Book Smart: Literature for Children with ADHD and Learning Disabilities
A comprehensive collection of children’s books about learning disabilities and ADHD – along with take-away activities for you and your kids.
There’s nothing better for a child than to read or be read to — especially when there’s a personal connection with the material. We’re in a golden age of children’s literature, especially books about learning disabilities and ADHD.
Variety, creativity in both text and art, and specialization of subjects give kids today amazing opportunities to learn about themselves through the books they read. And we, as parents, can learn about our children from them, as well. There are some wonderful books geared specifically toward kids with ADHD and learning challenges, helping to ease fears about doctors and school, and letting them know they’re not alone.
The following books all feature characters with ADHD or dyslexia, and for many, I’ve created value-added family activities that will help reinforce the themes for your child. I promise they’ll comfort and inspire your children as they enter this school year.
Shelley the Hyperactive Turtle (#CommissionsEarned)
by Deborah M. Moss (Woodbine House, 1989); hardcover used from $0.64, paperback from $87.47
topics: hyperactivity/impulsive behavior, understanding ADHD, visiting the doctor, taking medication
“I want to be good more than anything in the world, but by the time I think about what I’m going to do, I’ve already done it,” says Shelley, the star of this preschool page-turner. Shelley’s journey from jittery behavior in school to his ADHD diagnosis and treatment will resonate with young ADHD children, helping to ease fears about doctors, medicine, and being different.
Shelley demonstrates how isolating ADHD can be. Since he’s portrayed as a turtle – an animal that is usually mellow – children can see how they resemble the mellow members of their family in some ways but are different in other ways.
ACTIVITY: At the zoo or when watching a movie about animals, point out slow-moving creatures to your kids (turtles, elephants), then point out animals that move at a quicker pace (cheetahs, monkeys). Initiate conversations about how a slow monkey or fast turtle might stand out from their family but still be part of the group.
What child doesn’t have fears about doctors and medicine? You can help alleviate these concerns by reading about Otto, a fidgety young car. The author compares a hyperactive child to a car in need of a tune-up to run at the right speed. Otto can’t remember important information, and he can’t focus long enough to learn to drive. Sound like anyone your child knows? The metaphor of the tune-up offers a non-threatening way for children to learn about check-ups, and they’ll also see how medication can help them “run” better.
ACTIVITY: Use one of your child’s toys to role-play at the doctor’s office. To make the visit less frightening, ask the doctor to examine your child’s favorite stuffed animal first, while your child observes. When it’s his turn to be examined, he’ll be less likely to feel scared.This approach is also helpful for parents, as it can help you understand why your child fears going to the doctor.
As a parent of a child with ADHD, you need to help him accept his condition, and also spread awareness to others. This book, from a series about topics ranging from autism to cancer, explains what’s going on inside a child with ADHD. The main character, Ben, shows kids how to talk about their conditions, and to embrace medication in managing their lives.
ACTIVITY: Ask your child’s teacher to read one of these books to his class – or arrange to be a guest reader yourself this fall. The stories will help your child’s classmates understand when and why he’s having a tough day, opening the door to discussion – and an atmosphere that’s both accepting and forgiving.
Phoebe Flower’s Adventures (series)
by Barbara Roberts (Advantage Books, 1998); varying prices
That’s What Kids Are For (#CommissionsEarned)
Phoebe’s Lost Treasure (#CommissionsEarned)
Phoebe’s Best Best Friend (#CommissionsEarned)
Phoebe’s Tree House Secrets (#CommissionsEarned)
topics: school, girls and ADHD, friendship
Young girls will relate to Phoebe Flower, an energetic, creative student who struggles in class and has difficulty making friends. In That’s What Kids Are For, she – like so many girls – is never diagnosed with ADHD. Phoebe learns the hard way that choices have consequences, but also that risk-taking offers rewards. The series follows her on her journey through diagnosis and treatment, and sheds light on what it’s like to be a young girl with ADHD.
