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21 YA Novels With Disabled And Chronically Ill Characters

Check out these YA reads for Disability Pride Month.

Posted on July 28, 2021, at 11:17 a.m. ET


Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens, edited by Marieke Nijkamp

These 13 stories by disabled writers and featuring disabled main characters span multiple genres and periods. “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Katherine Locke is a futuristic tale about a gifted coder with anxiety trying to save her city from a disastrous war. The contemporary romance “Britt and the Bike God” by Kody Keplinger has a girl with retinitis pigmentosa joining a school bicycling club. “The Long Road” by Heidi Heilig takes place in the past and depicts a Chinese family on a journey to Persia to find a cure for their daughter, who has bipolar disorder. The empowering tales show that disabled characters belong in every genre and every story.

Finding Balance by Kati Gardner

Childhood bone cancer left Mari Manos with one leg, while Jase Ellison’s bout of acute lymphocytic leukemia left no visual signs. Because his cancer left no visible trace, Jase hasn’t told any of his friends in high school, and he plans to pretend it never happened. However, Mari has a very different existence and experiences ableism and bullying regularly. Both attend Camp Chemo, where they can be themselves without the ableism and pity of their classmates. At Camp Chemo, Mari forms a crush on Jase. When Mari changes schools to the same school Jase attends, she threatens to disrupt his carefully crafted image. This is an emotionally gripping novel about finding a balance between disability and identity. Also check out Kati Gardner’s debut, Brave Enough, which centers a ballerina with a knee injury and a cancer survivor trying to break the cycle of addiction.

Fix by J. Albert Mann

This searing but gorgeous read entwines poetry and prose in its descriptions of a friendship gone awry. Eve has just undergone spine surgery realignment for her scoliosis. This excruciating surgery followed by an equally painful recovery leads Eve to become addicted to her pain medication. She also develops PTSD. While she recovers from her surgery at home with her mostly absent and distant mother, she daydreams about what went wrong with her best friend Lidia, who has a missing hand. The two had a falling out only a week before the surgery. Also check out Mann’s historical novel The Degenerates, about a group of disabled girls institutionalized in the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded in early 20th century America.

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Simone Garcia-Hampton was born with HIV. She keeps her HIV a secret because when she told a trusted friend at a previous school about it, her friend betrayed her trust and told the rest of the school. After that, everyone treated her differently. Her two dads pulled her out of that school, and now she’s going to a new high school where no one knows about her HIV diagnosis, or so she thinks. While putting on a production of Rent as the student director, she meets the swoon-worthy Miles, and the two begin dating. Then she starts receiving anonymous letters threatening to tell everyone her secret if she doesn’t stop dating Miles. This sex-positive and diverse contemporary YA is poignant and heartwarming.

Cursed by Karol Ruth Silverstein

Ricky, who is in constant pain, has recently been diagnosed with juvenile arthritis. If that weren’t bad enough, her parents have just divorced, she’s moved and changed schools, and the guy she has a crush on has no idea. Angry and frustrated by her life, Ricky begins constantly cursing and skipping school, and then she finds out she might fail 9th grade unless she can get her act together. This realistic look into the life of a teen in chronic pain is engaging, hopeful, and completely relatable.

The Edge of Anything by Nora Shalaway Carpenter

Both Len and Sage are on the road to getting significant scholarships when their plans are derailed. Len has a photography scholarship approaching, but her grandmother’s ill health, family’s financial worries, and a sudden tragedy send her into an OCD spiral. Meanwhile, volleyball star Sage is diagnosed with a heart condition that forces her to stop playing the game that’s defined her. Though the two girls have very different personalities, they form a deep friendship in the wake of their health issues, even though both harbor secrets that could tear their friendship apart. This is a beautiful and vivid novel about friendship and identity.

Two Girls Staring At The Ceiling by Lucy Frank

This moving novel-in-verse depicts two teenage girls with very different personalities sharing a hospital room and a Crohn's disease diagnosis. Chess has recently been hospitalized after a terrible night out with friends that was supposed to lead to a hookup. She’s embarrassed by the incident and her new diagnosis and just wants to disappear. Meanwhile, Shannon is more than familiar with life with Crohn's disease as well as being hospitalized. She’s loud and honest and demands what she needs. While Chess’s politeness and Shannon’s brashness grate on one another at first, both girls learn from each other how to better process life with Crohn's .

Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

As a Persian-American with clinical depression, Darius has always felt like an outsider. His mother taught his sister Farsi but not him; his father has clinical depression as well but criticizes Darius for loving sci-fi and fantasy more than sports. When his Iranian grandfather is diagnosed with a brain tumor, he and his family decide to travel from Portland to Iran to visit him. Darius at first finds he doesn’t fit in any better there than he did in Portland. However, when he meets Sohrab, the teenaged next-door neighbor, a deep friendship blossoms between the two. This beautiful and poignant novel deservedly won many awards.

You're Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

After spraying graffiti at her school gym, Julia’s best friend tells on her and Julia is expelled from the Kingston School for the Deaf. Her two moms (also Deaf) sign Julia up for public high school instead, where she’s the only Deaf person on campus. Julia begins spraying her graffiti throughout the suburbs, but when someone begins adding to her art, someone who’s even better than she is, she gets dragged into a graffiti war. This is a delightful read about friendship and art.

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

This charming and lyrical novel-in-verse is about a character reconnecting with her identity and spirituality after a limb amputation. Veda, a competitive Bharatanatyam dancer in India, loses one of her legs in a devastating accident. As she recovers, Veda reflects on what dance means to her. While she can no longer dance competitively, she comes to realize that dance is an essential aspect of her artistic identity and her means of expressing her Hindu spirituality.

