19 Great Books That Capture What It’s Like To Live With A Disability

Just in time for Disability Awareness Month!

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The Third Person by Emma Grove

This phenomenal graphic memoir chronicles the author’s experiences going to therapy so she can be approved for transgender hormonal treatment, as well as her attempts to deal with repressed childhood traumas. While in therapy, she discovers she has dissociative identity disorder, or DID. The overwhelmed therapist, who is not trained for DID, fumbles quite a bit while trying to navigate between Emma’s three distinct alters, causing her more trauma. However, she eventually finds a better-trained therapist. It’s a fascinating, moving memoir that occurs almost entirely within a therapist’s office. Don’t be intimidated by its length — I was able to read it in three sittings.

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Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

I first became familiar with David Small’s illustrations through his award-winning picture books, like So You Want to Be President? and Imogene’s Antlers. This stunning graphic memoir about his traumatic childhood and teen years also deservedly won many awards. At its center is a moment in Small’s early teen years when he went to the hospital for what his parents told him would be a fairly routine surgery. Instead, they lied to him, and he had a large, cancerous growth removed from his throat. He woke up unable to speak, and it took him years to discover the truth about what had happened to him. Small’s childhood is depicted in almost nightmarish scenes as his parents, thinking they’re doing the best for him, instead layer traumas and lies one atop the other. So much remains hidden as Small chips away at the happy family facade. It’s a fantastically drawn memoir, with so much personality portrayed in every character’s facial expressions. 

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Everything Is OK by Debbie Tung

In this immensely accessible graphic memoir, Tung describes her experiences with anxiety and depression and with seeking therapy. While she remembers her anxiety as a constant companion from an early age, it suddenly worsened one day, and she began waking up in the morning with little to no energy. She no longer enjoyed the things that used to make her happy. She had recently started freelancing, and the constant anxiety and depression made balancing work with rest and downtime difficult. What I especially like about this one is how Tung shows that you can have anxiety and depression even when there’s not a big traumatic moment that caused them. While sometimes mental health is directly related to trauma, it’s not always, and even with supportive family and friends, anxiety and depression can still be present. 

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The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp, illustrated by Manuel Preitano

This clever YA mystery starring Barbara Gordon (Babs) and set in Gotham is delightful. Babs — aka Batgirl — is helping capture a criminal when she’s shot. The shooting leaves her paralyzed, and her father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, admits her to the Arkham Center for Independence for rehabilitation. At the center, Babs struggles with her new reality and worries she’ll never be able to resume her superhero activities. However, when one of the patients at the facility disappears, she begins sleuthing and realizes something is up at the center. Getting to the bottom of the mystery might help her understand she has plenty to offer to Gotham and its citizens. 

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Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong

This quick and intense graphic memoir chronicles the author’s experience with postpartum depression after her daughter’s birth. Set up as a letter to her daughter, Wong depicts the emotional nuances of that first year with a newborn — love, tenderness, humor, self-blame, and all-consuming depression. While more depictions of PPD are being published, they’re still rare, and this is a lovely, poignant example. Wong also connects her experiences to her Chinese heritage. It’s a tearjerker but a must-read for potential parents.

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The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita, translated by Ryan Holmberg

Kuniko Tsurita is considered one of the first female manga artists in Japan. She published short alternative manga stories during the 1960s and ‘70s in the alt-manga magazine Garo. She was diagnosed with a severe, untreatable form of lupus in 1973 at the age of 25 and died from the illness when she was 37. The surreal pieces in this collection often grapple with death, illness, and suicide, even those published before her diagnosis. These short stories are strange and often unsettling, depicting a joyful motorcycle ride with an atomic bomb’s cloud in the background or a contortionist moving her body in increasingly bizarre ways. Her characters are often androgynous, and her stories often contain aspects of science fiction and dystopia. It’s a fascinating collection.

