Great Books for Kids with Learning Differences (and those without!)
With the holiday gift-giving season approaching, many of us may be thinking about the perfect gift ideas for our kiddos. And now that we have two kiddos in our house whose brains are wired differently than the average child’s – one of whom is “2E” (twice-exceptional) – finding holiday gift ideas for neurodiverse children has taken on new importance for us.
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For our family, books have always ranked high on holiday shopping lists. Partly because we wanted to encourage a lifelong love of reading and learning. Partly because books literally have a longer shelf-life than many toys.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to review several newly-published books for kids with a range of learning differences. Even though not all of them are specific to the diagnosis of our Dear Daughter who (we now know) has a learning disability, they’re all worth knowing about for parents whose kiddos have any sorts of learning difference.
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In addition to reviewing those books here, I’ll include several others that either have long been in our book collection, or DD has found on her own. Whether your LD child reads these books solo, or with your help, they’re worth reading – for your LD child(ren) and siblings alike.
I received free copies of several of these books (denoted by *) in exchange for my honest review. However, all opinions are solely mine and/or my children’s. This post contains affiliate links.
Holiday Gift Ideas for Neurodiverse Children
1. Books for Younger Kids
These books are great to read to preschoolers, and also appropriate for early-elementary kids and beginning readers.
*There’s A Monkey In My Backpack by Don M. Winn
Third-grader Anna has an invisible monkey in her backpack who makes her do strange things. Like misspell words, and have a hard time paying attention in class. By the end of the book, Anna realizes that her monkey also gives her some advantages in life – like being able to see things differently than others, and learn to persevere in order to overcome challenges.
There’s A Monkey In My Backpack is a great introduction to the idea that some kids have extra challenges when it comes to schoolwork, but those challenges also have silver linings. DD and I both thought it would be especially useful for kids with dyslexia to understand they’re not the only ones whose brains are wired that way.
*Freddie and Friends: Becoming Unstuck by Kimberly Delude
Freddie is a bug, and this book focuses on his friend Anna (also a bug) and her sidekick Murray. Murray is an unwelcome sidekick, because he’s Anna’s “worry bug” and she just can’t shake him. He always whispers negative “what-if”‘s in her ear about the worst thing that could happen. Which feeds the worst possible thing, which in turn feeds Murray and makes him bigger. But when Anna joins the school’s Worry-Bug Club, the teacher in charge teaches her how to STOP feeding Murray, until he shrinks and then eventually pops.
I love the powerful, practical tools that *Freddie and Friends: Becoming Unstuck gives kids to help them cope with anxiety. The illustrations make abstract concepts more concrete for kids, by helping them visualize a way to counter their negative thinking. Though Dear Daughter didn’t have much to say after reading this book, she really took it to heart. One of the adults at DD’s school mentioned, a few weeks after DD read it, that DD was talking about slaying her “homework zombie” in a style similar to how Anna deflated her worry bug.
The Energy Bus for Kids by Don Gordon
George is having one of those mornings when everything goes wrong, setting him up for a rough day ahead. That is, until his bus driver stops the bus (which he’d almost missed) and lets him on board. Once he’s on the bus, George’s bus driver teaches him five positive lessons to help him take charge of his emotions. By understanding and harnessing his positive energy, George is able to turn his lousy-start day around into a good day.
The Energy Bus for Kids is actually part of our elementary school’s curriculum for gifted children. As such, both our girls have read it and worked through its lessons with their classmates in our school’s “Special Interest” program. But I think its lessons are useful for all kids, neurodiverse AND neurotypical:
- Gifted kids often struggle with perfectionist tendencies and feeling “different.”
- Kids with other learning differences know all too well what it feels like to be down on yourself because school, friendships, and life are often more challenging for them than their peers.
- And even neurotypical kids can learn from this book’s great lessons on how to turn bad days around.
2. (Mostly) Chapter Books to read together, or not
Once kids are ready for chapter books, they may want to read these on their own. Or you may want to read them together, especially if your child still struggles with reading.
While the first is still in “picture book” non-chapter format, I’m including it in this section because its content is more geared for older kids (tweens and even younger teens).
