May 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Redefining Normal: Books About Teens with Special Needs| Focus On


The term special needs casts a titanic net over an ambitious catch of seemingly dissimilar categories: mental, emotional, and psychological health; hearing and visual impairments; intellectual and learning disabilities; substance abuse, recovery, and rehab; and on and on. While we all have differences, they’re not always visible or simple to detect. Simply put, depression and thoughts of suicide are often insidious secrets. Differences can make us uncomfortable, and in a so-called normal kid’s daily life, a classmate with special needs may even seem peculiar or be overlooked.

Many of us have little experience living with severe or unfamiliar disabilities, but stories can pull us beyond our personal knowledge and introduce us to another norm. The following titles for young adults can open clamped consciousness, remove blinders, and broaden viewpoints. These stories are not about special needs; they are about people figuring out how to deal with their individual circumstances. Readers will meet brave teens who work hard to be accepted. Many of them contend with a hefty share of bullying, vulnerability, and dependency.

All of the characters work hard because getting through every day is hard. They want to step forward into their futures—graduate from high school, go to college, find a job—to live safely and independently. Not all of them do. Not all of them can. Stories do not create miracles, but discussing these books with young adults will increase awareness and assure teens that they are not alone. There are memoirs, realistic fiction, romance, and even a dystopian gothic adventure. The characters are substantial and credible; their stories entail plenty of ups and downs.

Use these titles in literature circles, book groups, and English classes, because a natural commonality of all individuals is our desire to be included and acknowledged, the most identifiable and normal need of all.


ALEXANDER, Rebecca & Sascha Alper. Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found. Gotham. 2014. Tr $27. ISBN 9781592408313; pap. $17. ISBN 978 1592409419; ebk. $12.99. ISBN 978 0698162167.
Adult/High School –Alexander’s irreversible loss of hearing and sight began at age 12, when she was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. At 18, a fall from her bedroom window left her body shattered. Yet she surmounts emotional obstacles, contends with eating disorders, undergoes extensive physical therapy, and navigates NYC streets (and Columbia University) to become an accomplished psychotherapist.

BURCAW , Shane. Laughing at My Nightmare . Roaring Brook. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781626720077; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781626720084.
Gr 10 Up –The deadly seriousness of 21-year-old Shane Burcaw’s spinal muscular atrophy does not escape him, nor does it stop him. His brave, tell-all autobiography pushes the limits in many directions, and readers will find Shane’s intimate revelations, sexual and otherwise, painfully honest and often quite funny. See Shane’s blog,, to sample his high-spirited positivity.

PATTERSON , James & Hal Friedman. Med Head: My Knock-Down, Drag-Out, Drugged-Up Battle with My Brain. Little, Brown. 2010. lib. ed. $23.30. ISBN 9780606145381; pap. $12. ISBN 9780316076173; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780316084987.
Gr 7 Up –Cory Friedman, son of the coauthor, was a healthy five-year-old until he was inexplicably afflicted with uncontrollable physical spasms and tics caused by Tourette syndrome, symptoms so extreme they caused broken teeth and cracked ribs. It is Cory’s determined fortitude that proves instrumental in his eventual turnaround. A true story of personal survival told in short, compelling chapters from Cory’s point of view.

Realistic Fiction

1505-FO-RealisticFiction-1ANDERSON , Laurie Halse. Wintergirls. Viking. 2009. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780670011100; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780142415573; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781101029190.
Gr 8 Up –Maybe one of the most harrowing contemporary tales about anorexia, this gritty first-person account offers up the disorder’s stealthy ability to balloon into secret addiction. A dead-on perspective that will invite conversations—and possibly avert a teen’s decent into this vicious cycle. At the very least, it bravely confronts the neat and ineffectual quick fix. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

AVERETT, Edward. Cameron and the Girls. Clarion. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780547612157; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780544301627; ebk. $8.99. ISBN 9780544084445.
Gr 8 Up –Admitted to the psych ward twice, 14-year-old Cameron struggles to quiet the multiple voices in his head. When Cam’s menacing and seductive female alter ego convinces him to stop taking his medication, the teen’s judgment becomes dangerously splintered. A taut and empathetic view into the hypnotic and false-positive influence of adolescent schizophrenic psychosis.

