By Jared S. Crossley
Although the fight for increased diversity in children’s literature has been going on for decades, there has been a recent surge in attention to this need since 2014 and the creation of the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign. The website for WNDB states that they advocate for “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people” (We Need Diverse Books, n.d.), and their definition of diversity extends beyond diversity in sexual orientation, gender, and race, but also includes disability.
According to the U.S. Department of Education (2019) there were 7 Million students in 2017-2018 who received special education services, accounting for 14 percent of all public school students. The amount of time these students spend inside a general education classroom has been gradually increasing over the last twenty years. This contributes to the growing need for educators to use texts with positive and accurate disability portrayals as part of their reading instruction in the general education classroom (Collins, Wagner & Meadows, 2018). Children with disabilities need to be able to see themselves in the books they read, and their classmates can also benefit, gaining empathy and understanding, by reading about children with similar disabilities.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop (1990) wrote about how books can serve as windows, “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange” (p. 1). They can also serve as mirrors, which reflect our own experiences, and “in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience” (p. 1). It is very important that all children see themselves reflected in the books they read. However, many children who have disabilities or are racial minorities often don’t see themselves in the books that are available to them. Bishop stated:
"When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors"
-Rudine Sims Bishop
Educators should make it a priority to provide all of the children in their classrooms books that serve as mirrors, as well as books that are windows into cultures that are not familiar to their students’ lived experiences.
For the past four years, I have been privileged to serve on USBBY’s Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities committee. During that time I have gained new perspectives and learned more information about various disabilities and differences. One type of book that often gets grouped into the disability category is books that contain a portrayal of deafness. It has been debated if deafness should be considered a disability (Harvey, 2008; Lane, 2002) with varying opinions for and against the consideration of deafness as a disability. However, regardless of whether or not it is a disability, we need positive portrayals of deafness in children’s literature that can serve as mirrors for children who are deaf, and windows for children who are hearing. Over the past few years there have been a number of excellent middle-grade books that center a child who is deaf. In this post, I want to highlight three titles that I thought were exceptional portrayals.
Show Me a Sign
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte (2020) tells the story of Mary, a young girl growing up deaf in the early 1800’s on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. As part of a Deaf colony on the island, Mary has always felt safe and protected. However, all of this is threatened by the appearance of a young scientist who is bound and determined to find the cause of the island’s deafness so he can cure this “infirmity”. Soon Mary finds herself in harm's way as this scientist takes her as a “live specimen” in order to more closely study her deafness. The sequel, Set Me Free, is set to be released September 21, 2021.
Bishop, R.S. (1990). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6, ix-xi.
Collins, K. M., Wagner, M. O., & Meadows, J. (2018). Every story matters: Disability studies in the literacy classroom. Language Arts, 96(2), 13.
Harvey, E. R. (2008). Deafness: A disability or a difference. Health L. & Pol'y, 2, 42.
Lane, H. (2002). Do deaf people have a disability?. Sign language studies, 2(4), 356-379.
U.S. Department of Education. (2019). Children and youth with disabilities. Retrieved from
We Need Diverse Books. (n.d.). About Us. WNDB.
Frost, H. (2020). All He Knew. New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Kelly, L. (2019). Song for a Whale. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
LeZotte, A.C. (2020). Show Me a Sign. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.
Jared S. Crossley is a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University studying Literature for Children and Young Adults. He is a former 4th- and 5th-grade teacher, and currently teaches children's literature courses at Ohio State. He is the 2020-2021 chair of the Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities committee (USBBY).