Disability! 20 great books – all by disabled authors

A collage of adult books on our list - from Being Heumann to Disability Visibility.

Adult fiction and non-fiction, poetry, YA, middle-grade and picture books – as disabled people working in publishing, these are our favourites. We looked for books with great representations of disability, by anyone. But the books we chose are all by disabled authors. Because unsurprisingly, they just do it better.

Making this list was an interesting process. We wanted great writing, disability or disabled characters at the forefront, and no bad depictions that made us wince. All of which is easier said than done. Disability has been exploited as a dramatic device in literature for centuries. Moving away from that is going to take a while.

These books are all glorious exceptions. And all these disabled authors deserve congratulations, book sales, and a bucket load of cake/wine/insert chosen vice. Enormous thanks to everyone who made recommendations over on Instagram. Any list is very subjective, but we looked into every recommendation.

A collage of the children's and young adult books on our list - from Can Bears Ski to A Face for Picasso.

Whether you borrow them from libraries, buy them locally or online, or through our affiliate Blackwell’s links below, we hope you track down and enjoy some of these books.

Note: we made this list as part of a presentation about disability representation for Amazon. We were paid for our time, but don’t make anything from purchases over there. We do make a percentage on any orders made through Blackwell’s links on this page – our local bookshop, they deliver internationally, postage included. You can also find our list over on UK and US Bookshop.


Children’s and YA – novels and memoirs

A Face for Picasso – a Young Adult memoir by Ariel Henley

A Face for Picasso – a Young Adult memoir by Ariel Henley

Ariel Henley’s YA memoir is the perfect antidote to Wonder, an insider’s take on facial disfigurement. Real life is often crueller than fiction. Our expectations are up-ended – the shock of ‘successful’ surgery which changes her and her twin’s faces: ‘we cried for months, begging to go back to the way we were before.’ There’s cheerleading and prizes for being ‘inspirational’. And adults don’t always treat Henley with anything like the care some fiction would have us believe.

Content note: very graphic descriptions of surgery. Distressing bullying from adults and children.

The Secret of Haven Point – middle-grade novel by Lisette Auton.

The Secret of Haven Point – a middle-grade novel by Lisette Auton

‘You see, everyone who finds this place and becomes a Wreckling is disabled. If you’re not, you’re an Outsider, and no Outsider has ever made it past the Boundaries.’

Disability solidarity can be a powerful force. Lisette Auton channels it into deeply imaginative fantasy with her beautiful, charismatic writing.

A Kind of Spark – a novel for young people (MG to YA) by Elle McNichol.

A Kind of Spark – a novel for young people by Elle McNichol

Scottish author Ellie McNichol dedicated this book to her autistic readers and ‘all children with happy, flapping hands’. Eleven year old Addie becomes fascinated by her town’s history of witch trials, noticing that the women killed were, like her, seen as different.

Content note: realistic, unfair treatment of an autistic child by a teacher. Reference to an older autistic character being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

El Deafo - a graphic novel by Cece Bell

El Deafo – a graphic novel for children by Cece Bell

This middle-grade coming of age graphic novel is autobiographical – author and illustrator Cece Bell is deaf, if not a rabbit. A hugely enjoyable read for children and adults. Education is not the point, but hearing readers will wince at the mistakes made by hearing characters, and quietly vow not to repeat them. You can find our full review of El Deafo here.

Content note: set in the 1960s, technology is out of date. Deaf culture doesn’t feature. ‘Deafo’ is discussed as a slur.

Sick Kids in Love – a Young Adult novel by Hannah Moskowitz.

Sick Kids in Love – a Young Adult novel by Hannah Moskowitz

Disabled and ill characters die with concerning frequency in fiction. This very enjoyable YA love story between chronically ill teenagers was written as a counterpoint to The Fault in Our Stars and the many books about ill teenagers with tragic ends. ‘They don’t die in this one’, boasts the cover. 

Content note: in early passages, the main character ‘others’ people with cancer. Teenage characters have sex, but without details.

Adult anthology & non-fiction

Disability Visibility – a non-fiction anthology, edited by Alice Wong.

Disability Visibility – a non-fiction anthology, Alice Wong

There’s a particular strength in non-fiction anthologies when it comes to disability.  Esteemed US activist Alice Wong has gathered together 35 truly diverse disabled writers. A Black New York lawyer, a Deaf prisoner, the creator of #hospitalglam on instagram – individual stories that throw up common themes and shared experiences. Unabashedly written by and for disabled people – illuminating for everyone. There’s also a new, shorter YA edition.

