When I posted my massive list of books to strengthen compassion and empathy in children, I also mentioned that one of the best ways to do so is to make sure your library features a diverse array of children and a wide range of experiences. As I’ve mentioned on here before, children’s books can be thought of as mirrors of children’s own experiences, as well as windows into the worlds of others. About 30 years ago, a leader in diversity and representation in children’s books, Rudine Sims Bishop, said:
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” (Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990, quoted from the National Council of Teachers of English)
So, today, I have a list of terrific resources to serve as both windows and mirrors by highlighting neurodiversity, including characters with ADHD and dyslexia, characters who are on the autism spectrum, and more. These books will hopefully not only help children build a greater understanding of, and therefore empathy and compassion for, these diverse children around them, but also hopefully provide children with these diagnoses and differences with a greater sense of self and self-affirmation.
I’m also excited that this list will be a continually growing list, as many of these books have been published since I left the classroom in 2014, and a few were even published in the last year or two. I can’t wait to see what books come our way in the near future featuring these wonderfully diverse characters!
Picture Books Featuring
Autistic and Neurodiverse Characters
All links for purchase are Amazon Affiliate links, and most age ranges listed are publishers’ recommendations. Always remember that you know your child best! Thank you for considering making a purchase through my links!
A Friend For Henry by Jenn Bailey, illustrated by Mika Song — School can be a lot for some children, especially those on the autism spectrum. Rules can be hard to understand, other children can be unpredictable, and there are lots of noises and sights to take in. Inspired by watching her son on the autism spectrum navigate starting school and making friends, Bailey wrote this to help all children, on the autism spectrum or not, know that with patience, time, and courage, finding a friend is always worth the hard work. Ages 3-5.
My Brother Otto by Meg Raby, illustrated by Elisa Pallmer — Otto is a young crow on the autism spectrum, but he’s a young crow on the autism spectrum with incredibly caring and understanding parents and big sister. In fact, My Brother Otto is told from the perspective of Otto’s big sister. She walks us through what it is like to have a sibling on the autism spectrum, from things that are terrific (such as the fact that Otto would never be mean on purpose), things that can be frustrating (Otto has a hard time taking turns or stopping on the swing), things that can be scary (Otto’s tantrums and reactions when unexpected things happen to him), and similarities and differences she and Otto have. Because of this, My Brother Otto gives readers incredible insight into not only children on the autism spectrum, but also what it might be like to grow up with a sibling on the autism spectrum. Raby closes My Brother Otto writing, “Sometimes Otto may act differently from other kids, but he really is just a little crow who likes to play, learn, have friends, and be loved– just like me!” And by the way, do you follow my friend Meg Raby on Instagram? Be sure to check her out here and here, as she has amazing children’s book recommendations AND autism awareness information! Ages 3-5.
Noah Chases the Wind by Michelle Worthington, illustrated by Joseph Cowman — Worthington wrote Noah Chases the Wind specifically for children on the autism spectrum or with sensory processing challenges, in the hopes that this book can be a mirror for them and allow them to feel good about being themselves and being different. Noah is a boy with a very curious, scientific mind, driven to find our “how things worked, where they came from, and where they went.” And, he can usually find the answers to his questions in books. Usually, that is, until he wants to know where the wind goes after it blows by. When books can’t help him, his mom challenges him to find out for himself, so he sets off to chase the wind. Caregivers and teachers might want to read the quick “A Note from the Author” at the back of the book. Ages 3-6, but I’d stick with the older end of that age range, as it gets somewhat abstract.
Nope. Never. Not for Me! and This Beach is Loud! by Samantha Cotterill — My favorite thing about this series is that, yes, these two books feature children with sensory processing difficulties, but these situations are incredibly universal and relatable for most children. Nope. Never. Not for Me! introduces us to a dinosaur-loving protagonist who has a tough time with new foods… Tough, that is, until her mom encourages her to be a “Try-ceratops” and try tiny bits of new food, reminding her that the goal is just simply to try them, not to like them. This Beach is Loud! is a terrific title for any children who ever feel overwhelmed by experiences they had initially been incredibly excited for. The boy can’t wait to go to the beach, but when he gets there, he realizes it’s busy, and loud, and sandy, and hot… The father is able to help him and his overwhelmed senses with a neat strategy tbat might help other children in moments of overwhelm, sensory issues or not. The newest book in the series, Can I Play Too?, releases on March 31, 2020, so I can’t wait to get my hands on it, too! Ages 3-7.
