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22 Novels Featuring Characters With Disabilities And Chronic Illnesses To Read

From compulsive thrillers to heartwarming romances, read these books in support of Disability Pride Month.

Posted on July 21, 2021, at 10:59 a.m. ET

Contemporary

A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan

This nuanced and uplifting novel takes place over the course of a single evening and gives an intimate look inside the mind of the autistic main character. Set in Melbourne, Australia, the novel opens with the unnamed narrator preparing for a Christmas party. At the party, awkward interactions with others make her feel more lonely than ever and spark past memories. However, as the party progresses, she finally finds someone she can talk to. Author Madeleine Ryan is also autistic.

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Mina has lived with depression for years, but her feelings are perplexing and frightening for her new husband Oscar. When Mina considers suicide only six months after her marriage to Oscar, they decide to move to London for a change of scene. There, Mina develops an unexpected relationship with another woman. This complex and meditative novel explores the challenges of building a romantic relationship with depression.

One Two Three by Laurie Frankel

In the small town of Bourne, a chemical company — now closed — has poisoned the water supply, leading many children to be born with disabilities. Two out of three of the Mitchell triplets have disabilities: Mab is the eldest and able-bodied; Monday has autism; and Mirabel is a wheelchair user and speaks with the assistance of an augmentative and alternative communication device. When it looks like the chemical company’s son plans to reopen the factories, the sisters revolt. This charming novel depicts a small town where accessibility is paramount, and three sisters mean to keep it that way.

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith

Based on the author’s experiences with multiple sclerosis, So Lucky follows successful Mara Tagarelli in the wake of two disasters: Her wife leaves her, and she receives a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. As she’s the head of a multimillion-dollar AIDS foundation and a martial artist, her diagnosis sends her reeling. Everything she uses to define herself is now in shambles. Astonished by the ableism in the medical community and beyond, Mara decides to establish a new nonprofit to help disabled people in their independence. When it seems like someone is targeting people with multiple sclerosis in violent attacks, Mara worries that she might be next. This novel is a powerful and personal glimpse into ableism and the ways disabled folk struggle for independence in a society that wishes to erase them.

Historical Fiction

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Set in 1940s New York City, private investigator Lillian Pentecost decides to hire a partner after her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Days earlier, runaway circus member Willowjean "Will" Parker saved Lillian’s life with her exceptional knife-throwing skills, so Lillian decides Will is the right person for the job. Much like Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock novels, Will narrates her adventures with the famous PI Lillian Pentecost. In this book, the first of a series, the two solved the murder of a woman discovered in a locked room after a Halloween party.

The Frangipani Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu

Set in 1936 Singapore, aspiring journalist SuLin — who walks with a limp after having polio as a child — becomes a nanny to the British acting governor’s 17-year-old intellectually disabled teen when someone murders the previous nanny. In this new position, SuLin must learn to navigate tense racial politics and new etiquette rules. She enjoys working with Dee Dee, the acting governer’s child, but when another murder happens in the house, she joins forces with Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy to help solve the murders. Yu deftly tackles fraught topics (like racism) with humorous moments and compassionate characters.

Mystery

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Toby has had a lucky life with very little hardship until two burglars beat him nearly to death. To recover from his brain injuries, he visits his uncle, who is also recovering from a stroke. When Toby discovers a skeleton buried in the elm tree he used to play beneath as a child, his ideal childhood begins to fracture. Detectives descend upon the house, and Toby decides to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the skeleton. This character-driven, slow-burn mystery is full of twists and turns.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

Retired orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jennifer White has dementia, and when her best friend Amanda is killed and four of her fingers surgically removed, police consider Jennifer the prime suspect. In fractured prose, Jennifer tries to remember whether or not she murdered her friend while also wrestling with mourning for Amanda and piecing together their tumultuous past. Meanwhile, the relationship between her caretaker and two adult children begins to splinter. This darkly vivid novel is as much about relationships as it is about solving a crime.