Content note: subjects from eugenics to infanticide – each chapter carries its own content warning.

Growing Up Disabled in Australia – a non-fiction anthology, edited by Carly Findlay

Growing Up Disabled in Australia – a non-fiction anthology, Carly Findlay

Like many of us, Carly Findlay rejected the term ‘disabled’ as a child: ‘I thought disability looked a particular way, and I didn’t fit that’. Having embraced the term, this book is a celebration of the community it gave her. As in Wong’s anthology, many different cultures and disabilities are reflected in these non-fiction stories, which are relevant far beyond Australia.

Content note: these stories contain many potentially distressing themes, from ableist language and homophobia to medical trauma, suicide and self-harm.

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg – non-fiction by Emily Rapp Black

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg – non-fiction by Emily Rapp Black

Emily Rapp Black’s lyrical book weaves her thoughts on Frida Kahlo’s art and disability in with reflections on her own life – on what being an amputee has meant to her, and the curious narratives the world insists on applying to disabled women: ‘In mine and Frida’s story, in this reverse fairytale… nobody overcomes anything. A broken back stays broken. When your limb is lost it stays lost.’ 

Incidentally, this clothbound hardback is one of the most beautiful books I own.

Content note: child death. Discussion of devotees.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space – non-fiction by Amanda Leduc.

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability and Making Space – non-fiction by Amanda Leduc

Fairytales can be conflicting for disabled children – disabled characters are almost always villains, waiting for a magical cure, or just there for the comedy. Amanda Leduc details her own love-hate relationship with these stories. From the seven dwarves, to the Beast, to Bran the Broken, she moves from Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimms to Disney and Game of Thrones. She points out we’re all misled by fairytales – into expecting goodness to be reflected in physical perfection.

Adult memoir

Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, memoir by Rebekah Taussig.

Sitting Pretty – a memoir by Rebekah Taussig

Ah memoir. If disability is ever given freedom to shine, it’s here. And Rebekah Taussig‘s is very, very good. She takes us from her chaotic, boisterous childhood, through teenage romance, marriages, her career as a teacher and by the end, approaching motherhood with skill and humour. The conflict between her own perception of herself as a child and her growing realisation that as a wheelchair user, society has a whole bag of stereotypes ready to apply to her, is beautifully drawn. Rebekah questions a great deal – the charity model, the notion of kindness – with persuasive intimacy and lightness of touch.

Being Heumann An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist - a memoir by Judith Heumann.

Being Heumann – a memoir by Judith Heumann

Judith Heumann is a grande dame of disability activism in the US, a force behind major legal and political change for disabled people. She appears prominently in the Netflix documentary Crip Camp (which you have to watch). This hefty book follows her from her 1950s childhood, in which the unabashed discrimination makes you cringe, through her activism and Washington jobs for both Clinton and Obama. This book is co-written with Kirsten Joiner, as is Rolling Warrior – her new memoir for young readers age 10 and up, which looks promising.

How To Lose Everything – a memoir by Christa Couture.

How To Lose Everything – a memoir by Christa Couture

A beautiful memoir – about childhood cancer and disability, motherhood and loss. Christa Couture, a Canadian Indigenous singer-songwriter, rejects a simple story of bravery or triumph over adversity: ‘There are truly hopeless situations… I wanted everyone to be okay with that: to be okay with despair.’ Sometimes ‘you will lose everything, and it will be different.’ This book has wisdom and warmth in bucket loads. And for those in the know, there’s a nod to the iconic photos of Christa which spread across the internet – pregnant in her floral prosthetic limb – in the floral print on the book’s cover. 

Content note: child death and childhood cancer.

If You Really Love Me, Throw Me Off the Mountain – memoir by Erin Clark.

If You Really Love Me, Throw Me Off the Mountain – a memoir by Erin Clark

In her unforgettable memoir, Erin Clark writes about adventure and intimacy. ‘I had been watched my whole life… Approached, interrupted, discussed. But that was all through the lens the public had for disabled people. They thought they knew me because they saw my wheelchair.’ She tries to wrestle back the narrative – through aerial performance, pole dancing, paragliding and through writing.

Adult fiction

Get a Life, Chloe Brown – a romance novel by Talia Hibbert

Get a Life, Chloe Brown – a romance novel by Talia Hibbert

Romance seems to be more prepared to present disabled heroines than other genres of novel. Chloe Brown’s chronic pain is never forgotten or ‘overcome’, but woven into a traditional enemies-to-lovers romance. Chloe Brown is a rare Black British disabled heroine in this compelling love story.