BRENNA, Beverley. Waiting for No One. Red Deer Pr. 2011. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780889954373.
Gr 8 Up –Nineteen-year-old Taylor Jane prepares her resume and lists Asperger’s syndrome as one of her strengths. While waiting for responses, she arms herself with charms, dresses in her favorite colors, and struggles against unbidden swear words that bubble from her nervous self. Determined to become independent and face her amplified fears, Taylor Jane’s not so different from most young adults.

GALLO, Donald R., ed. Owning It: Stories About Teens with Disabilities. Candlewick. 2008. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780763632557; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780763646615.
Gr 7 Up –Written by some of the best authors of young adult literature, the short stories in this anthology are devoid of exploitive melodrama and rich in integrity. Teens contend with personal crisis, including illness, disability, substance abuse, and ADHD. Some stories are inspirational, while others accept an unfortunate twist of fate, but all provide awareness to debilitating situations.

GILES, Gail. Girls Like Us. Candlewick. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780763662677; ebk. $16.99. ISBN 9780763670184.
Gr 8 Up –After graduating from their special education high school program, Quincy and Biddy, both intellectually challenged and abused as children, are placed by the state in an apartment together. A violent rape forces the teens to share painful secrets, and when Quincy risks speaking up, the girls are finally able to move forward and celebrate their hard-earned independence.

NICHOLSON, Lorna Schultz. Fragile Bones: Harrison & Anna. (One-2-One). Clockwise Pr. 2015. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780993935107.
Gr 7 Up Fifteen-year-old Harrison knows every single bone in the human body but melts down over using public bathrooms. High school senior Anna is paired with Harrison in their school’s Best Buddies program. The story is told in alternating viewpoints, and Anna learns that being responsible for Harrison is puzzling and unnerving, while Harrison’s precise autistic logic is tense and convincing.

PHILLIPS, Linda Vigen. Crazy. Eerdmans. 2014. pap. $9. ISBN 9780802854377.
Gr 7 Up –Laura fears that she’s inherited her mother’s mental illness. It’s the 1960s, and mental illness is not openly discussed. The teen hides the stigma of crazy in bottled-up silence, pouring herself into her artwork while her mother’s instability shakes their family’s life. This artful novel in verse strikes a delicate chord between Laura’s tightly strung anxiety and her true potential.

POLSKY, Sara. This Is How I Find Her. Albert Whitman. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780807578773; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780807578803; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9781480449664.
Gr 8 Up –Sixteen-year-old Sophie finds her mother, Amy, unconscious, an empty bottle of pills spilled nearby. Since age 11, Sophie’s been troubleshooting for Amy, a manic-depressive who battles bipolar disorder. Shaken by guilt, Sophie struggles with conflicts as she notices “the part of my life that’s been better since my mother left.” A difficult topic made approachable by empathetic storytelling.

SCHMIDT, Gary D. Okay for Now. HMH. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780547152608; lib. ed. $17.20. ISBN 9780606316705; pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780544022805; ebk. $6.99. ISBN 9780547534176.
Gr 7 Up –Tough guy Doug is saddled with a reading disability, an abusive father, and a difficult family life. One brother teeters on the edge of the law, while the other is a recently returned, wounded Vietnam veteran. Fortunately, fate throws Doug a lifeline involving art, a sassy girl, and well-intentioned community members as he breaks free from a self-destructive cycle. Audio version available from Listening Library.

1505-FO-RealisticFictionSHERMAN, Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. illus. by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown. 2007. Tr $20. ISBN 9780316013680; lib. ed. $26.95. ISBN 9780606072960; pap. $15. ISBN 9780316013697; ebk. $9.74. ISBN 9780316219303.
Gr 9 Up –Fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, a bright, geeky Spokane Indian, prevails over personal obstacles: medical, social, cultural, and educational. Born with infantile hydrocephalus, he spends his youth dealing with disabilities, confronting bullies, creating cartoons, and dreaming of a better life. Self-deprecating adolescent humor and poignant cartoons make this shameless and courageous narrative approachable and unforgettable. Audio version available from Recorded Books.