The Eighth Girl by Maxine Mei-Fung Chung

Alexa Wú has only told three people about having dissociative identity disorder: her therapist Daniel, her stepmother Anna, and her best friend Ella. Desperate for money, Ella takes a job at a seedy strip club and discovers her boss is part of an extensive sex trafficking ring. Alexa and Ella decide to take him down themselves and infiltrate the dark, London criminal scene. As the situation becomes more stressful, Alexa’s various personalities begin to take over. This intense novel delves into life with a mental illness and the misogynist traumas many women and girls have to face.

Fantasy

Borderline by Mishell Baker

After attempting suicide, Millie’s legs have been amputated, and she is in a psychiatric hospital for her borderline personality disorder. Feeling hopeless and adrift, when a mysterious woman shows up in her hospital room wanting to hire her for the Arcadia Project, Millie agrees despite knowing nothing about the group. Suddenly, she finds herself part of a group of disabled people in charge of navigating and keeping secret the relationship between Hollywood stardom and the fey. Helping to investigate the disappearance of one such fey, Millie discovers a much bigger plot. This super fun and engaging urban fantasy is the first book in the Arcadia Project series. Author Mishell Baker also has borderline personality disorder.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

This riveting and gorgeously written novel follows Vern, a 15-year-old queer, Black albino girl who’s escaped into the woods from an abusive husband and the leader of a Black pride cult called Cainland. Pregnant with twins, Vern gives birth and raises her sons in the forest by herself until they’re 4 years old. Members of Cainland received experimental drugs in their food or water, which caused nightly hallucinations. Away from Cainland, Vern’s hallucinations turn into vivid hauntings, and slowly her body begins to transform into something else, something not quite human. This novel vividly portrays how Black bodies have been used for unethical experiments while celebrating queer love, motherhood, and vengeance.

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst

When humans who’ve committed despicable acts die, they return in the form of monstrous kehoks. Tamra was once a champion kehok racer, but she’s no longer able to race after a riding injury. Instead, she trains new kehok racers. Desperate for money to help her daughter, she purchases a human-killing kehok and agrees to train the inexperienced runaway Raina in kehok racing. As the two train together, Tamra begins to view Raina as her second daughter. Now she has not one but two daughters to protect, and this year’s races have even higher stakes. Winning will have empire-wide consequences. This enthralling fantasy depicts a mother who will do whatever it takes to give her daughters the lives they deserve.

The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

As a child, Touraine was one of many taken by the empire to be trained as an indentured soldier. Now an adult, she wants to rise in the empire’s ranks. She has the perfect opportunity to get noticed when the empire returns to her home country, Qazāl, and there’s an assassination attempt on the queen. She spots the attempt before the other soldiers and successfully saves the queen’s life. Meanwhile, the princess Luca — who walks with the assistance of a cane after her legs were injured in an accident — wants to overthrow her uncle and intends to make peace with the Qazāli rebels. This complex and emotional North African–inspired epic fantasy is rich in detailed world-building and character development.

Horror

The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Imp is schizophrenic and is never exactly sure of what is and isn’t real. Told two years in the future, Imp tries to grapple with Eva Canning’s disappearance, a woman she became obsessed with after noting her eerie similarities to the woman in the 1898 painting “The Drowning Girl.” Puzzling over the mystery of Eva, Imp’s re-created memories contain fragments of fairy tales and myth. This dark and uncanny novel is a fascinating read.

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

In 2015, the entertainment company Imagine — known for its horror films — sent a research vessel on a scientific expedition to the Mariana Trench to investigate mermaids. The ship disappeared and left behind gruesome footage that depicts mermaids that aren’t quite how Disney imagined them. Seven years later, Imagine sends out another ship called The Melusine to uncover what happened that day. In addition to lots of LGBTQ+ representation, the crew of The Melusine have many disabilities: One member is autistic, two twins are deaf, and another has nerve damage. This thrilling and inclusive horror is a nail-biting and imaginative read. The author Seanan McGuire (who writes under Mira Grant for horror) is disabled.

