These award-winning picture books and novels that portray disability experiences will expand children’s horizons.
By Rebecca Hogue Wojahn
Preschool through high school
Do you have Schneider Family Book Award winners in your library’s collections? Not sure? Let me guess . . . you’ve heard of the award, but you can’t quite place it? Well, don’t fret; there are a lot of book awards out there, and the Schneider Family Book Award is fairly new. The Schneider Family Book Award recognizes an important niche in books for children and young adults—books that portray disability experiences.
The Award’s History
The award was established by Dr. Katherine Schneider and was first awarded in 2004. Dr. Schneider herself is no stranger to the disability experience. She has been blind since her premature birth in 1949 and has had fibromyalgia for more than 10 years. Despite growing up in a time when blind students did not attend mainstream schools, she went on to become the first blind student to graduate from the Kalamazoo, Michigan, public school system and was a valedictorian as well as a National Merit scholar. After earning a PhD in psychology, Schneider taught and worked as a clinical psychologist for 30 years.
Schneider’s success in school and life was due in part to the librarian at the Michigan Library for the Blind who sent her books in Braille and on records from the Library of Congress collection, so an award that was presented by librarians seemed natural to her. She approached the American Library Association with the idea for the award, and they modeled it after the Coretta Scott King Book Awards. The awards are decided by a committee, and eligible books include those that have been published in the last two years and portray “some aspect of living with a disability or that of a friend or family member, whether the disability is physical, mental, or emotional.” Every year, awards are given for three age levels: birth through grade school (ages 0–8), middle school (ages 9–13), and teen (ages 14–18).
Dr. Schneider has been pleased with the results. “In the 1950s when I was in grade school, the only media mentions of blind people were of Helen Keller, Louis Braille, and the seven blind men who went to see the elephant—other disabilities fared no better. Fifty years later, we’re here to celebrate the fact that the situation has dramatically improved. The Schneider Family Book Award committee had many wonderful children’s books to consider, which represent the experiences of the one out of seven Americans who have a disability.”
Don’t think you need to have a child with a specific disability to enjoy and employ these books in the classroom. As Dr. Schneider says, “The disability experience in these wonderful children’s books is a part of a character’s full life, not the focus of the life. . . . The bonus is that children get to experience someone else’s world which involves having a disability or having a family member with a disability.” Take a look at some of the recent honorees below and see how they might fit into your readers’ lives.
Birth through Grade School
The Deaf Musicians. By Pete Seeger and Paul DuBois Jacobs. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 2006. 32p. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399243165).
Preschool–Gr. 1. Jazzman Lee loses his hearing and, subsequently, his band. After all, how can you play jazz if you can’t hear? When Lee starts learning sign language at a school for the deaf, he meets other musicians like himself, and soon he has a new band and a new sound. You can almost hear the music in the bright, bold illustrations of this uplifting story of following one’s dreams.
Dad, Jackie, and Me. By Myron Uhlberg. Illus. by Colin Bootman. 2005. 32p. Peachtree, $16.95 (9781561453290).
Gr. 2–4. A young, hearing Dodger fan and his deaf father are thrilled by the addition of Jackie Robinson to the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. At first, the son is embarrassed by his father’s garbled cheers at the game, but the boy soon learns that his father roots for Robinson partly because the prejudice and discrimination that the ballplayer faces are similar to what his father encounters as a deaf man. Bootman’s evocative watercolors capture the feel of the 1940s.
Looking Out for Sarah. By Glenna Lang. 2003. 32p. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9780881066470); paper, $7.95 (9781570916076).
Preschool–Gr. 2. In this story a guide dog named Perry and his owner, Sarah, make their way through a typical day. The loyalty, challenges, and triumphs of the pair are on display in simple, stylized gouache scenes as Perry narrates the day’s activities. The Braille version helps make the story real for students.
My Pal, Victor/Mi amigo, Víctor. By Diane Gonzales Bertrand. Illus. by Robert L. Sweetland. 2004. 32p. Raven Tree, $16.95 (9780972019293); paper, $7.95 (9781932748727).
Preschool–Gr. 2. Victor and Dominic are the best of friends in this bilingual picture book. Victor is always ready with a joke and encourages Dominic in sports like swimming and softball. Dominic is especially grateful that Victor accepts him just as he is. The last illustration is a twist on the usual nondisabled child accepting the child with a disability, for it is Victor who is in a wheelchair.