*Stress Stinks by Bryan Smith
Amelia is an all-too-typical 21st-century kid, in that her day-to-day life is full of stress. A lot of times, the stress is overwhelming and too much to bear. But unlike most of her peers, Amanda has some very wise parents and teachers who just happen to offer her practical, actionable tips when she needs them most. By the end of the book, not only has Amelia mastered several techniques to help her cope with daily stress, but she’s able to share them with all her equally-stressed peers at school.
Although *Stress Stinks looks at first glance like it’s targeted toward younger kids, its subject matter is more mature than the *Freddie and Friends book I received from the same publisher (Boys Town Press). Once again, as a former teacher and current parent, I REALLY appreciate the concrete, ready-to-use tips this book offers to help kids manage stress. Although Amelia’s life is more overloaded with homework than that of the average early-elementary kid (thus making it less relatable for them), even younger kids can benefit from the tips it offers.
My Name is
Brain Brian by Jeanne Betancourt
Sixth-grader Brian vows at the start of the school year that THIS year will be different. He WILL do better in school. He WILL get his homework done on time. But he quickly finds out that “different” is not what he expected, when a new teacher tells him that he’s really smart. And also that he has dyslexia. Between some of his former friends turning on him, and having to figure out what it means to be a “smart” kid who still has to use the “resource room,” Brian struggles to cope with the social fallout from his two new diagnoses.
I really wish My Name is
Brain Brian had been around in the 1980s, when my severly-dyslexic younger brother Evan was struggling in many of the same ways Brian does. (Not to mention using the same adaptive technologies as Brian – a tape recorder and a computer, at a time when other kids didn’t have access to computers.) Details like these may make the book feel dated to some younger readers. Nonetheless, it’s a great story of the challenges of being a 2E kid, from which kids of all abilities will learn a lot.
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Twelve-year-old Jason is on the autism spectrum. There are so many things going on in his brain at once, that he has to constantly repeat to himself the rules and guidelines his different aides have given him over the years. Tips to help him navigate a world built and run by “neurotypicals,” so he doesn’t get in trouble. He writes stories online as an escape from all these rules, because when he writes, he can be himself. But when his online life and his real-world life collide, both Jason and those around him have to adjust their expectations and what they thought they knew.
I love the realistic first-person dialogue that drives the narrative of Anything But Typical. The short chapters also make it highly readable for even struggling readers. And for those of us who often feel like we don’t fit into our day-to-day life at school (that was me for all of high school), who can blame Jason for creating an alternate existence online for himself where he fits in? Watching his online persona collide with his real-life one is as instructive for the readers as it is for the book’s characters.
The Survival Guide for Kids with ADHD by John Taylor
Unlike the fictional books above, this book and the next are more like handbooks or guidebooks for diagnosed kiddos. Although this one is pitched toward tweens (recommended age range is 8-12), younger kids could benefit from much of its advice. Likewise, older kids who are newly-diagnosed with ADHD can find it an accessible entry point into understanding this new “thing” about them.
I really like the practical “survival tips” in The Survival Guide for Kids with ADHD, on everything from getting organized to managing anger. While this book is written for and directed toward kids, adults trying to understand their ADHD offspring/students can also learn a lot from the topics this book covers. Above all, as many of the other parents who’ve reviewed it on Amazon noted, this book is a great way to help newly-diagnosed kids get out of the “blame game.” When first diagnosed, it can be tempting for children to blame the diagnosis for everything – “it was my ADHD that made me do that,” “I can never do X because I have ADHD.” This book is a solid first step toward owning one’s actions and breaking that cycle.
The Survival Guide for Gifted Kids Ages 10 and Under by Judy Galbraith
This book is loaded with practical advice for kids whose learning difference is that they’re academically gifted in one or more areas. When I attended my first meeting of our school district’s support group for parents of “exceptional” children, this was the first book anyone recommended to me. While both girls have read it, one has read our copy so many times, I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen apart yet.
However, from the perspective of a parent, the best part of The Survival Guide for Gifted Kids Ages 10 and Under is all the real-life quotes from actual kids who struggle with this particular form of “difference” in the classroom. Friendships and peer relations at school are hard enough when you’re a neurotypical child. When many academic things come super-easy to you, and/or you’re bored to tears by what you’re supposed to be learning because you already know it, they can be impossible. Just reading the voices and experiences of other kids in the same boat has been a huge help for my two “exceptional” kiddos.
