Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Middle School Book Club Books: disabilities

Book clubs are a great way to get kids reading and discussing books. Rather than a whole-class novel, I like to select several books related by a central theme and let students rank their top choices. (Different books appeal to different readers, and I almost always have a good split with everyone able to get their first or second choice.) Click the "Book Club" tag for other posts about great books for book club discussions, as well as generic questions to use for discussions.

Middle School Book Club Books: disabilities

Many of my seventh graders are strongly drawn to fantasy, science fiction, and dystopia genres of books. Few are active readers of contemporary realistic fiction, which is why I chose that genre for our first book club set of the year.

To narrow it down even further, I picked books that featured a main character with a disability, so that we could explore alternate points of view and learn about kids who lives might be significantly different than our own. Below are my blurbs for each book as well as a few thoughts about the benefits of each book.

Anything But Typical by Norah Raleigh Baskin, p. 208. Sixth grader Jason knows that his many labels and abbreviations (including autism) make him different than his neuro-typical peers, but as an author he finds he is in full control.

This one was a winner of the Schneider Family Book Award (which honors books that include authentic portrayals of the disability experience), and its first-person narrative makes the book intimate and immediate. It's tough, as the reader, to see Jason's efforts to navigate his world and the ways that he is perceived by his peers. A bit of a sad read.

Fish in a Tree (2015) by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, p. 288. Sixth grader Ally has become an expert at hiding her inability to read, and she is afraid to ask for help, after all, how can you cure dumb?

As a teacher, I found the beginning of this book fairly painful to read. It is so hard to hear Ally's inside thoughts as her teacher misunderstands and demands things of her. We have all had those students that are harder to reach, and we never get the opportunity to see them from the inside. In this story, Ally has made it to sixth grade without recognizing her own dyslexia, and her struggles to fit in and to game the system have reached their breaking point. This is a great story of the power of friendship, self-realization, and self-acceptance.

Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004) by Gennifer Choldenko [Newbery Honor winner], p. 288. Middle schooler Moose moves with his family to Alcatraz in the 1930s, when it was the highest security prison. Moose is struggling to fit in while also helping his “different” sister, Natalie, adjust to their new life.

Set on Alcatraz Island during the 1930s when the prison was operating, the book is narrated by Moose whose family has just moved to the island. This is a humorous and charming story as Moose tries to fit in at school and with the other island kids while also balancing the needs of his "younger" sister, Natalie (who today we would recognize as autistic). Raises some really interesting questions about mental illness and disability in a historical context.

Additional Middle Grade Disability-Focused Books

The following titles were not ones I used this year but would be great books to consider adding when making your own lists. (Some of these titles are read at our school in younger years, so many students had already read them.)

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is told from the perspective of Rose, a young girl with a diagnosis of high functioning autism. There were some great and engaging things about this book, but I was hoping for more. Will be interested to get some student perspectives on this one ...

Rules (2006) by Cynthia Lord [Newbery Honor Book and Schneider Family Book Award Winner]. This story is told from the perspective of the older sister who creates different rules and coping strategies to try and help her younger brother who has severe autism. This is a lovely (and entertaining) family story, as well as an informative look at what it means to have a sibling with a disability.

Out of My Mind (2010) by Sharon Draper, p. 295 is told from the perspective of the main character, Melody, who has cerebal palsy. Initially diagnosed as non-verbal, she undergoes a giant transformation through the book as she finally finds a way to successfully communicate. This is a powerful story about facing down challenges - but without falling back on a simplistic "happy ending." A great one for empathy and facilitating discussions.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is the first book in a five-book series by Jack Gantos [National Book Award Finalist]. The titular main character is based on the author's own experience growing up as a kid with ADHD before such a diagnosis was common. You'll have to read the book to find out why he in fact does swallow his house key ...

El Deafo by Cece Bell. This sensitive autobiographical graphic novel focuses on the author's experience growing up and losing her hearing at age 4, as well as her later trials and tribulations with her gigantic Phonic Ear. I think the graphic novel format (and rabbits for characters) makes this book accessible to a wide-range of readers. A great book for talking about differences and how to treat others.

Freak the Mighty (1993) by Rodman Philbrick. This is a story of friendship that transcends stereotypes and abilities. The narrator, Maxwell, is a lumbering giant of a middle schooler who has been diagnosed with learning disabilities. But he finds his voice and his confidence when Kevin ("Freak"), a boy with a genetic condition that has kept him small and required to wear leg braces, moves in next door. Together they become Freak the Mighty and take on challenges both real and imagined. (I read the 20th Anniversary edition which also contains significant back matter including some priceless letters to the author from children.)

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. This second giant illustrated novel by Brian Selznick features a main character who is deaf and navigates her way through the wordless sections of the story.

Do you have any favorites that I missed? Click the "Book Club" tag for other posts about great books for book club discussions, as well as generic questions to use for discussions.


  1. Great list! I love Danger Box by Blue Balliett, Mighty Jack by Hatke, mockingbird by Erskine, and Ghosts by Telgemeier, to nam a few. @joe_eyres

  2. Omg,... don't forget The Secret Garden! A classic.


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