This article originally ran in the NY Jewish Week’s New Normal Blog.
If you are anything like me, you eagerly await the summer months to finally make a sizable dent in that pile of books adorning your nightstand. My summer reading list typically includes a mix of young adult novels, professional books and a healthy handful of books for fun.
I really love to read, but as an educator and a parent, reading more than one or two books a month throughout the school year can become an insurmountable task. Since I typically begin to put books aside for summer throughout the late winter and spring, I find myself drawn to articles splayed across the internet that proclaim, “Best Summer Reading Books for Your Middle Schooler” or “Ten Must Read Books in 2015” or even “Perfect Summer Reading Lists for All Ages.” And while I do typically find some wonderful gems this way, I have also realized that something is missing. The lists I love lack an important category: “Terrific Books to Teach Kids and Teens about Disabilities.”
As a Jewish educator who cares deeply about disability inclusion, I am continuously drawn to well-written books that frame disability in a positive, readable and easy-to-understand way.
Here are some of my favorites:
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper: This should, in my opinion, go to the top of every reading list. I have read it more than once and I recommend it often to teachers, parents and teens. I’ve even led a faculty book discussion around this gem: “Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom — the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged, because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it … somehow.” Out of My Mind is a powerful story that will tug at your emotions and help you to rethink the way in which you interact with individuals who lack the ability to speak in traditional ways.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Named around one of my favorite quotes, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid,” this book sheds light on dyslexia, a reading disability that is too frequently overlooked and misdiagnosed. “Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone — than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.” Every child needs a “Mr. Daniels” and this book is a great way to inspire teaching and relationships that celebrate diversity.
Rain, Reign by Ann Martin: Poignantly written from the point of view of a young girl with autism, this book explores issues of disability, poverty, love of a pet and family relationships. “Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms. She’s thrilled that her own name is a homonym, and she purposely gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose’s rules of homonyms, is very special. Not everyone understands Rose’s obsessions, her rules, and the other things that make her different – not her teachers, not other kids, and not her single father. When a storm hits their rural town, rivers overflow, the roads are flooded, and Rain goes missing. Rose’s father shouldn’t have let Rain out. Now Rose has to find her dog, even if it means leaving her routines and safe places to search.”
All three of these novels are perfect for parents and children to read together. It is also interesting to note that all three protagonists are female, despite the fact that their disabilities are all more commonly diagnosed and/or associated with males.
Also on my summer reading list:
Learning Outside the Lines by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole: “Every day, your school, your teachers, and even your peers draw lines to measure and standardize intelligence. They decide what criteria make one person smart and another person stupid. They decide who will succeed and who will just get by. Perhaps you find yourself outside the norm, because you learn differently — but, unlike your classmates, you have no system in place that consistently supports your ability and desire to learn. Simply put, you are considered lazy and stupid. You are expected to fail. Learning Outside the Lines is written by two such “academic failures” — that is, two academic failures who graduated from Brown University at the top of their class. Jonathan Mooney and David Cole, who each struggled with learning disabilities and ADHD, teach you how to take control of your education and find true success — and they offer all the reasons why you should persevere. Witty, bold, and disarmingly honest, Learning Outside the Lines takes you on a journey toward personal empowerment and profound educational change, proving once again that rules sometimes need to be broken.”
What are you reading?
Lisa Friedman is Matan’s Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks. She is also an Education Director at a Reform congregation in Central New Jersey where she oversees the synagogue’s and religious school’s inclusive practice.