At the end of 2017, I made a pledge. I challenged myself to review good books every month in 2018, particularly books that haven’t gotten as much love as I feel they deserve. I call it Kidlit Karma because I’m aiming to spread the love for books that I love.
This summer I’ve welcomed several writing friends to share books that they love. Today I’m happy to welcome Charlotte Riggle, my friend and fellow children’s book writer. Charlotte and I have never met in person, but we’ve traveled in the same small online writing circles for many years.
Charlotte is a voice for disability representation in children’s books. Both her most recent picture book, THE SAINT NICHOLAS DAY SNOW, and her the previous book, CATHERINE’S PASCHA, feature the main character’s disabled best friend. Neither story is about disability, they’re about children being children. They just happen to be different.
Take it away Charlotte!
Books are magical. When you read a book, you can travel into the future or into the past. You can visit cities and worlds you’ve never been to. You can see animals that you never knew existed. And you can meet people that aren’t like the people in your neighborhood.
And all of this magic has a wonderful influence on the minds and hearts of children. Children who meet all sorts of people – different ages, different races, different abilities – are less likely to accept stereotypes. They are more likely to respond with empathy to all sorts of people. And, wonderfully, magically, meeting those people in books does the same thing.
So it’s important that our children read books about all sorts of people. Including people with disabilities. But there are genuinely not many children’s books with disabled characters. So here are three to get you started: a picture book and two middle grade novels.
Picture Book: A SPLASH OF RED: THE LIFE AND ART OF HORACE PIPPIN by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet
If you’re not a student of American art, you probably haven’t heard of Horace Pippin. I hadn’t until I discovered this wonderful book. Pippin is considered a folk artist, or an American primitive artist, like Grandma Moses.
A Splash of Red is a richly detailed biography of Pippin. He was born in 1888 and had what might be considered a privileged life for the grandson of slaves. He attended school through eighth grade. He loved art and drew and painted with whatever materials he could find.
When World War I started, he volunteered to serve. He was injured in combat – his right shoulder was badly damaged. He couldn’t draw anymore. He couldn’t paint. And he couldn’t find anyone willing to hire him.
He married. He helped his wife with her business. And he longed to draw and paint.
Eventually, that passion drove him to do what everyone thought was impossible. He supported his injured right arm with his left hand, and with time and determination, he began painting again.
A Splash of Red is gorgeous, as any book about an artist should be. There’s a wealth of detailed information in the back of the book. The book isn’t intended for very young children. But a child interested in history or art will read this one over and over again.
Middle Grade: INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling
Aven, the main character of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, was born without arms. But she hasn’t let that stop her. She has learned to do almost anything any other kid can do, using what she does have: her mouth, her feet, and her wit. Her friends at school have known her since forever, and they’re used to the way she does things. It’s just not a big deal.
But then her dad gets a job running an run-down theme park in Arizona. The family moves across the country. And at age 13, Aven finds herself in a new school, with kids who don’t know her, and who think she’s a bit of a freak.
Aven doesn’t like being stared at. She doesn’t like being treated as if she can’t do things for herself. She just wants to go home to Kansas. But that’s not an option. So she finds a mystery that needs to be solved. Disappearing tarantulas. Missing photographs. A locked room and a locked desk.
Somehow, the mystery seems to have something to do with her.
Along the way, she makes friends with a couple of boys who are also outsiders: Zion, who is seriously overweight, and Connor, who has Tourette’s. Together, they could do what none of them could do alone.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactusis notable for its realistic and unsentimental portrayal of uncommon disabilities. The characters aren’t written as collections of stereotypes. They are well rounded, interesting, utterly charming human beings. And while they grow and develop through their experiences, they do not encounter miraculous cures.
The book is a delight on every level. The publisher recommends it for kids in grades 3 to 7. But if you have an older child who has a significant disability, or who knows someone with a disability, I’m sure this book will resonate with them.
To learn how Dusti Bowling made sure the characters were realistic, read the interview on the Nerdy Book Club.
Middle Grade: HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS by Merrie Haskell
Tilda is the Princess of Alder Brook. But she isn’t particularly interested in being a princess. She would much rather be a nun, working alone in a scriptorium, copying books – or, even better, writing her own books.
Of course, she’s got a lot of reasons for preferring books to the life of a princess. For one thing, her principality is in dire financial straits. For another, many of her subjects think she’s cursed. She’s got a club foot, after all.
The club foot affects who Tilda is and what she does. It’s not just the people who think she’s cursed. Her own mother won’t let her ride horses or do anything else where she might get hurt.
And there’s the pain. Her foot hurts. A lot. Her maidservant, Judith, knows how to help. But the pain and disability make it hard for her to do some things that are easy for others.
There are days that running away from her life at Alder Brook seems like a good idea.
And when her cousin Ivo kidnaps her mother, and then Tilda, to take Alder Brook away from them, she has to run away to survive. Judith and a would-be squire named Parzifal join her. They decide that, while avoiding Ivo, they should go on a quest to kill dragons.
Because it gives them something to do. And dragons are evil, right?
Well, that’s what Tilda and her companions think at the beginning of their quest. But through their encounters with the Wild Hunt, the Horses of Elysium, an evil magician, and (of course) a dragon, they learn a great deal about dragons – and about themselves.
I don’t just read YA – I read middle grade novels and picture books, too. And Handbook for Dragon Slayers is perhaps my favorite middle grade novel of all time. Tilda’s encounters with the dragon are especially wonderful.
HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS on Amazon
Thank you, Charlotte!