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Galaxy: The Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axelrod, illustrated by Jess Taylor

This is such an enjoyable, trans-inclusive YA graphic novel about an alien princess, Taylor, hiding from genocidal aliens on Earth. Her human disguise is a basketball-loving male teenager, and she is most definitely not male. The gem in her heart that disguises her true form causes constant pain, and she is so very tired of pretending to be someone she's not. The new girl from Metropolis, Kat — who has a prosthetic leg — is precisely the catalyst Taylor needs to push against her boundaries and become her true self. I loved the vibrant art and fantastic characters.

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Side Effects by Ted Anderson, illustrated by Tara O'Connor

After a depressive episode, first-year college student Hannah’s roommate encourages her to see the campus psychiatrist, who prescribes medication in addition to regular therapy sessions. Each medication Hannah tries causes bizarre paranormal side effects, but maybe her anxiety combined with the medications can become her superpower? Is there a way to use the side effects for good? Meanwhile, Hannah has a new girlfriend, but she’s worried about telling her about her mental health diagnoses. This slim graphic novel gives a fun, superhero take on mental health during college and the struggle to find the right antidepressants.

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Always Human by Ari North

In the near-future world of this charming, queer (F/F) sci-fi romance, people use body modifications, or mods, to alter their appearances, increase their memory capabilities, prevent cancer and other illnesses, and so much more. Sunati loves her mods and changes her appearance regularly. She falls in love with Austen, who has Egan’s syndrome, a rare, disabling autoimmune disorder that prevents her from getting mods. While Egan’s syndrome is a fictional disorder, the author handles Sunati’s ableism with such grace, nuance, and relevance that I felt I needed to include this graphic novel on this list. It’s a sweet, smartly written story. The second graphic novel in the series, Love and Gravity, releases in July.

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My Begging Chart by Keiler Roberts

In this episodic series of comics, Roberts depicts the ordinary moments from her life as she juggles being a mother, wife, and artist with multiple sclerosis and bipolar disorder. Her deadpan style of humor pairs well with the slice-of-life comics, where she and her daughter have those funny, off-kilter interactions anyone with children will find relatable. While her MS and bipolar disorder are always present in every comic, they’re never the primary focus. Roberts has written several other episodic graphic memoirs that discuss her disabilities, such as The Joy of Quitting and Chlorine Gardens.

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Parenthesis by Élodie Durand

In this moving graphic memoir, French artist Durand depicts her experiences with a brain tumor and tumor-related epilepsy. She has just begun university when she starts having seizures and lapses in memory. At first she only loses moments from her memory, but soon she finds herself forgetting entire days. After many tests, a neurologist finds a tumor on a difficult-to-operate area of her brain. She often fails to remember her visits to the neurologist and spirals into confusion and depression as she loses entire years from her memory. It’s a wrenching, beautifully illustrated memoir.

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Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green

From childhood, author Green showed a tendency toward picky eating and anxiety. She was often fixated on routine, counting how many bites of food she took on each side of her mouth, carefully arranging the food on her plate so that nothing ever touched. As a teenager, she became fixated on her appearance and felt an overwhelming need to control all aspects of her eating and weight. As she spiraled ever deeper into anorexia and anxiety, she also developed depression. She finally finds someone she thinks is the perfect new-age therapist for her; however, he’s a sexual predator, and his sexual assaults leave her far more depressed and obsessed with food than before. This emotional graphic memoir shows how the comic format is often the best way to portray mental illness and disability. It’s such a gorgeously drawn, heartbreaking read.  

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Invisible Differences: A Story of Asperger's, Adulting, and Living a Life in Full Color by Julie Dachez, illustrated by Mademoiselle Caroline

Translated from the French, this graphic novel based on the author’s experiences is a deeply insightful glimpse into the daily ableism experienced by neurodivergent folk. Marguerite has always had difficulty understanding social interactions and is easily overwhelmed and overstimulated in loud, busy environments. Her open-plan workplace is a nightmare, and she often has problems finishing her work when everyone is there. She hates socializing with her boyfriend’s friends, and he refuses to empathize with her struggles. She seeks a diagnosis and learns she has Asperger’s, which is now no longer a diagnosis and has been merged with autism spectrum disorder. Receiving a diagnosis feels validating, and she’s eager to seek the accommodations she needs. However, her family, friends, and coworkers fail to understand how she could see a diagnosis as validating and refuse to accommodate her needs.