What a great confidence builder for kids! Children with ADHD are usually compassionate, creative thinkers. They’re keen observers with great senses of humor. But these positives are often overshadowed by the challenges they face. Eagle Eyes focuses on the upsides of ADHD. As the story opens, Ben is discouraged by his inability to concentrate. But he learns to appreciate his “eagle eyes,” a trait common in ADHD kids, when he rescues his injured father.
ACTIVITY: Read this book with your child and discuss what Ben is good at. Then have him make a list of his own strengths. Keep a copy of this list at home and in your child’s school notebook, so he can refer to it when he feels frustrated or overwhelmed.
Siblings of children with ADHD wonder where they fit in — or if they do at all. I’m Somebody Too revisits the family from Eagle Eyes. Ben’s sister, Emily, compensates for her brother’s unpredictable behavior by striving to be perfect. As Ben gets increased attention after being diagnosed, Emily is left feeling jealous and overlooked – in spite of her perfect behavior. But soon she learns that she doesn’t need to be perfect to be an important part of the family. Readers of this thoughtful book learn that siblings can lend support to ADD children, and be valuable members of the family.
Sometimes a child just needs a successful role model to motivate him. Eddie Minetti is a paradigm for older kids with ADHD. According to his family, he “talks and listens fast,” and he’s always getting in trouble at school – until he’s diagnosed with and treated for ADHD. By the end of the book, Eddie is taking medication, receiving support, and leading a happier, more manageable life. The moral? All is not lost just because you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD.
Every child needs a passion, something that really makes him shine. In Zipper: the Kid with ADHD, fifth-grader Zach forges a relationship with a retired jazz musician, who fosters his interest in the drums. When he plays, he forgets his ADHD, and focuses on how amazing he sounds. Playing the drums breeds a new confidence in Zach, and – what do you know? — it carries over into his classroom.
ACTIVITY: What is your child really good at? The violin? Drawing? Basketball? Ask his teacher to set aside time when he can share his talent with the class. Then let the kids ask questions and help him teach a mini-lesson. If he’s an artist, bring art supplies for the kids to use in the lesson. Letting your ADD child excel in front of peers will change the way they see him – and the way he sees himself.
Joey Pigza (series)
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (#CommissionsEarned)
Joey Pigza Loses Control (#CommissionsEarned)
What Would Joey Do? (#CommissionsEarned)
by Jack Gantos (Squarefish, 2014); varying prices
ages: 10 and up
topics: hyperactivity/impulsive behavior, taking medication, school, special education, ADHD in the family, teasing
There are two sides to every story – especially when the stories are about Joey Pigza, a kind, impulsive boy, who often lands knee-deep in trouble. Joey matter-of-factly recounts the sticky situations he finds himself in (like losing a fingernail in the pencil sharpener). Then he lets you in on what he was thinking (“but that’s not what I intended to happen”). I urge parents to read these books before reading them to their children. There are some heavy problems plaguing Joey’s life – divorce, child custody, alcoholism – and you want to be sure your child is ready for them.
ACTIVITY: Arrange a book club meeting at your school or local library, and make these books the focus.
Sparky’s Excellent Misadventures: My A.D.D. Journal (#CommissionsEarned)
by Phyllis Carpenter and Marti Ford (Magination Press, 1999); $9.95
topics: school, understanding ADHD, visiting the doctor, taking medication
This funny, optimistic story is written like a diary. Sparky, a.k.a. Spencer Allen Douglass, uses his journal to write about his life (he takes pills to “fix his wiggles”) and confide his secret thoughts (“I didn’t know the store made pills to fix MY stuff!”). The book brings the reader inside the mind of an ADHD child, as he learns how to cope with his condition.
ACTIVITY: After reading this book, encourage your child to write down how he feels about having ADD. Keeping a journal allows children to sort through their thoughts and feelings without judgment from others. I’ve read, with permission, a few of my students’ private journals and gained a deeper understanding of them through their writing.
