doesn't mean to be a pain, to disrupt lessons and cause havoc at home. He only swallowed the key because he could and he certainly didn't mean to cut off the tip of Maria's nose. But he did it all the same and the fact it was an accident didn't stop him being suspended from school. Well written from Joey's point of view, this book will give those who live, work and go to school with ADHD children an idea of what's going on in their heads as well as providing the children themselves with a character with whom they can truly.
Ages 8 up
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