3. Books for Tweens and Teens
Attention, Girls! A Guide to Learn All About Your AD/HD by Patricia O. Quinn
Like the previous two books, this one is more of a “user’s manual,” versus a fictional story. Given that girls have historically been underrepresented among ADHD diagnoses, it’s especially great that this book for girls with ADHD includes so many voices from girls with this diagnosis. The sheer variety of their experiences, perspectives, and symptoms makes it hard for a girl newly-diagnosed with ADHD NOT to find herself represented somewhere in its pages.
I especially like the organization of Attention, Girls!, whose content is divided into three major sections:
- The first section helps girls understand their diagnosis, and some of what ADHD looks like in their day-to-day lives.
- The second section – “Take Control!” – gives girls with ADHD diagnoses the tools to move beyond self-pity and denial, into a position of empowerment.
- Once they feel thus empowered, the third section includes chapters on specific, concrete day-to-day challenges that girls with ADHD often face (managing feelings, making and keeping friends, etc.), with tips on how to overcome these hurdles.
The fact that the author is both a medical doctor AND someone with ADHD is especially useful, as she “gets” what it’s like to have ADHD in ways that really resonate with her young readers.
101 Success Secrets for Gifted Kids: The Ultimate Handbook by Christine Fonseca
As I’ve written elsewhere, growing up as a gifted kid (or parenting one) is anything but a piece of cake. A lot of the social challenges that gifted kids face in school – stress, anxiety, bullying, relationships with peers, and feeling misunderstood – are similar to those faced by kids with learning “disabilities,” even though the causes are different.
Like the previous three books, 101 Success Secrets for Gifted Kids has practical tips and firsthand accounts from actual kids. But it also has short quizzes, question prompts, and other activities that give tweens ways to reinforce, deepen, and apply what they’ve learned to their own lives. These bonuses are one of the reasons I REALLY like this book as a hands-on guide for gifted tweens, to help them better understand themselves and navigate school and life.
*The Hadley Academy for the Improbably Gifted by Conor Grennan
Thirteen-year-old Jack is used to his buddy Freddy’s far-fetched conspiracy theories. But when Freddy gives a school report on his research about the Hadley Academy for the Improbably Gifted, Jack thinks his best friend has gone too far. Until he mysteriously finds himself in Hadley’s newest class of recruits. Except that, unlike the rest of the recruits, Jack and his team don’t seem to have any special gifts, and can’t figure out why they’re there. They seem destined to flunk out in a few short days. But needless to say, several hundred pages later, they and readers have learned that the truth is way more complicated.
*The Hadley Academy for the Improbably Gifted makes me think of Harry Potter/Hogwarts Academy meets the X-Men/X-Mansion, with a little Game of Thrones imagery (ice-demons, anyone?) thrown in. While I was skeptical for the first few chapters, I soon found myself unable to put the book down. It almost has more twists and turns than the reader can track. But it’s both intriguing enough to hold the interest of any fantasy-loving tween/teen reader. Yet it’s still “PG” enough that school librarians won’t have to worry about their 4th- and 5th-graders picking it up. I especially like how Jack and his teammates eventually learn that they DO have secret talents, gifts that more than outweigh their personal challenges.
Izzy, Willy-Nilly by Cynthia Voigt
Fifteen-year-old Izzy seems to have the “perfect” life. She’s pretty, she’s popular, she’s a cheerleader. All that changes when a car accident leaves her without one of her legs. Suddenly her former friends don’t know how to act around her, now that she’s no longer on the cheerleading squad with them. And her parents walk on eggshells around her. Worst of all, almost no one wants to talk about the fact that she lost a limb and her life will never be the same. As Izzy tries to adjust to her “new normal,” she realizes that everything she thought she knew about friendship – and herself – has changed.
I first read Izzy, Willy Nilly when it was newly-published and I was a teen. It’s a story that has stayed with me ever since. Granted, Izzy has a physical disability rather than a learning difference. But a lot of the emotions she experiences as she adjusts to life post-accident are similar to the grief, hurt, and anger of anyone whose life changes in an instant, whether from a tragic event or a new diagnosis. While this is definitely a YA book versus one for younger tweens (the publisher rates it for ages 12+), its lessons are powerful for any reader trying to navigate the social minefield of junior high and high school – even those who don’t find themselves trying to adjust to a “new normal.”
Do you have neurodiverse children or other family members? Are there particular books for them that your family has found useful, or your child has especially enjoyed? Let us know about them in the comments!
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