Run by Kody Keplinger

Best friends Bo and Agnes could not be more different. Bo is bisexual and viewed as promiscuous by her small Southern town. Her family is poor, and her mother is addicted to meth. On the other hand, the town views Agnes as a good, quiet church girl. She’s blind, and her parents are extremely overprotective. Agnes has never broken a single rule until the day she decides to run away with Bo. This engaging and vivid novel about trust and friendship is the kind of book you’ll want to read in a single sitting.

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

This gripping and literary YA takes place during the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Like many teenagers in the 1960s, Melati Ahmad — a sixteen-year-old Muslim Malay — loves the Beatles and going to the movies. She also has OCD, which presents itself as a djinn living inside her who insists on a ritual of counting and tapping. On May 13th, 1969, race riots break out across her home city of Kuala Lumpur, and Melati is separated from her mother. As Melati watches the city she loves devastated by the oncoming war between the Malay and Chinese, she desperately searches for her mother. She receives help from a Chinese teen named Vincent, and in doing so, has to confront her own prejudices.

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

In this compelling thriller, 17-year-old Nora O’Malley is the daughter of con artists. Her mother has taught her all her con artist tricks, but she and Nora decide to play at being normal when she remarries. When Nora goes to a bank with her ex-boyfriend Wes and her current girlfriend Iris to drop off money raised in a fundraiser, she becomes part of a robbery. As the two guys robbing the bank take everyone hostage, Nora knows she’s going to need to rely on all her con-artist’s tricks. Iris has endometriosis.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

Kemmerer retells “Beauty and the Beast” in this fast-paced and lovely fantasy. Everything is going wrong for Harper, who has cerebral palsy. Her father is dead, her mother has cancer, and her brother treats her like a child. Then she’s practically kidnapped on the streets of Washington, D.C. when she tries to help a stranger and finds herself in a parallel fantasy world called Emberfall. Prince Rhen, the heir of Emberfall, was cursed by an enchantress on his 18th birthday and transformed into a beast. He’s forced to relive the fall of his kingdom over and over again. This is the first book in a completed trilogy.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

Nova Huang is a witch who works in her grandmothers' bookstore. One day she follows a white wolf into the forest and discovers it's her childhood crush, Tam Lang, who is fighting a horse demon. After helping Tam defeat the demon, Nova finds out that Tam is a nonbinary werewolf and that dark forces are after them, and only Nova can help. This adorable, YA graphic novel gives all the heartwarming, cozy witch vibes you could possibly need. Nova is hard-of-hearing and wears hearing aids.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Jam is a Black trans girl with selective mutism who lives in the utopian city of Lucille, where the angels vanquished all the monsters long ago, or so Jam and her best friend Redemption are taught in school. Then one day, a creature climbs out of a painting and tells Jam there’s a monster in her midst. She names the creature Pet, and the two must find the monster before it’s too late. This unique and heart-wrenching read shows how sometimes the monsters are the ones that appear to be the safest.

The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp, illustrated by Manuel Preitano

This compelling YA graphic novel depicts Barbara Gordon’s origin story as Oracle. After a gunshot wound leaves Barbara paralyzed, she goes to the Arkham Center for Independence for rehabilitation. While trying to adapt to her new life as a wheelchair user, she befriends three women who help her with her depression. They also tell her about strange disappearances in the center, and of course, Barbara decides to investigate.

For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig

Inspired by Southeast Asia during the French colonization, For a Muse of Fire is the first book in a riveting epic fantasy trilogy. Jetta and her family are famous puppeteers, though no one knows their secret: Jetta can see spirits of the dead and bind them to the puppets with her blood. Magic is forbidden under the new colonialist rule, so Jetta hides her abilities. Jetta also has bipolar disorder, and when she and her family hear of the Mad King’s spring that cures all ills, they decide to join the royal ship to Aquitan as entertainers to try and find the spring and see if it cures Jetta. But then a rebellion disrupts all their plans.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

A giant comet is plummeting toward Earth and Denise, her sister Iris, and her mother have been assigned a shelter near their home in Amsterdam. Then Denise hears about a generation ship scheduled to leave Earth and colonize new planets. This could be their only chance of surviving, but they have to prove their usefulness to be accepted onto the ship. Denise is worried that there won’t be a place for a girl with autism like herself, and, on top of that, her sister is missing and her mother is struggling with drug addiction. This stand-alone sci-fi is a gripping and realistic read.

Skyhunter by Marie Lu

In a dystopian future, an evil empire called The Federation creates monstrous beasts through genetic modification and uses these beasts to subjugate countries. After being wounded by such a beast and losing her voice, Talin and her mother flee to Mara as refugees. In Mara, Talin becomes a Striker — an elite fighting force — but that doesn't make her immune to Maran ridicule. When the strikers capture a Federation spy, Talin unexpectedly defends him and becomes his minder. But her captive hides a secret: He too has been genetically modified, and his abilities might prove to be enough to bring down the Federation. This first book in a new YA science fiction series is action-packed and captivating. The main character is mute and uses sign language.

A Dragonbird in the Fern by Laura Rueckert (August 3; Flux)

When an assassin kills Princess Jiara’s sister Scilla right before her marriage, seventeen-year-old Jiara takes her place as the fiancé to the neighboring kingdom’s young King Raffar. Meanwhile, Scilla’s ghost is now an Earthwalker, and she won’t find peace until her murderer is found. Moving to a new country is difficult for Jiara in multiple ways. Not only is she still struggling with her sister’s death and learning more about her new husband, but her dyslexia makes it difficult to learn her husband’s language. With war brewing and her sister’s ghost demanding vengeance, she needs to figure it out fast. This new YA fantasy plays with familiar fantasy tropes to create a compelling storyline that centers the unique insights of a dyslexic character.●

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.