Disability in Picture Books

Greetings Readers!

Welcome back to fashioneyesta.com, today I wanted to join you all to discuss a topic which I’m very passionate about but I never really discuss on my blog. Now my blog is predominantly a fashion and beauty blog. Although sometimes I put down the scarves and remove the lipstick swatches to discuss disability topics. Books and literature are one of my passions, so much so that I’m actually studying for a Masters in Children’s Literature. Earlier in the year I was working on an assignment which explored the representation of disability in picture books. I researched a number of different areas of disability in picture books and discovered books I had never before heard of that included disabled characters. So today I thought I would join you all to talk about some of these books, why its important to see disability in picture books and the different types of literature.

Picture books is our opening door into the world of literature, its the way we first enter this exciting world of books and reading. Picture books are also an incredibly influential and powerful medium with a lot of potential to change attitudes if they are created and presented to children in the right way. They have the potential to ease anxieties, overcome barriers, educate and enable children to see different ways of life. They can decode meaning on different cultures and backgrounds and allow a child’s mind to grow and flourish. So, if they read a book where a character with a disability is present and they are portrayed in a positive manner, that child could potentially grow up with a better understanding of disability and not feel uncomfortable around disabled people in later life.

However, when I was growing up I never came across picture books which included characters with a disability. Perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right places or perhaps my educators at the time didn’t think it prudent to show disability in picture books. But, whatever the reason I could never see myself in the books I read. This caused me to feel sensations of confusion and isolation, it made me feel that my views didn’t count and that there was something incredibly wrong with me because the books I read only had characters who were not like myself. Perhaps this was why a lot of my childhood was spent in utter misery from being bullied by my classmates. But, perhaps if they had seen books which included people like myself they wouldn’t have thought me strange because I used a magnifier or because my eyes wobbled as a result of my nystagmus. If they could see characters like myself in picture books, perhaps they would have come to accept and understand me. This is what I want all publishers, authors, illustrators and booksellers to understand. The children’s literature industry is a social artefact and its a part of our society and everyday life. Therefore it has a huge responsibility to ensure the books it creates and distributes reflects our society in all aspects. Not just those it deems will turn out the biggest profit. Everyone should be able to walk into a library and find a book where they feel represented, not just the majority.

Now of course although I say that I have found picture books that include characters with disabilities in them, that does by no means mean that there is enough or indeed enough favourable and realistic representations of disability in picture books. In the history of children’s literature the representation of disability was either non existent or showed characters with disabilities as ‘stock characters.’ By this I mean they either assumed the roles of evil villain like Captain Hook or the evil villains of fairy tales disabled either by age or circumstance. Or they were the helpless victims who were dependant on others to care for them. That was the extent of the portrayal of disability. In 1981 there was The International Year of Disabled Persons in which librarians sought to prove that disability could be a positive an realistic presence in children’s literature. In 2006 Scope launched the In The Picture Campaign which aimed to get more accurate and realistic depiction of disability in the picture book industry. Since then there has been a gradual improvement in the way disability is represented and many individuals and organisations alike have been campaigning and lobbying for more qualitative representation of disability in children’s literature, including myself.

I’m an ambassador for the charity Inclusive Minds an organisation that seeks to get more diversity into children’s literature and in the past I’ve campaigned for literature to be made more accessible for those with sight loss. But now, I find myself turning to the realms of academia and the study of disability in children’s literature.

During my studies I came across books where the disabilities were portrayed in ways which did not coincide with the thoughts and views of the people they were allegedly trying to represent. Then of course there still remains the fact that disability is very underrepresented in picture books, you are extremely hard pushed to be able to waltz into your local bookshop and pick up a book where there is a little girl with a guide dog or a boy who uses a prosthetic limb for example. Mental health for the most part remains to be an unseen topic in picture books and invisible disabilities remain, well, invisible in picture books. Now, of course for this I have read articles where illustrators and artists claim that the reason for this is because invisible disabilities are hard, if not, impossible to depict in illustrations. As, how do you convey that someone has a condition like Epilepsy or a cognitive disability in a picture?

With picture books and the representation of disability there are two key types of literature that I have distinguished. The first is called inclusion literature, inclusion literature is a type of literature produced with the aim of educating children about disability. It usually includes a character or characters with a disability in the text and the text seeks to teach the reader about their disability and to raise awareness of disability. This literature is about including disabled characters by teaching some moral message towards disability. This literature tends to be more popular with the non-disabled community as from discussing this literature with my disabled peers, we would prefer to read books where our disabilities were only secondary to the plot. In other words we do not need to read about our disability and be educated about it, as we live with it every day.

