Characters Like You and Me by Heather Rader
I was Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry when I was ten. We were both precocious, observant girls who dreamed of being writers and worried about what having a newborn brother would bring. The next year I transitioned from Anastasia to Judy Blume’s Margaret trying to figure out what coming of age and religion meant to me. Fifteen years later I was Anne Lamott with her colicky young son navigating motherhood imperfectly in Operating Instructions. These books along with so many others over the years told me: there is a place in this world for characters like you.
Fast forward again eighteen years and my son Jamin and I are on the University of Washington Medical Center’s rehab floor. My son is suddenly, unexplainably paralyzed from the waist down and diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis. We are full of everything: gratitude, anger, confusion, fear, humor, wonder. The occupational therapist brings us a copy of the DVD Murderball. On the screen, a new character–Mark Zupan–gets our attention. Mark was injured in a car accident and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair and he is on the American Quad Rugby team leading a full, active life. I order his book Gimp and my son and I take turns reading it aloud to each other during many hours in the hospital. Mark and Jamin are different in many ways, but his situation of being paralyzed at age eighteen, his athleticism and competitive spirit, and his message, “when life deals you a crappy hand, you can fold–or you can play” was just what the doctor ordered.
Millions of us love the 3,300,000 people (2010 Census) in the United States who use wheelchairs. Here are ten books and DVDs for a variety of ages you may want for your shelves:
Some Kids Use Wheelchairs by Lola M. Schaefer
An informational book for young children with color photographs that reminds us that kids in wheelchairs need access so they can swim, read at the library, play sports and camp–just like everyone else.
Mama Zooms by Jane Cowen-Fletcher
This picture book reads like a poem as a young child in his mama’s lap imagines all the places they zoom in her wheelchair.
Don’t Call Me Special by Pat Thomas
“Some kids have trouble playing sports and games,” writes the author and asks us as readers to examine the illustration. “Can you tell which ones?” Readers may pick the one in the wheelchair, but that’s not true. “Sometimes when we see people who are different from us we assume things about them that are not always true.” This book provides great material for discussing assumptions we make about people with disabilities.
Rolling Along: The Story of Taylor and His Wheelchair by Jamee Riggio Heelan
Taylor has a twin and Cerebral Palsy. This book explores the importance of accessibility and ends with the line, “Now nothing can stop me.”
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Sharon Draper has written about Melody, a brilliant young girl inside an uncooperative body. Sharon’s own daughter is disabled so she created Melody to be a universal character that we can all relate to. One of my favorite lines: “(A) person is so much more than the name of a diagnosis on a chart.” I love this book!
Mind’s Eye by Paul Fleischman
Written entirely as a dialogue between Elva, an old woman in a nursing home, and Courtney, a young paralyzed woman in rehab, this book is intriguing. Elva promised her husband they’d take a trip to Italy and then he passed away. She invites Courtney instead to take a trip in their imaginations instead using an Italian travel guide book from 1910. It turns out to be exactly what Courtney needed to change her perspective.
Gimp by Marc Zupan and Tim Swanson and Murderball (DVD) by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
What it means to be a man, what forgiveness takes and what it means to use your strengths, are important themes in this book. This is for older teens and adults due to the mature content.
Still Me by Christopher Reeve
What a gift this autobiography was to me. I remember the story of Chris’s injury when it happened, but his deep reflection on what really matters and rehabilitation was so timely. He awakened an advocacy for research and an understanding about spinal cord injuries in me.
When I Walk (DVD) by Jason DaSilva
When young documentarian Jason DaSilva is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at age 25, he turns the camera on himself and captures the next five years of his life. As he grows weaker, he uses his creative spirit, the love of his family and his humor to hold him up. I had no dry tissues, but I felt lucky to know his story.
In a world where assumptions are made about people with disabilities, there is a tendency to flatten flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional characters to two-dimensional ones. I’ve experienced it firsthand with my son this year and I want better. Education pushes us beyond stereotypes, beyond pity. When the books on our shelves portray a variety of people and when authors continue to push the boundaries of typecast characters, we thrive. All readers should discover characters in books just like you and me.
Heather Rader refers to herself as a mother, teacher, writer in that order. She currently works as an elementary instructional coach in Washington State as well as an adjunct instructor for Children’s Literature at the university level. Advocacy for diversity in characters is one of many passions that inspired her first Nerdy Book Club post. While her blog is retired, you can find her at www.heatherrader.com and Twitter @HeatherRader1