How to Critically Select Children’s Books with Representations of Disability Experiences

In this guest blog post, Monica Kleekamp, a PhD candidate in the department of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum at the University of Missouri-Columbia, discusses the importance of inclusive children’s literature and how to critically select texts with regards to representations of disability experiences.

What is inclusive children’s literature? What is it not? Why is it important?

 As students look to the shelves in their classrooms and school libraries, they seek representations of themselves—characters who look, feel, and experience the world in similar ways. The field of children’s literature continues to problematize the ways our bookshelves perpetuate representations of white, cisgender, heterosexual, and middle-class characters. A term often added to the end of this list is “able.”

Inclusive children’s literature that features characters who are either physically and/or intellectually diverse—characters who have been labeled as disabled—remain few and far between. Additionally, those texts that do exist often follow tropes of pity or dehumanization. These texts have also been heavily critiqued for their over-representation of white male characters who access prosthetics.

Educators, librarians, parents, and others interested in getting high quality literature into the hands of children must give critical attention to representation in texts that feature characters with disability labels. Disability labels placed on children by school or medical professionals are never neutral. Rather, these labels bring with them histories of exclusion and a tendency to universalize the disability experience. “Disability” is an umbrella term that carries many different meanings to those in the larger public and individuals with labels. However, we tend to use the word often—without really unpacking what we mean by it, which ends up suggesting that there is only one experience of disability.

Sharing high quality inclusive literature offers an opportunity to talk with and through books that challenge ableist norms—or the standards that have been normalized over time for how bodies and minds “should” function and perform. If we seek to thoughtfully select children’s literature with characters who may look, know, and act in diverse ways, it is first imperative to describe what this kind of literature is.

Inclusive children’s literature is not necessarily designed to teach children about what a disability is. Instead, this literature serves as an opportunity for those with disability labels to see representations of experiences like theirs in the books they pull from our shelves. These texts also provide opportunities for students who live without labels—those who are deemed educationally typical—to see characters who experience the world in different ways. Immersed in these texts are varied and multiple bodies and minds playing active roles as main characters who tell their own stories through their engagement in authentic relationships.

How can I make an informed decision about which books to select that include disability experiences?

Here, I offer 4 Guiding Questions to consult in your selection process. They are meant to guide your interrogation of the written and illustrated narrative. These questions are not exhaustive, but they do offer entry into making informed decisions when critically selecting inclusive children’s literature.

  1. Does the author/illustrator present the character with a disability label as multidimensional?

A disability label is one identity marker—and often not one a character has necessarily chosen for themselves. Memorable main characters are multidimensional and complex. Additional layers of identity are presented in a variety of ways over the course of a story. This might be through decisions characters make, the situations they find themselves in, or the relationships they build. If characters with labels do not develop over the course of the story or do not demonstrate themselves as dynamic and varied, the reader is left with little information other than a label itself.

  1. Whose story is this and who gets to tell it?

There is currently an over-abundance of texts that feature disability from the perspective of a sibling or friend. These characters speak for the individual with a label. In these instances, the story does not belong to the character with a disability label but rather is a narrative about them. Humanizing texts are written from a first-person perspective, centering the voice of the character with a label. There are instances when a third person narrator might also offer the character’s thoughts through ideas embedded in the story.

  1. As a reader, how have you been positioned to think about feel about the character with a disability label in this book?

Representations of disability experiences often position characters as individuals worthy of pity who need to be cared for, without offering any insight into the contributions the character makes to their community. This is especially true in texts that feature school settings, where characters with disability labels may be positioned as class pets while other students take turns supervising the individual. Humanizing inclusive children’s literature may tackle moments of marginalization, but they do so in complex ways. These texts acknowledge lived moments of exclusion but also include character agency and perseverance in addressing difficult circumstances.

  1. What opportunities does the character with a disability label have in the book to engage in authentic relationships?

Many texts with disability experiences feature one-dimensional friendships—such as the idea of individuals as class pets. In these instances, the character with a disability label is positioned as having a flat identity whose only role is to require support from those around them. This is dehumanizing and suggests that individuals with disability labels do not and cannot contribute in meaningful ways to the relationships in their lives. High quality texts offer representations of relationships in which both individuals contribute to fostering or maintaining that relationship. Humanizing literature may tackle complicated relationships in which characters grapple with peers or adults in moments of exclusion, bullying, or adversity but might also serve as models for friendships that do exist and are possible for individuals with labels.

But if I want to start selecting humanizing inclusive literature to add to my collection, where can I turn for high quality titles?

Each year, the Schneider Family Book Award, in partnership with the American Library Association, awards inclusive literature winners in the categories of teen books, middle grade texts, and books for young readers. While this is a great starting place if you are just beginning your collection, there are other places you can go to read important reviews by #ownvoices such as Disability in KidLit, or the Indigo Project, sites and blogs reserved for inclusive book reviews by individuals who identify as disabled. You might also check out the Disability Visibility Project, which addresses issues of disability representation across media including news, film and television series, etc.

About the Author: Monica Kleekamp is currently a PhD candidate in the department of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her research centers the literature responses of students who have historically been classified as having significant disabilities in an effort to disrupt what counts as literacy and who counts as literate.

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