The other type of literature is what is known as immersive fiction, immersive fiction is that of where a disability is included but the disability is not the focal point of the story. The story is focused around another topic like a sports day, an adventure or another problem that the characters have to overcome. In short, the disability is present in the picture, but thats it. This literature tends to be more favoured by the non disability and disability community alike because immersive fiction is more about allowing children to simply enjoy a story. The disability isn’t being pigeonholed or embellished, its simply a story that a child can enjoy, laugh at and delight in the pictures, but that picture may include a character who is a wheelchair use.

Personally I think both forms of literature are positive and important in their own right, but I think there needs to be more of the latter. For the most part a lot of the books I have come across are inclusion literature. But, disability doesn’t always have to be the key point of the text, a character with a disability could go to a distant land like max does in Where The Wild Things Are or bake with their grandmother like in Honey Biscuits. The disability does not define a character or the reader, which is what immersive literature can prove.

This is just some food for thought for any of you who are interested in this topic or who are educators of children with disabilities. Remember that when you are choosing books that you are choosing the right ones, consult with fellow teachers, look for information and reviews of books online and seek advice from people with disabilities. So that you can ensure that the books are favourable and will not be detrimental to the representation of the disability community.

So, now that I have discussed disability in picture books I will now proceed to discuss a few books that I have come across which I personally enjoyed and would recommend.

Lucy’s Picture by Nicola Moon


Disability Featured: Sight Loss

Lucy’s Picture follows the story of a little girl called Lucy as she makes a tactile collage picture for her grandfather, who is revealed to be blind at the end of the book. The image shows Lucy’s grandfather waiting to collect her from school with his guide dog Honey. This is also the first book I have come across that includes a guide dog. The books key theme is advocacy, as Lucy realises that the medium of making a visual picture like her classmates are would not be accessible to her blind grandfather and instead choses to make her picture accessible to him by creating it with tangible objects like leaves, twigs and hair. This book would be a positive book to incorporate with a class activity like collage making and thinking the children to consider how they would make their picture accessible if they were making it for someone who was blind like Lucy’s grandfather. Thus enabling the children to develop skills of advocacy and problem solving, skills that will prove valuable for their future. But, its also a very colourful book and mixes the topics of creativity and disability in a fun way.

The Secret Code by Dana Meachen Rau


Disability Featured: Sight Loss

The books tells the story of a little boy called Oscar as he explains to his classmate what braille is and why he uses it. The books would prove extremely useful for anyone who perhaps has a student in their class who uses braille and they therefore want to help their classmates understand what it is. This book is highly educational through the images which show how Oscar uses braille, parallel to how his classmate read text from a book. The book is about highlighting how people with sight loss are not so different from anyone else and that although they may do things differently, they still reach the end goal just like anyone else.

Susan Laughs by Jeanne Wills


Disability Featured: Mobility (Wheelchair User)

Susan Laughs is a very interesting one as throughout the book you see a little girl called Susan partaking in everyday tasks like any other child experiencing the same emotions, playing the same games and living an ordinary life. However, at the end of the book you find a very powerful image of Susan in a wheelchair and it is revealed she is a wheelchair user. The book emphasises that a disability isn’t a defining characteristic of a person and hat there are many sides to someone with a disability and that they can lead a normal life. Its a book that also teaches you to understand that disability isn’t black and white and that people who use wheelchairs do not necessarily have to be in their wheelchair constantly which is a big misconceptions that I have heard from those who use wheelchairs. So, I love the fact that the book smashes that stereotype.

Mole’s Sunrise by Jeanne Wills


Disability Featured: Sight Loss

Another book by Jeanne Wills, this book follows the story of Mole who happens to be blind. One morning his woodland friends guide him to a spot in the woods to ‘see’ the sunrise. But, as Mole is blind his friends describe the sunrise to him by synergising it with other sensory experiences like that of taste and touch. This book agin highlights the importance of accessibility and advocacy like Lucy’s Picture. What I also love about this book is that in the pictures you see his woodland friends guiding him and giving his assistance however the book does not lead you to feel that Mole is unable to independent. Its an incredibly endearing book and one that could be used to facilitate a discussion around sight loss and how to describe the visual world to someone with sight loss.

The Five of Us by Quentin Blake


Disability Featured: Hearing Loss, Sight Loss, Physical and Cognitive

Blake’s contribution to the world of disability and picture books is a very unique one, as the book includes a majority of characters with disabilities. The book centres around five friends, each with a different disability from hearing loss, sight loss, a speech impairment, a cognitive disability and a physical disability. These five friends go on an outing and through unforeseen circumstances have to use their individual abilities and work collaborative towards and end goal. The book highlights the power of teamwork over a disability and emphasises their abilities, not their disabilities.