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A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability by A. Andrews

This queer-inclusive graphic nonfiction is a great conversation starter about sex and disability. Andrews dispels common myths (like yes, disabled folk can and do have sex and find it enjoyable), and also provides helpful tips for having sex as both a disabled person and for someone who isn’t disabled but has a disabled partner. The art is fun and depicts a variety of bodies and genders. At only 72 pages, it’s a super fast but also super informative read.

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Clementine, Book One by Tillie Walden

This character-driven YA post apocalyptic graphic novel based on a character from The Walking Dead is really entertaining. Clementine — whose leg was eaten by zombies— is heading north, dodging zombies and people in equal measure. After she helps Amish teenager Amos, he takes her back to his town where she’s fitted with a new leg prosthetic. While she prefers to travel alone, Amos convinces her to accompany him to a ski resort in Vermont, where he’s heard people are trying to rebuild a city. Instead of a bustling community, they find two bickering twins and Ricca, whom Clementine is immediately attracted to. While I have not read or watched The Walking Dead, I really enjoyed this graphic novel spinoff. The second book in the planned trilogy is set to be released in October. 

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Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

This lovely and melancholic graphic novel provides a glimpse inside the daily microaggressions experienced by a trans woman, Bron, who’s in a queer relationship with Ray. Twice a week, Bron watches Ray’s niece, and she especially loves playing with her though Ray’s sister is less than enthusiastic about Bron being around her daughter, despite Bron’s evident tenderness with children. Struggling with depression, Bron leaves Ray to live with her toxic Christian family, while Ray mourns daily for her while reconnecting with her sister. Transgender people experience depression at far greater rates than the general populace due to societal discrimination, shame, and stigma. This gorgeous story shows how constant anti-trans sentiment can erode self-esteem and loving relationships.

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Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto, illustrated by Ann Xu

Kumiko, a 76-year-old bisexual Japanese Canadian, has escaped the assisted living facility her well-meaning daughters have placed her in and found her own tiny apartment. Even though she communicates with her daughter daily, she continues to pretend she’s in the facility and not dancing around naked in her apartment. Kumiko revels in the freedom living alone gives her, but Death’s shadow has followed her from the assisted living facility. Kumiko has no intention of being captured by Death yet, and intends to fight it off with whatever she can find, including a vacuum! This is a hilarious and poignant graphic novel about growing older, mortality, and maintaining agency even when you need extra help.

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Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu

Check out this magical graphic novel if you’re looking for a cozy fantasy read. Nova Huang, who uses hearing aids, is a witch from a long line of witches. She lives with her grandmothers, who own a witchy bookstore, and helps handle supernatural disturbances in their New England town. She hasn’t spoken to her childhood crush, Tam Lang — a nonbinary werewolf — in a long time when she finds him battling a horse demon in the woods. He’s attempting to escape a cult, but he needs Nova’s help to do so. I frequently reread this heartwarming YA graphic novel.

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The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures by ND Stevenson

Stevenson — of Nimona and She-Ra fam — loosely recounts his early comic book career and personal life from 2009 to 2019 in this episodic graphic memoir. (Note: While Stevenson identified as a woman when this memoir was published, he now identifies as transmasculine and bigender.) Stevenson became popular from an early age, and each year in this memoir contains short comic sketches and scenes followed by a blog overview of Stevenson’s accomplishments that year. Through it all, Stevenson struggles with his mental health and relationships. However, he eventually finds a loving partner with the woman he marries (comic book artist Molly Knox Ostertag). He also seeks medical help to find out why he struggles with sleep and emotions so much, and while this memoir doesn’t list his diagnoses, he has said he has bipolar disorder and ADHD. It’s a fascinating memoir, and while I wish it had been continued past 2019, it’s well worth reading for Stevenson fans.

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