SHUSTERMAN, Neal. Challenger Deep. illus. by Brendan Shusterman. HarperCollins. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780061134111; pap. $12. ISBN 9780062413093; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062231727.
Gr 9 Up –Caden’s life is spliced with reality- and schizophrenia-induced adventures with an imaginary pirate-voice luring the 15-year-old ever-further out on a delusional plank. Caden’s voyage in and out of reality is a blend of metaphorical escapades at sea, residential rehab, and the good fight it takes to stay afloat. This extraordinary novel is playfully crafted and painfully realistic. Audio version available from Blackstone Audio.

SONNENBLICK, Jordan. After Ever After. Scholastic. 2010. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780439837064; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780545722872; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9780545292788.
Gr 7 Up –Best buddies Jeffrey and Tad begin eighth grade shouldering their medical past. Cancer treatments have left Jeffrey with a limp and a learning disability, while Tad relies on a wheelchair. Foremost in their teen lives are the immediate challenges—girls, gym, and grades. Their humorous energy and irreverent banter make a sad story solid and heartening. Audio version available from Brilliance Publishing.

VAN DRAANEN, Wendelin. The Running Dream. Knopf. 2011. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780375866678; lib. ed. $20. ISBN 9781613832257; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780375866289; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780375896798.
Gr 8 Up –After a school bus accident, high school junior Jessica loses her leg along with her dreams of becoming a track star. She pushes through her wall of self-pity to accept her new goal: recovery. When Jessica meets Rosa, wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, the teens become friends and advocates. Together they prove victorious against personal limits and social stigma. Audio version available from Listening Library.

Love Matters

1505-FO-RealisticFiction-2KEPHART , Beth. One Thing Stolen. Chronicle. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781452128313; ebk. $13.99. ISBN 9781452149479.
Gr 7 Up –While living abroad with her family in Florence, Italy, 17-year-old Nadia develops frontotemporal dementia, a rare and difficult to diagnose condition marked by a loss of speech. As her family and best friend scramble to hold her fragile reality together, Nadia is compelled to weave stolen trinkets and treasures into beautiful, artful nests. Her tale is a metaphorical blend of secrets, romance, and the struggle against mental illness.

MCGOVERN , Cammie. Say What You Will. HarperCollins. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062271105; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780062271112; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062271129.
Gr 9 Up –Born with cerebral palsy, Amy is a high-achieving high school senior who pushes through physical and social barriers. Matthew looks normal, but his hand washing and mumbled counting suggest otherwise. After a one-night stand with another classmate, Amy’s unplanned pregnancy threatens her mental health and her relationship with Matthew. A refreshing love story of courage and resolution. Audio version available from Blackstone Audio.

MCKAY, Emily. The Farm. Penguin/Berkley. 2012. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780425257807; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9781101613511.
Gr 8 Up –Seventeen-year-old Lily and her autistic twin sister, Mel, are captives in a sci-fi horror experiment. Gothic intrigue, paranormal powers, the fascinating twin element, sensory perceptions, and the mysteries of autism contribute to a spicy adventure starring female warriors and vampires. Bloody confrontations are many, but romance makes it appealing to other readers, too.

NIVEN, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. Knopf. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780385755887; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780385755894; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9780385755900.
Gr 10 Up –High school senior Theodore Finch calmly talks classmate Violet Markey down from the ledge of their school’s bell tower. She is the guilt-stricken survivor of a car accident that killed her sister. Although he pushes Violet to embrace life, Theodore inwardly nurses a death wish fostered by years of enduring an abusive father, bullying, and depression. Romance and incomprehensible tragedy. Audio version available from Listening Library.

SCHROCKE, Kathrin. Freak City. tr. by Tammi Reichel. Enslow. 2014. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781623240059; pap. $9.95. ISBN 9781623240066; ebk. $10.49. ISBN 9781623240080.
Gr 8 Up –Learning that the hot girl he’s pursuing is deaf, Mika must decide whether to move forward or move on. A relationship with Leah means a serious commitment, learning sign language, and ignoring peer pressure. Told through Mika’s conflicted feelings, the story transitions from self-centered teen angst to thought-provoking awareness, proving that the obstacles are complicated but not insurmountable.