Crow Boy by Taro Yashima — (This one was first published in 1955, so far ahead of the curve!) One of the biggest challenges for many children, especially those with an autism or other neurodiverse diagnosis, is the feeling that they don’t fit in, that no one understands them. Chibi is one of those students. He makes it through school by crossing his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see what he doesn’t want to see (classmates making faces at him and making fun of him). He somehow trudges through the school years for five whole years, until sixth grade, when he has a new teacher, Mr. Isobe. Mr. Isobe sees Chibi. He sees his interests, his passions, and his talents, aspects of Chibi that no one bothered to see before. Sometimes, all it takes is a Mr. Isobe, someone who takes the time and gives the attention to unlock something extremely special. Ages 3-8.
A Friend Like Simon by Kate Gaynot, illustrated by Caitríona Sweeney — Many of our children’s first encounter with neurodiverse friends might be as those children with neurodiverse diagnoses are mainstreamed into classrooms, as is the case in A Friend Like Simon. Matthew initially tries to befriend Simon on Simon’s first day in their class, but over time, he starts to realize that Simon has some pretty different behaviors, such as always arranging his supplies in the exact same way or getting upset when the school bells ring. He “wasn’t sure if [he] wanted to have a friend like Simon.” When the teacher pairs Matthew and Simon together on a field trip to the fair, however, Matthew starts to realize just how much the two boys have in common — and how much Simon has in common with most of the children at the school! Be sure to check out the “Notes for Grownups” and “How to Use this Book” sections at the back of the story. Ages 4-8.
How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Giselle Potter — Do you know much about Temple Grandin? I have to admit that I didn’t until very recently, when two excellent picture book biographies were published about her. Born at a time when little was known about autism, Grandin was extremely sensitive to touch, but wanted nothing more than the comfort and connection attained through a hug. One summer, when working with animals on a ranch, Grandin found unusual inspiration to solve her hugging problem… And this solution allowed her to eventually receive hugs from other people, too! The Author’s Note gives excellent information about Grandin’s adult life and accomplishments. Ages 4-8 (for another Temple Grandin biography for slightly older audiences, scroll down to The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Temple Grandin towards the bottom of this list.)
I’m Here by Peter Reynolds — Oh, I just love Peter Reynolds and the insight he gives us into the social-emotional world of children! According to the author tidbit on the back cover, Reynolds wrote this book “to help us all reach out, embrace, and appreciate children in the autism spectrum, as well as anyone who is different from ourselves.” When the story opens, we see a child apart from the crowd– the narrator of the story. Though he is different from the others and is often overwhelmed by what they enjoy, he desperately wants them to know that he is there. That he is always there. This story ends with the narrator making an unexpected friend and would be an excellent companion read to A Friend For Henry. Ages 4-8.
Oliver by Birgitta Sif — Told from the perspective of Oliver, a boy who “felt a bit different,” Oliver is a gently narrated story of how Oliver found his way, despite feeling a bit different from everyone else. For most of the book, Oliver spends his time alone. Well, not exactly alone, as he does surround himself by many friends –his stuffed animals. This works well for Oliver, until one day when he realizes that he wants something back in that friendship, something that stuffed animals can’t give him. Never fear, he finds what he’s looking for in an unexpected place. Take your time with these gentle illustrations, which add a lot to the story from others’ perspectives. Ages 4-8.
The Masterpiece by Jay Miletsky, illustrated by Luis Peres — One book in the “One Big Canvas” series by the REED Foundation for Autism, this title showcases not only characters with autism, but also working cooperatively towards a larger goal, artistic creativity, and embracing differences. This is the story of a group of paintbrushes who decide to create a “grand masterpiece” together. We see one paintbrush who sits by herself, rocking and humming; another who paints circle after circle, all by himself; and another who screams and spins suddenly, splattering paint everywhere. But despite this, the rest of the paintbrushes “didn’t make fun or send him off crying.” Instead, they gently invite these paintbrushes to join them, and find ways to incorporate their different contributions to the form of the overall painting. The teaching here is direct but powerful, helping children gain an understanding for some behaviors they may see in children with an autism spectrum diagnosis, while also reflecting those readers who need to see themselves represented more. Ages 4-8.