Rules. By Cynthia Lord. 2006. 208p. Scholastic, $15.99 (9780439443821).
Gr. 4–7. Twelve-year-old Catherine’s frustration with her autistic younger brother and how he saps the family’s attention is highlighted in a list of rules that she makes for him to help him understand his world. It’s not until she meets Jason, a boy who uses a wheelchair and a communication board, that she starts learning about and owning up to her feelings about herself, her family, and her brother. For an interview with Lord, see p.35 of the November 2007 issue of Book Links.
Becoming Naomi León. By Pam Muñoz Ryan. 2004. 256p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780439269698); paper, $5.99 (9780439269971).
Gr. 4–7. Naomi and her brother, Owen, who is physically disabled, are content living with Gram at Avocado Acres Trailer Rancho until their mother shows up and wants Naomi—and only Naomi—to live with her and her new boyfriend. A custody battle develops and culminates in Gram, Naomi, and Owen traveling to Mexico to find the children’s biological father.
A Mango-Shaped Space. By Wendy Mass. 2003. 224p. Little, Brown, paper, $6.99 (9780316058254).
Gr. 6–10. Mia has a rare neurological condition called synesthesia—she sees shapes and colors when she hears sounds, words, and numbers—that she has kept quiet about for years. Mia learns that the condition is not hers alone and she seeks out friendships with other synesthetes who help her to accept her uniqueness.
Tending to Grace. By Kimberly Newton Fusco. 2004. 176p. Knopf, $14.95 (9780375828621); Laurel-Leaf, paper, $5.99 (9780553494235).
Gr. 7–10. Fourteen-year-old Cornelia is dumped off at her great-aunt Agatha’s cabin by her mom, so she can go off with her boyfriend. Cornelia and Agatha, an eccentric called Crow Lady by the locals, butt heads, argue, and keep secrets from one another. Cornelia’s secret is that she loves to read, but most people assume she’s dumb because of her reluctance to talk due to a stutter. Eventually the two come to appreciate each other and help each other heal.
Small Steps. By Louis Sachar. 2006. 272p. Delacorte, $16.95 (9780385733144); paper, $8.99 (9780385733151).
Gr. 8–11. Armpit and X-Ray, from Sachar’s Newbery Award–winning novel, Holes (Farrar/Frances Foster, 1998), take their turn in the spotlight in this book. When X-Ray comes up with a ticket scalping scheme, Armpit falls in line. Tagging along with him is his 10-year-old neighbor, Ginny, who has cerebral palsy. Through their adventures, Ginny and Armpit learn what it takes to start on those small steps to the lives they want. While it’s natural to pair this with Holes, this book can stand on its own.
My Thirteenth Winter: A Memoir. By Samantha Abeel. 2003. 208p. Orchard, $15.95 (9780439339049); paper, $5.99 (9780439339056).
Gr. 7–12. This memoir chronicles the author’s experiences with dyscalculia, a mathematical learning disability. It was in her thirteenth year that Abeel was first diagnosed, a turning point that finally brought an explanation for her struggles in school and life and some strategies to compensate for them. The firsthand account of the crushing anxiety brought on by her disability is powerful.
Things Not Seen. By Andrew Clements. 2002. 176p. Philomel, $15.99 (9780399236266); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (9780142400760).
Gr. 7–10. Fifteen-year-old Bobby wakes up one morning to find that he is invisible. When he sneaks out of the house to visit the library, he literally bumps into Alicia, a girl his own age who is blind and doesn’t know that he is invisible. The unique combination of these two characters’ complications makes for lots of interesting scenarios and discussions points.
Under the Wolf, Under the Dog. By Adam Rapp. 2004. 320p. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763618186); paper, $8.99 (9780763633653).
Gr. 10–12. In journal entries written from a therapeutic home for teens struggling with addiction and suicidal tendencies, 16-year-old Steve writes about his brother’s suicide, his mother’s death, his father’s depression, and his own destructive behavior that landed him in the home. Steve’s story is bleak and graphic, but as Steve gets better, there is a tempered and realistic sense of hope for his new life.
Rebecca Hogue Wojahn is an elementary school library media specialist. She also writes books for kids. Visit her Web site at http://www.rhwojahn.com.