The popularity of Review of 8 Kid’s Books with a Character in a Wheelchair Part I was so high, we decided to do a part II of eight more books. For this review, Luda examines picture books featuring a character in a wheelchair. Some of this feedback is based on her personal experience as someone in a wheelchair, and the rest is focused on the story, character, and messaging focus of these books.
Each purchase made with our affiliate Bookshop link (in the title of each book mentioned) goes towards supporting authors, illustrators, and staff with disabilities! Books that aren’t on Bookshop have been linked to Goodreads.
I was really excited to read this because I thought it would be empowering. Instead, I found a history lesson featuring Jennifer Keelan. The fact that she is being spotlighted is amazing, but my issue is with the story structure and overall execution of it. For starters, it is very long for a picture book (I’d guess maybe 1,500 words) and is written almost like a textbook for kids/crossing into chapter book writing. For example, on page 6, “Jennifer and her family hear about activists who are working to make sure people with disabilities have access to public places, like schools. They want to know more, so they attend a strategy meeting. Jennifer has never seen anything like it! The room is full of grown-ups with all sorts of disabilities. Some use wheelchairs. Some use canes. None of them are sitting around waiting for things to change. They’re shouting, laughing, and planning a big protest to get wheelchair lifts on buses.” There are great points, such as where the author uses “STOP” to show inaccessible moments and when the main character climbs the stairs at the end, but there’s nothing that connects all these different moments into a linear story. In fact, it feels as though an adult wrote a memoir about this person’s childhood instead of making it feel like the main character is sharing it through her eyes. The ending is also not satisfactory because the fight that has potential to be the most powerful aspect of this book falls flat.
This was written for kids without physical disabilities who have parents who want to talk about disability differences with them. This is not a bad thing: it’s great to have a book that gets the conversation started about someone in a wheelchair, but just like in A Very Special Critter, the parent gives the solution to the main non-physically disabled character, Charley, about how: “Different isn’t weird, sad, bad, or strange. Different is different. And different is OK!” And again, it would have been better if the main character came to that conclusion on his own. Every page seemed to focus on “being different/having differences” to the point where it became preachy and more educational than an actual story. For example, one of the lines is: “‘Some people can’t hear or speak and need to use their hands to communicate. Some people need special machines to help them walk or breathe. Some people can’t see because they’re blind and need special canes to get around.’” Additionally, placing the burden on the girl in the wheelchair to teach Charley about disabilities is problematic in the real world. The story did a great job of showing what a child might be thinking when looking at someone in a wheelchair and no hands, but I would have liked the focus more on them forming a friendship and “showing” about disability inclusion rather than educating about it
This story is the shortest and simplest book (about 100 words) on both review lists. It is told by a non-disabled boy who wonders if a new boy in a wheelchair can do the same things as him. And the answer is, of course, he could. The language, story, and curiosity of this book fit pretty well with a 5 or 6-year-old who may be wondering the same things. It’s basic and gets the conversation started for someone who’s never seen someone in a wheelchair before, but there’s nothing that makes this book memorable for me.
The idea and inspiration behind this book were touching. However, by sharing how the author/mother believed her son may have seen the world, the book took his power away to share his story through his own eyes. The son did pass away, but that does not mitigate the fact that this story promotes the idea that non-disabled parents have the right to portray disability without input from their disabled children.
Furthermore, the message of this series of this series of picture books is damaging to someone in a wheelchair. For one, Ben’s adventures showed his imagined play as talking and walking despite him claiming that “I can’t walk. I can’t talk. But that’s okay! I use my imagination every day.” This notion of imagining being “normal” feeds into the common misconception that people with disabilities would only enjoy life much more if they didn’t have their disabilities—the storyline reinforced the dangerous idea that disabled people need to be “cured” or “fixed.” Why couldn’t the main character have used his wheelchair, not talked, and still done amazing things with his imagination through play? The second book in the series was even more problematic because it showed him standing with his wheelchair nowhere in sight. Being able to walk and talk shouldn’t be the reason to imagine happy play for someone disabled—it should include that disability and focus on imagining flying in rocket ships (in the wheelchair) or flying in the ocean waves like a bird (in a beach wheelchair), for example.
Here’s another book written for kids not in wheelchairs in order to explain disabilities and inclusion to non-disabled kids. There’s nothing wrong with that concept, but a picture book featuring a main character in a wheelchair should be an actual story through the eyes of that main character and not used as education for non-disabled characters/readers. There’s a difference between authentic disability representation and disability education for non-disabled folks. The first half of the book focused on the main character’s abilities, while the second half focused on how she could still participate in a different way. The end was where the story should have actually started, as it included a real theme/message other than “Yes I can!.” This phrase can be seen as problematic to the disability community because it puts the pressure on people in wheelchairs to go above and beyond to be seen and yet, in the end, still not be good enough.
At first, I was worried this book would become educationally focused on disability when it included the line, “I could barely breathe when I was born.” But the way it used that description/introduction of the main character’s disability worked rather well. And I appreciated this line: “Mom says, ‘Imagine you are dancing.’ I don’t want to imagine, I want to dance.” This was a great view from the girl voicing what she wants, in contrast to Ben’s Adventures. Throughout the book, the story focused on her fear of having doubts about being a dancer, but at the end and through inclusion by others, she realized she could dance. This was also really fun to read, and I enjoyed the character’s personality and arc.
If you didn’t see the illustrations, you wouldn’t know the main character was in a wheelchair. It made me wonder if the author intended to have a disabled character or if the illustrator added that as an afterthought. Even though there was mention of other characters’ abilities, like, “On the count of three, my sister jumps,” as well as, “The bully pushes a young girl to the ground. Then he grabs her kite and runs into his house. The girl gets to her feet” this was still unclear. Throughout the book, movements of people and kites were described in detail but there was no mention of the main character sitting in his wheelchair or rolling to the edge of the roof. It was mostly him pulling and controlling the kites. It’s great when a story with a disabled main character focuses on a plot unrelated to their disability, but completely ignoring it doesn’t make the story feel complete nor authentic. The topic of the kite tradition (Basant) was interesting, but I would have liked more of a satisfactory ending.
I was curious how this book would play off the original Goldilocks and the Three Bears tale. It matched the expected story of a girl going into a bear’s house, breaking Baby Bear’s chair, eating his porridge, and sleeping in his bed. The twist, though, was that the book aimed to educate non-disabled kids about disability, about Baby Bear’s life as a bear in a wheelchair. It talked about a sliding board, a special bed, and going to physical therapy. This concept was pretty well laid out, but I would have liked to see the focus more on Goldilocks’ and Baby Bear’s friendship instead of him just explaining to her about his disability and equipment (although most kids would be curious about this). I also was hoping the Bear family would go on a walk to collect pine cones instead of going to physical therapy because this message of Baby Bear in the wheelchair highly focuses on him through a medical lens, which was borderline upsetting to me because I try to get away from people seeing me through that lens. However, the language didn’t devalue Baby Bear, and I think this would be a fun read for non-disabled children curious about someone in a wheelchair.
Hope you enjoyed all the reviews! Do you have picture books featuring a character in a wheelchair that you like or don’t like? Let us know in the comments below or on social media. #includas #IncludasReviews