We need more books for children and young adults that feature main characters with disabilities. This seems evident even without statistics, but just to provide a bit of context: The most recent figures that I could find which specifically focused on children’s books featuring characters with disabilities were from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2017. Focusing specifically on the 698 picture books that they received, only 21 (3%) included characters with disabilities. Of those 21, only 2 included main characters with disabilities (that would be 0.2% of the picture books received). While we cannot entirely generalize this information to all books for children and young adults and while small changes might have been seen between 2017 and 2019, we can be fairly confident in saying that the 1 in 7 children with disabilities are not represented at that rate in the books written for children their age.
Different organizations report different numbers of individuals with disabilities and I want to be clear that this number came from the acknowledgments section of Roll with It by Jamie Sumner (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite similar numbers). If 14% of the students served in schools have a disability, we need to make sure that these students’ identities are represented in the books in our classrooms. It is also important that we make sure that these books are focused on the person and not just on the disability.
I would highly recommend Roll with It for students in elementary and middle school. The protagonist, Ellie, is twelve and has the attitude to prove it. She is an aspiring chef, a loving daughter and granddaughter, and extremely independent. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, but if anybody treats her differently she will roll right over their toes. Ellie’s struggles aren’t that dissimilar from those of her peers. She is annoyed by adults, ignored by her classmates, and worried about her grandfather whose dementia is continuing to worsen. The added challenges of CP don’t change that. When Ellie and her mom move to Oklahoma to help care for her grandfather, Ellie worries about starting over at a brand new school. She quickly discovers that being in a wheelchair is no obstacle to fitting in with some of the sweetest, strangest kids she has ever met.
Roll with It is an entertaining adventure from start to finish. It would be a great book to add to any classroom bookshelf!
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.
Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.
RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.
RL.6- Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.