My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook, illustrated by Carrie Hartman — A perfect mirror for children who might struggle with impulse control and a terrific window for their peers, My Mouth is a Volcano introduces us to Louis, who finds that frequently, words erupt and explode out of his mouth. I love that Cook also touches on buildingempathy, as Louis’s mom helps him connect how frustrated he feels when people interrupt him to how they must feel when he does the same. Cook also gives young readers a strategy to control their “volcanoes” when they feel their important words and thoughts bubbling up to erupt. Ages 4 and up.
Thank You, Mr. Falker and The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco — Thank You, Mr. Falker is one of my all-time favorite picture books. Autobiographical, it is the story of Patricia Polacco’s journey through dyslexia to becoming a reader and, eventually, a renown author. You can read more of my thoughts on Thank You, Mr. Falker here. The Junkyard Wonders is somewhat of a sequel, telling the story of Polacco’s school year immediately after she learned to read. Tricia had asked to live with her father that year, to escape from the teasing and bullying from classmates in her old school. Arriving full of excitement for a fresh start on the first day of school, Tricia quickly discovers that she’s in Mrs. Peterson’s class, also known as “the Junkyard.” Her classmates are a wildly diverse crew, with diagnoses ranging from dyslexia and diabetes to Tourette’s, vision impairment, and even a disease where one’s body grows way too fast. As with Thank You, Mr. Falker, The Junkyard Wonders will touch your heart, especially when you read the note from Polacco at the back and realize just how true the story is. Warning– one of Tricia’s classmates in the Junkyard dies during the school year. Ages 5-8 and ages 6-9 respectively, but great for older children, too.
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla, illustrated by Ken Min — Narrated by the older brother of a preschool boy presenting as autistic, Benji, the Bad Day, and Me is a story of a bad day (well, two bad days), coping strategies, and brotherly love. But, note that autism is only mentioned in the Author’s Note, which makes this book perfect for any older siblings who sometimes feel that their needs are pushed to the back of a shelf so that their younger siblings can be cared for. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the back, as it gives interesting information about the inspiration for this book, as well as helpful tidbits for children trying to understand their friends with autism. Ages 5-10 (if you’re looking for a similar book for younger readers, try My Brother Otto, towards the top of this list).
Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap: NT is OK! by Clay Morton and Gail Morton, illustrated by Alex Merry — What makes Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap special is that Morton and Morton are giving us the story of a friendship between an autistic child and a neurotypical child, but this time we see this friendship from the perspective of the child on the autism spectrum. Therefore, Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap is an excellent The “Note for Parents” gives parents excellent talking points about how to help their autistic children navigate friendships with neurotypical peers. Ages 6-8.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca, illustrated by Daniel Rieley — Yes, a second Temple Grandin biography, this one perfect for your slightly older audience. And you’re going to love this one from the very first page, when Mosca opens with, “If you’ve ever felt different, / if you’ve ever been low,, / if you don’t quite fit in, / there’s a name you should know.” Mosca also directly states that children on the autism spectrum are “different, not less.” The Girl Who Thought in Pictures is a terrific text for introducing children to both autism spectrum disorders as well as Temple Grandin; Mosca’s also given children who can identify and connect with Grandin’s life an excellent mirror! Take your time with the extras that Mosca includes at the end, such as a note from Grandin herself, quotes from her interviews with Grandin, a timeline of Grandin’s life, and much much more. Ages 6-9.
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Elizabeth Peete with Denene Millner, illustrated by Shane W. Evans — Written by a mother-daughter duo and based on their personal experience of having an autistic family member, My Brother Charlie is the story of a young girl, Callie, whose twin brother Charlie has autism. Callie does a terrific job of explaining how Charlie is different because of his autism, but also how much they have in common. I especially love the strong line, “Charlie has autism. But autism doesn’t have Charlie.” With lines like that, My Brother Charlie gives us a terrific insight into the world of autism, but more importantly, is a powerful mirror for children with a similar diagnosis. Caregivers and teachers, be sure to check out the page “Why We Wrote This Book — And How It Can Help You” at the back. Ages 6-10, but also appropriate for younger audiences.
Looking at the list above, most of the neurodiverse characters are boys… If you’ve got titles you love featuring either neurodiverse main characters OR neurodiverse female characters, please share the titles in the comments so we can all check those out, too!