STORK, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World. Scholastic. 2009. lib. ed. $20.85. ISBN 9780606153218; Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545054744; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780545231848.
Gr 8 Up –Seventeen-year-old Marcelo isn’t bothered by Asperger’s; he embraces it. Internal music pleasantly plays in his head, and he sleeps in a backyard tree house. Marcelo’s father presses him beyond this small world to work at his law firm, and Marcelo’s naïveté is put to the test. A charming romance threads through the story, making this a teen favorite. Audio version available from Listening Library.

VIZZINI, Ned. It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Hyperion/Miramax. 2006. lib. ed. $20.85. ISBN 9781417818181; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780786851973; ebk. $7.99. ISBN 9781423141082.
Gr 9 Up –Craig is an overachiever obsessed with attending an academically rigorous high school, and this push for excellence is his undoing. His call to the suicide hotline is a step toward recovery. In a psych ward, Craig faces mental illness, imperfection, conflicts, and romance as he learns to accept that less than his best can be OK. Audio version available from Tantor Media.

WILSON, Rachel M. Don’t Touch. HarperCollins. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062220936; ebk. $9.99. ISBN 9780062220950.
Gr 8 Up –High school junior Cassie controls her life by obeying secret, rigid rules. Her lifeline mantra, “Don’t touch,” beats an unrelenting chant. As she takes on the role of Ophelia in the school play and becomes attracted to the leading man, her internal conflict crackles with fear, anxiety, and desire. Cassie’s obsessive compulsive disorder pushes her to the brink as her rational mind fights back.

Alison M.G. Follos is the Director of the Au Sable Forks Free Library, NY.

Digital picks

For Teachers & Librarians

Children’s & Young Adult Books About Disabilities. SUNY College at Old Westbury. (Accessed 3/23/2015).
A resource of the Curriculum Materials Center at the SUNY Old Westbury Library, this guide to the center’s collection is an excellent source of children’s and young adult titles that feature characters with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, physical impairments, emotional and behavioral disorders, and more.

Learning Disabilities Association of America. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Pittsburgh, PA. (Accessed 3/23/2015).

With sections for parents, educators, adults, and professionals, this site offers a wealth of information and resources, including articles, videos, fact sheets on specific disabilities, suggestions for best practices, and links to related organizations.

Special Olympics: Project UNIFY . Special Olympics. (Accessed 3/23/2015).

Project UNIFY is “an education- and sports-based strategy powered by an engaged youth community that increases athletic and leadership opportunities for students with and without intellectual disabilities.” The site provides a toolkit for implementing the program along with related classroom resources.

For Teens

The Center for Children with Special Needs. Seattle Children’s Hospital. Seattle, WA. (Accessed 3/23/2015).

Gr 9 Up–Written for teens with physical, developmental, behavioral, or emotional conditions, this guide provides support as young adults begin to take charge of their own health, with tips and information on communication, advocacy, and planning for the future.

Disability in Kidlit. Kody Keplinger, Corinne Duyvis, & Kayla Whaley. (Accessed 3/23/2015).

Gr 7 Up–Edited by three writers of middle grade and YA fiction, this site focuses on the portrayal of disability in literature for young people with articles, interviews, discussions, and book reviews. All contributors are disabled, but everyone is welcome to participate in discussions and ask questions.

TeensHealth: Mind. The Nemours Foundation. (Accessed 3/23/2015).

Gr 7 Up–Easy-to-read information for teens explores a wide variety of adolescent concerns offering perspective and advice about physical, emotional, and behavioral health, including anxiety, depression, stress, eating disorders, and more.

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  1. Thank you for this list! I almost made one myself not too long ago because I was looking for some medically diverse books, but this covers so much more than that. This teacher thanks you! :)

  2. Disappointed that OUT OF MY MIND isn’t on this list, but glad to see these other books highlighted.