Content note: sex scenes are lengthy and explicit, and include a particular word starting with c (yes, that one).

So Lucky – a novel by Nicola Griffith.

So Lucky – a novel by Nicola Griffith

Fiction by disabled authors is far rarer than memoir. So Lucky may draw on Nicola Griffith’s experience of MS – but she is a seasoned, accomplished author and this is a thriller, complete with dramatic ending. Her hero, who starts as a powerful dispenser of charity running an AIDS foundation, is diagnosed with MS and becomes a potential recipient of charity. She strains at the reversal of roles.

Content note: realistic response to a MS diagnosis. Brief but detailed descriptions of violent hate crimes against disabled people.

Poetry

The Perseverance – poetry by Raymond Antrobus.

The Perseverance – poetry by Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus’s skilful, award-winning poetry explores his deafness and his British Jamaican identity. His frustration at deaf schools now and in his own childhood is palpable: ‘you erased what could have always been poetry’. He parodies Ted Hughes, whose poem Deaf School describes children as ‘alert and simple, like little animals’ – printing the poem with every line crossed out. Antrobus is the only author who appears twice on this list – we just couldn’t leave out either his picture book, or his poetry.

Single Window - poetry by Daniel Sluman

Single Window – poetry by Daniel Sluman

Daniel and his wife Emily spent a year living on their sofa. The poetry of pain, confinement and illness doesn’t make for an easy read, but there’s often breathtaking beauty in the language, and their love and tenderness for each other sustains them and the reader. A singular window.

Content note: medical trauma, descriptions of amputation. Drug-taking and sex.

Children’s picture books

I Am Not a Label – illustrated children's non-fiction by Cerrie Burnell.

I Am Not a Label – illustrated non-fiction by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Lauren Baldo

This stylish illustrated book of short biographies for children presents a range of notable disabled people. Author and former CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell chose individuals from the obvious: Stevie Wonder, Frida Kahlo and Beethoven, to the less well-known, like Nabil Shaban – Sil in Doctor Who – and a few we might not immediately identify as disabled at all, like Lady Gaga.

This Beach is Loud! - a picture book, by Samantha Cotterill.

This Beach is Loud! – a picture book, by Samantha Cotterill

An exuberant, talkative boy visits the beach with his father. Autism isn’t named in the story, and this book by an autistic author-illustrator does not explain autism to a non-disabled reader. We see the story through the boy’s eyes – his excitement, the sensory overload of the beach. You can find our full review here.

Can Bears Ski? A picture book by Raymond Antrobus, illustrated by Polly Dunbar.

Can Bears Ski? – a picture book by Raymond Antrobus, illustrated by Polly Dunbar

A child-bear discovers their deafness, visiting an audiologist with their father. It turns out it’s not ‘can bears ski?’ they keep being asked, but ‘can you hear me?’ This is an insider’s story of deafness for very young children, written by a deaf poet and illustrated by a hard of hearing illustrator. We represent illustrator Polly Dunbar, and you can read our full review here.

Content note: this is a book about deafness – not Deaf culture (it’s a hearing school and characters don’t sign.) But the paperback edition will include a sign language alphabet at the back.

What Happened to You? By James Catchpole

What Happened to You? – a picture book by James Catchpole, illustrated by Karen George

Ok, this is actually number 21. But Amazon put it on their list, so I thought I’d tack it onto the end here. Clearly this is a book we could not be more biased on – one of us wrote it. But it’s beautifully illustrated by Karen George, the author is definitely disabled, and we get lovely, lovely feedback on it, from disabled and non-disabled readers. We’ve written lots about it here on this blog.

For more disabled people who talk about books:

Margaret Kingsbury – queen of disability book lists – has written about the current state of disability in children’s books for Bookriot.

Nicola Griffith, author of So Lucky (one of the very few fiction titles on our list) keeps track of fiction that passes the Fries Test here on her blog. (The Fries Test sets out to be an equivalent to the Bechdel test for disability.)

Jen Campbell says fascinating things about disfigurement and representation on her YouTube channel. She has a particular interest in fairytales.

Cindy Baldwin’s twitter thread on disability tropes in fiction is something everyone should read.

Lucy and James Catchpole

Lucy and James Catchpole holding a pile of books from this list.

[Image descriptions:

Image 1: a collage of all the adult books on our list, from Being Heumann to Disability Visibility

Image 2: a collage of all the children’s books on our list, from Can Bears Ski? to A Face For Picasso.

Images 3 to 24 are screenshots of the book covers.

Image 25: a circular photo of Lucy and James, sitting with a pile of books from the list.]

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