Sometimes by Rebecca Elliot 


Disability Featured: Mobility (Wheelchair User)

This book tells the story of two siblings Toby and Clementine. The story is narrated through the eyes of Toby and the way he perceives his sister Clementine who happens to be physically disabled and attends regular hospital visits. The story uses beautiful and imaginative illustrations of both Toby and Clementine inventing new worlds, experiencing similar milestones in growing up and making new friends. The pictures promote the message that being disabled or facing an illness does not have to prevent you from being a child and what it is to be a child. This heartwarming book shows the bond between two siblings, regardless of disability.

Max The Champion by Alexandra Strick and Sean Stockdale


Disability Featured: Physical Disability (Wheelchair user)

What I love about this book is that its very existence crushes one of the biggest from of ableism that arises in the school playground. The book tells the story of a little boy called Max who regularly takes part in sporting activities. In the pictures you regularly see one of Max’s classmates who is a wheelchair uses who is a close competitior of Max’s throughout the book and even wins a 2nd place medal at the end of the book. What this book subtly does through the use of these pictures which merge disability and sport is to conquer the stereotype that people with disabilities cannot partake in sporting activities or be worthy competitors in everyday sports setting with non-disabled competitors. Now in my childhood years during sports day, sports events and playtimes when we played sports there was always this thing of ‘picking teams.’ Now what would happen is that one captain was always chosen for each time by the teacher (they would always be an non-disabled classmate). These captains would be given the task of picking team mates to play for each team and it was always those with the disabilities or who were least desirable physically who were left till last. For me, this is one of the earliest forms of ableism that always went unchecked and now looking back retrospectively I am outraged that this was allowed to occur by the educators. This was not an experience that was unique to myself, I have discussed it with many other friends with disabilities who all had a similar experience to divulge. Although I do believe disability and sport to have more of a positive association now thanks to the Paralytics and changes in attitudes towards disability. This book certainly is a fantastic example to present to children about how people with disabilities can take part in activities and competitors and be successful in what they do.

Moses Goes to a Concert by Isaac Millman 


Disability Featured: Hearing Loss

The final book is one of my personal favourites for two key reasons. The book follows the story of Moses, a young boy who one day goes on a school outing with his classmates all of which (including Moses) happen to be deaf. During their visit to a concert they meet a percussionist who also happens to be deaf and at the end of the book Moses is inspired to become a percussionist when he grows up. The first reason I love this book is because it dispels the myth that people with sensory disabilities cannot partake in activities or hobbies that run parallel with the sense they are missing. For example, people often say about myself as a visually impaired fashion blogger and nature photographer that how can I love fashion and take photographs when I can’t see. Once I even faced a negative comment on twitter that what I was doing was ludicrous and what would be next?  deaf music critics? To which I responded that there are indeed deaf musicians like Mandy Harvey and Sean Forbes. Needless to say, I didn’t hear back from this person on Twitter. So, I applaud Millman for creating a book that dispels the stereotype that a sensory disability prevents you from having an interest in things that correspond to that sense that you are missing or that is comprimised. The second thing that I love about this book is that the illustrations regularly incorporate the use of American Sign Language (as this book was written in the US) to show how the hard of hearing use sign language to communicate. This book incorporates an element of disability culture and accessibility in a fun and interesting way. Thus it introduces the reader to sign language and even teach them some basic sign language so that they come to understand what it is and what its for similar to The Secret Code.

So that concludes this post for today, I do hope you enjoyed it and that you found it useful. Be sure to comment below with any books you have discovered which has a disabled character in it, I’d love to hear from you. Thank you so much for reading and below I will also link some useful resources should you want to find out more about disability in children’s literature.


If this topic interests you and you want to find out more about disability in children’s literature check out these resources.

Disability in Kidlit: www.disabilityinkidlit.com

Inclusive Minds: http://www.inclusiveminds.com

Letterbox Library: www.letterboxlibrary.com

Pickled Pepper Books: http://www.pickledpepperbooks.co.uk

Scope’s In The Picture Campaign: www.scope.org.uk/support/families/books/children



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Emily is a Masters Degree Student, Writer, Journalist, YouTuber and blogger who runs the blog and YouTube channel fashioneyesta.com.

One thought on “Disability in Picture Books

  1. I make jewelry and last week on a Facebook group I saw someone say “Someone said they could do this with their eyes closed – how dare they that would be super difficult!” and I had to stop myself from saying “Well, I’m blind so I do it with my eyes closed all the time technically” because I know they meant no harm by it. It baffles me that people think you can’t do something without one sensory skill – everything is doable, but if you can’t see you just have to find ways around it. Same for the deaf. Or maybe people just underestimate how determined a disabled person can be when they really want to do something, who knows.

    I never thought of disabled people being in childrens literature though, I love this list, and it’s inspired me to include more disabled people in the things that I write. Thanks for this post!

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