When I was a kid, I hated The Phantom of the Opera. At first, I didn’t exactly know why. It wasn’t until I came to enjoy it in college that I understood my initial dislike. It wasn’t just because the story is depressing (what? it is!), but that it also had an incredibly negative portrayal of a character who was born with a facial deformity. Now, this post isn’t so much about how I learned to empathize with the Phantom or whether or not he was justified in his actions but rather about disability representation in literature.
For a long time, most disabled characters were portrayed in a negative light. Shakespeare’s Richard III was a despicable character and he was a hunchback (though it is based on historical fact, there is still a lot of speculation put into the play). Mary Shelly’s creature in Frankenstein was often likened to a monster and hated mostly because he was hideous. Even Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame portrays Quasimodo, deaf and hunchbacked, as being hideous despite being the most admirable character.
Once I was able to understand the context of a story, like The Phantom of the Opera, I was better able to appreciate it as a piece of literature, even if I disliked it for those very reasons. This post is not about those stories though, but rather a list of recommended contemporaries that have explored various stories from various perspectives, from characters with physical disabilities to those who are neurodiverse. Books are organized by authors’ last names.
100 Days of Sunlight by Abbie Emmons
Physical disability representation.
Tessa has been blinded after being in a car accident, and she doesn’t know if her vision will even return. So her grandma helps her find somebody who can help her write her poems, and he happens to have prosthetics. She initially tries to refuse his help, but they quickly become friends.
Though I’m not usually a fan of books shelved under the romance category, I really enjoyed this one! I particularly liked how it seemed to start off being overly cheerful, like seriously, Weston does seem too happy. But as the book goes on, it explores his psychology as well, which I greatly appreciated.
The Boy Who Steals Houses by C. G. Drews
Sam just wants to find another house to temporarily stay in with his brother Avery. Even though Avery’s older, Sam feels like he has to take care of him. Then he accidentally breaks into the wrong house, one that’s full of people, and instead of getting arrested or kicked out, he makes a friend. This book is also an #ownvoices story featuring characters on the autism spectrum.
Not to mention the story actually helped me out of a bout of depression. Though it didn’t actually speak to my circumstances at the time, it was still the story I needed at that time.
A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Oima
Physical disability representation and neurodiversity.
These books are intense. Shoya is a boy who bullied Shoko, a partially deaf girl, in his school until she left. Years later, isolated from the rest of his classmates, he attempts to make amends. I particularly liked the way the story addressed physical disability as well as the concept of forgiveness, which is never as easy as it sounds. I’ve only read the first two Manga, but my sister and I watched the Anime, and I cried. Twice.
Since I’ve gone back to work, I’ve found it can be difficult to hear people when everybody is wearing a mask. So I started using some sign language (ASL) to communicate little things (e.g. single-file lines I dubbed “the snake” and used the snake gesture), and I’m actually thinking about learning as much ASL as I can. The only problem is that like other languages, sign language can differ from country to country.
Kids Like Us by Hilary Reyl
Martin is spending the summer in France with his mom and sister. As a teenager on the autism spectrum, he may not always understand his family, but he is doing his best to make friends at his local school. Not only are the characters stunning, but the cultural aspects are great as well. I really appreciate how the author touched on what it’s like to live in a foreign country, and how it can be difficult whether or not one is neurotypical.
If you haven’t noticed, I tend to lean toward books with autism representation. I have several family members on the spectrum, so I like to do my best to understand their perspectives. Yes, I realize you can only learn so much from fiction, but it’s like the saying goes “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” No two people are alike, and fiction is merely a tool that I like to use to help me learn more.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Finn is determined to figure out what happened to Roza and why she disappeared. The only problem: he’s face-blind, and recognizing people can pose some difficulties. This kind of disability isn’t often addressed in fiction, and more often than not, I’ve seen it done poorly instead of well. But Ruby does an excellent job, and her writing style is stellar. I also like how this book has fantastical, magical-realism-like elements to it, though it can be confusing at times.
The Art of Feeling by Laura Tims
Physical disability and neurodiversity.
Sam has had to use crutches since a car accident that killed her mother and left her disabled and dealing with bouts of depression. She ends up meeting Eliot, a boy who can’t physically feel anything (Anhidrosis), by accident. As their friendship develops, Sam struggles to remember what happened during the car accident. I recently reread this one and enjoyed it just as much as the first time, though it had more swearing than I remembered. Still a good read.
Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Eliza doesn’t like talking to people, so when she makes friends with Wallace, they text each other for several days before they say anything aloud. She’s also the author of a popular webcomic series, but nobody knows about her online identity, not even Wallace, who’s a huge fan. Socially awkward adventures ensue. Although my social anxiety has never been as bad as Eliza’s, I found her story to be incredibly relatable.
So there you have it! Seven great books that represent disabled characters. You might also enjoy these neurodiverse YA novels: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, A World Without You by Beth Revis, and Made You Up by Francesca Zappia.
Let’s chat! Have you read any of these? Have they made it to your TBR? Do you actively seek out books with disability representation? What are some of your favorites?