Blogger Renee Grassi

Disability in Children’s Books Blog Series Part 1

The Sibling Experience

 I was inspired to write this series of blog posts after reading a newly published picture book called Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles by Tami Lehman-Wilzig.  This story is told from the perspective of a boy named Jacob, who has a brother named Nathan.  What makes their relationship different from other sibling relationships is that Nathan has autism.  Throughout the story, Jacob is frustrated with his brother’s repetitive speech, inability to understand social norms, and his incessant need to blow out the candles on the menorah like it’s a birthday cake.  Jacob fears that Nathan will embarrass him in front of his new friend, Steve.  But when Steve starts laughing and ridiculing Nathan, Jacob eventually realizes that even though Nathan may think differently, he is still his brother.  This newfound understanding allows him to find the courage twithin himself to defend Nathan and stand up to Steve.  At the end of the book, when the two families celebrate the last night of Hanukkah together, they decide to celebrate the holiday Nathan’s way…by blowing out all the candles on jelly donuts, their traditional Hanukkah dessert.

On the surface, this book is a Hanukkah story about two neighboring Jewish families coming together to light the menorah and take part in their family traditions.  The story uses authentic language and realistic illustrations to share the experience of a this special Jewish holiday with its readers.  It’s also the story about how two boys and their families become friends for the first time.  For me, though, the heart of this story is the relationship between the two brothers and Jacob’s journey from anger and frustration into understanding, acceptance, and love for Nathan and of his autism.  So often the needs of the sibling are forgotten when attention is given to the child with special needs, which makes books like these even more important.  Not only does this story portray a truthful depiction of a child with autism, but it also poignantly communicates the all-too-important sibling experience, and the challenges and rewards that come with having a family member with special needs.

For more on the sibling experience, check out these books:

My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete

A girl tells what it’s like living with her twin brother who has autism and sometimes finds it hard to communicate with words, but who, in most ways, is just like any other boy.  There aren’t very many published books depicting non-white characters with disabilities, which makes this book even more important to a library’s collection.


My brother is different: A parents’ guide to help children cope with an Autistic sibling by Barbara Morvay

This two-sided book is meant to be read two ways.  Part I is a parent guide to help children with the realities of life with a sibling with autism.  Parts II and III are in a picture book format, addressing the sibling and the child with autism separately with information about what autism is and how it impacts all members of the family.


The Sibling Slam Book: What it’s REALLY Like to have a brother or sister with Special Needs edited by Don Meyer

Written in a journal format, this book answers a series of questions about what it is like to have a brother or sister with special needs.  The target audience is upper elementary and middle school, but its diary-like format make it an accessible read.


My Sister, Alicia May by Nancy Tupper Ling

Based on the lives of two real sisters, this story is told from the perspective of Rachel, the older sister of a girl named Alicia, who has Down syndrome.  In many ways, Alicia is like any six-year-old girl.  But, as we see through Rachel’s eyes, she is also very different and very special.



 The Best Worst Brother by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen

When a child with special needs is just learning how to communicate using sign language, sibling can easily become frustrated.  This book talks about the ups and downs of learning how to talk to a sibling who cannot talk himself.  I found the Question & Answers about Sign Language section in the back of the book particularly helpful.


Oh, brother! Growing Up with a Special Needs Sibling by Natalie Hale

This beginning chapter book is about an eleven-year-old girl who has an older bother with developmental disabilities.  She handles unique challenges, all the while taking everything i stride focusing on her brother’s positive qualities.  The short chapters and pictures dispersed throughout the text help make it an easy read for elementary students. 





  1. Claire Dawn

    Thank you!

    I want to write a book from the persepective of a special needs character.

    I’m a teacher in Japan, and special needs students are semi-mainstreamed here – in special classes at public schools, but not neccesarily at special needs schools – until at least the start of high school. Also, I teach an adult class, and 1/4 of my students are wheelchair-bound. I feel like special-needs persons are too big a part of my life to ignore.

    But the real inspiration for wanting to write a special-needs story is a 14 year old student of mine. He’s hearing-impaired. Yet I’ve never had a problem with him hearing me or speaking to me. But, he has atrocious handwriting. And he’s also the only kid in his class who plays the piano. And that combination broke through so many stereotypes, I want to write about it.

    Apologies for the essay comment, but thanks again. Even though I intend to write about physical issues, these books will serve as great research!

  2. Basya Karp

    Valuable titles indeed! Thanks for sharing them.

    Some other must-reads, all chapter books for older kids, are Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin, The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff, and Rules by Cynthia Lord. I’ve reviewed them all on my site:

  3. Amy

    I just had a patron in asking for books to help a sibling understand Down Syndrome. I’m so pleased I now have the name of a title I can purchase and recommend to her. Thanks!

  4. Kate Todd

    These are really wonderful resources, Renee.
    Thanks for highlighting them.
    I also think we should incoporate books like these into storytimes for ALL children.
    It is a good way to begin discussions with children and parents about the importance of tolerance and acceptance for children who have disabilities.

  5. Renee Grassi

    Kate, I couldn’t agree more!

  6. Betty Pieper

    Years ago…before the right to education in U.S.A…..I did a book called Tommy and
    the School. I’m not sure if it is available anywhere now but it is thankfully, outdated
    for the very fact that the principal had a right to refuse Tommy any school AT ALL,
    let alone an integrated setting. I not only fought hard for the right to education for all
    but tried in every way possible to build supports…including creating a bibliography,
    working with Dr. Ellen Barnes and Dr. Doug Biklen at the Center on Human POlicy
    (Syracuse University) on books, grants, etc. One of my favorite books was by
    Ezra Jack Keats who actually took my manuscript to his publisher….who didn’t
    like it but sent me on to another who did. I also did a lot through Fred Rogers on public television who featured Ezra Jack Keats and eventually a young girl with spina bifida through the years on his program. – Claire, I wish you the best. Get as much as
    you can directly from the boy you have in mind and from his family and friends.
    I’d even suggest video if he is willing….with no sound….and just quietly watching his interactions and activities privately or with him. Sometimes amazing things become
    revealed in quietness.
    I’m sure something wonderful will emerge and then these things often expand like
    ripples and have effects we can’t imagine.
    Betty Pieper

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