Thankfully, it seems like more and more #OwnVoices middle grade novels with disabled main characters are being published, and this is a trend that I am definitely here for. While there’s still a dearth of good books available with disabled main characters, it’s getting better. My disability, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), began in 4th grade and steadily worsened into my teen years. While there are no middle grade novels featuring a protagonist with POTS (I’m only aware of one book that has a main character with POTS, the YA novel One for All by Lillie Lainoff, which will be out in 2022), I know it would’ve been groundbreaking to see a character like me on the page, especially during the middle school years, when pretty much everything is horrible. And it’s just as crucial for non-disabled kids to read disabled perspectives. Ableism, the intentional and unintentional discrimination of disabled people, exists in many forms, and reading from disabled perspectives can help kids identify ableism, especially if conversations about ableism follow. But these books aren’t just about being disabled, they’re also super fun and amazing reads. These nine novels show the depth and breadth of disabled pre-teen experiences, from fighting dragons to conquering stage fright to dreaming of space exploration. And adults will enjoy them just as much as kids!
9 Middle Grade Novels with Disabled Main Characters
Breathing Underwater by Sarah Allen
Sisters Olivia and Ruth are going on a cross-country road trip from Tennessee to California where, years earlier, the sisters buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia plans a treasure hunt across the country to help her remember happy memories. This is a poignant and beautiful novel about depression, sisterhood, and love. Also check out Sarah Allen’s previous #OwnVoices middle grade, What Stars Are Made Of, which features a protagonist with Turner Syndrome.
Meow or Never by Jazz Taylor
In this charming #OwnVoices middle grade, new student Avery Williams learns to navigate her anxiety when she lands the leading role in a school play. Backstage, Avery finds a cat she names Phantom, and whenever her anxiety gets to be too much, Phantom is there. And she has a lot to be anxious about. A new school, a new crush, telling her father she’s a lesbian, and of course the school play. It’s hard to find middle grade novels where the main character has multiple identities like in this one (Avery is a Black girl, a lesbian, and has severe anxiety). It’s a super fun read!
The Chance to Fly by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz
Fourteen-year-old Nat Beacon wants to join the theatre more than anything, but her overprotective parents won’t let her. When she sees a flyer advertising auditions for a youth production of Wicked, she has to try out whatever her parents may say. She’s a little worried about what the director and cast might think about her wheelchair, but she knows that she belongs on the stage. Co-written by Broadway star and wheelchair user Ali Stroker, this #OwnVoices novel is a blast to read.
The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family by Sarah Kapit
Autistic sisters Lara and Caroline have started their own detective agency, FIASCCO (Finkel Investigation Agency Solving Consequential Crimes Only). The sisters are very different, not just in how their autism presents (Caroline is mostly nonverbal and uses a tablet to communicate) but in the way they make friends and their personalities. When Caroline makes a new friend that Lara finds suspicious, she turns her investigative skills toward her sister, but maybe her sister doesn’t need any help. This family-centered #OwnVoices novel is a heartwarming and fun read. Be sure to check out Kapit’s first novel, Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen!, which also has an autistic main character.
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
In this #OwnVoices debut, 12-year-old Nova has nonverbal autism, and both she and her sister love astronomy and space. They’re super excited about the Challenger launch (eek!), but when Nova’s sister disappears, Nova is placed in foster care. No one in her new foster home understands her, and, at first, her teachers at school are also dismissive of her autism. But as the launch approaches, Nova begins making friends at school, and her teachers begin seeing how wonderful she is, though she still longs for her sister. This novel is poignant and lovely and heartbreaking.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
Sal Vidón, who has type 1 diabetes, just changed schools. While he’s stoked about being able to practice being a magician at this new artsy school, things still aren’t easy. For one thing, student class president Gabi Reál seems to be on to his ability to open doors into different universes. He also still misses his mother, who died several years earlier. Meanwhile, Gabi has her own struggles to deal with, like her little brother in the NICU and her drive for perfection. The two form a deep friendship that lasts across the multiverse.
Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell
This super sweet standalone fantasy has a princess with a clubfoot. Princess Matilda doesn’t much like being a princess, but she doesn’t have much of a choice about it. When her kingdom is stolen, she goes on an epic adventure to save it. With magical horses, dragon battles, and quests to complete, this is a fantasy must-read.
Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy
This #OwnVoices middle grade depicts 12-year-old Riley’s struggle with anorexia. Her parents place her in an inpatient treatment center, and while at first the therapy seems to be helping — she begins drawing again and makes friends in the center — her roommate’s rebellious behavior triggers Riley’s self-destructive tendencies. This honest, immersive, and lovely read is a must-read for middle schoolers struggling with diet culture and/or anorexia.
Stargazing by Jen Wang
This middle grade graphic novel is just so charming. Moon and Christine are both pre-teen Chinese Americans who go to the same school and live right beside each other, but the similarities end there. Moon is Buddhist, vegetarian, impulsive, and imaginative, while Christine is academic, reserved, and a perfectionist. While at first Christine avoids Moon, she and Moon soon become fast friends. Though Moon develops a brain tumor, the two find a way for her to participate in the school talent show.
Are you looking for more recommendations? Check out this other list featuring disabled main characters in kid lit (both middle grade and picture book), as well as this one of YA reads with disabled main characters.
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