Science Fiction

We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

A new technology threatens to tear a family apart in this prescient, character-driven sci-fi. Pilot is a brain implant that increases focus and cognitive abilities. Val, a teacher, first notices the Pilot’s effect in her upper-class students. Soon, her son is asking for a Pilot, as is her wife, Julie. But Val doesn’t like the idea of a brain implant, and Val and Julie’s daughter, Sophia, can’t have the implant due to her epilepsy. Pinsker explores each family member’s perspective as this new technology changes their lives. It’s a fascinating novel that explores how technologies can transform family dynamics.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

In this literary science fiction novel, the protagonist — who shares the author's name — repairs time machines while searching for his father, who invented the time machine and then disappeared. His companions are a depressed operating system and a fictional dog. As he repairs people’s time machines, he also listens to their problems, and what unravels is a fascinating and lovely meditation on time, relationships, and mental health.

The Outside by Ada Hoffmann

In this dark sci-fi horror, artificial intelligence gods feed off human souls. Because they need humans to survive, these AI gods are invested in human survival. Autistic physicist Yasira Shien is working on a reactor that will radically change how people live when it unexpectedly fails and causes a major disaster with deadly consequences. The AI gods send cybernetic angels to investigate and they make a deal with her: to avoid execution, Yasira must find her former mentor, who’s somehow disappeared. Like the main character, author Ada Hoffmann has Asperger syndrome.

Romance

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Computer nerd Chloe Brown has fibromyalgia and has pretty much given up on love. After a car almost runs into her, she decides she needs to give herself an ultimatum. She creates a list of seven things to do to “Get a Life.” Her first step is to move out of her family’s mansion and into an apartment, and there she meets her new superintendent, the attractive and recently heartbroken Redford “Red” Morgan, who attempts to support his art by fixing toilets and handling cranky residents. This is a charming and hilarious fat-positive romance with excellent chronic illness representation. The author also has fibromyalgia.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Vietnamese American Khai Diep has autism. After an accident that led to his cousin being killed, he’s come to think of himself as defective for his lack of external grief, despite his family’s support. He decides he will never be in a romantic relationship, but his meddling mother has other ideas. Esme Tran lives in Ho Chi Minh City and works as a janitor, desperately trying to keep her family housed and fed, including her young daughter. When Khai’s mother offers her a chance to go to America to try to seduce her son, she hesitantly agrees, seeing a way to possibly secure a future for herself and especially for her daughter. The novel combines endearing characters with a plot that’s both nuanced and heartwarming. Like Khai, the author is autistic.

My Heart to Find by Elin Annalise

It’s hard to find romance when you’re asexual. Three years earlier, Cara met dog walker Damien Noelle on a retreat and they really hit it off, but she never got his contact information, and she still regrets it. Since then, Cara was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which has caused brain inflammation and obsessive-compulsive disorder. When her path crosses with Damien’s again, she’s determined not to let him slip by, but now he seems more interested in her best friend Jana than Cara. This sweet yet compelling read combines multiple identities that are often hard to find in romance. Author Elin Annalise is also asexual and has chronic Lyme disease and encephalitis-induced OCD.

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai

Former model Katrina King escaped her abusive father by marrying a much older man, who has died and left Katrina a wealthy widow at the beginning of the novel. Katrina has extreme anxiety and a panic disorder and prefers to be as reclusive as possible. But when a live tweet about her goes viral, she’s put in both emotional and physical danger. She flees with her handsome bodyguard Jasvinder (Jas) Singh to his family’s remote peach farm. Jas, a former Iraqi war veteran, has PTSD and has been steadfast in his role protecting Katrina for the past nine years, though he refuses to carry a gun. This sizzling, slow-burn romance does not disappoint. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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