Dyslexia and Learning Disabilities
This book, from the same series as Taking A.D.D. to School, explains what’s going on inside a child with dyslexia. The main character, Matt, is a great role-model for kids. Throughout the story, he explains his difficulties with reading and math, and describes the steps he took to learn about the nature of his learning challenges and to get help at school.
Any child who’s ever felt inadequate about learning will relate to Alex, the don’t-give-up kid. Alex is teased because he can’t read — letters look foreign to him; they jump around the page or appear backwards. But young readers are shown that learning differences have nothing to do with lack of intelligence. Alex begins to work with a specialist, who introduces him to Thomas Edison (who had ADD and dyslexia). Though the inventor failed many times, he never stopped trying – and neither does Alex.
ACTIVITY: Many famous adults overcame physical or mental challenges to achieve success. Take a trip to the library or hop on the Internet with your child and research celebrities, athletes, and historical figures who thrived despite great obstacles (Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci – to name a few!).
If your child has a tough time with transitions (what child doesn’t?), introduce him to Josh, a 10-year-old with dyslexia, who becomes a hero. Josh’s family is moving, so he must leave the school where he feels safe and start all over again. In his new school, he becomes the victim of a bully. This inspiring book shows that sometimes underdogs emerge victorious.
My Name Is Brain Brian
by Jeanne Betancourt (Scholastic, 1995); $5.89
topics: dyslexia/learning disabilities, school, special education, friendship
Want a glimpse of what it feels like to be dyslexic? Meet Brian, a sixth-grader who has always struggled in school. Brian didn’t learn to read until long after his peers, and his handwriting is hard to decipher (as you’ll see). As he narrates his story, he casually weaves in truths about dyslexia that kids can understand (“Words don’t appear in the right order, they dance off the page”). Despite struggles in dealing with his dad, also dyslexic, and with a rebellious friend, he undergoes some amazing changes during the school year.
How Dyslexic Benny Became a Star: A Story of Hope for Dyslexic Children and Their Parents (#CommissionsEarned)
by Joe Griffith (Yorktown Press, 1998); $6.49
topics: dyslexia/learning disabilities, school, sports
When fifth-grader Benny Whitley messes up a football play by passing the ball to player number 81 instead of 18, Coach Watkins realizes that Benny has dyslexia – just like him. Readers learn about dyslexia as Coach explains it to Benny, and to his father, who thinks the boy is simply lazy. When his dad finally allows Benny to get special help at school, the youngster earns his best grades ever, his self-esteem improves – and his relationship with his parents changes forever.
Sometimes just one teacher can make a difference. That’s how it plays out for Tricia, a girl with dyslexia and the star of Thank You, Mr. Falker. The book is set in 1950, but today’s kids can still relate. Tricia wants to read but she can’t. She’s teased by her classmates, and starts losing faith in herself — until Mr. Falker works with her and helps her learn to read.
ACTIVITY: A recurring theme in children’s books is that special connection between a student and the teacher who helps him reach his true potential. After reading this book, help your child identify the teacher who makes a difference in his life, and think about how you can foster the relationship.
Juice’s story starts as she’s about to start third grade for the second time. A resilient tomboy who can’t make sense of words and letters, she stays home with her unemployed Pa nearly as often as she goes to school. Hesse writes about tough topics, such as poverty, unemployment, and learning disabilities, in gentle, inviting prose that makes the reader feel like a member of the large, warm Faulstich family.
Like ADHD, dyslexia affects the whole family. A child’s siblings make a big difference in how he perceives his limitations, as we are shown by two very different twins in Egg-Drop Blues. Judge has dyslexia, Jury doesn’t. The brothers are at odds because their mom wants both to change schools, so Judge can get extra learning support. Jury blames his brother for ruining his life, and so Judge negotiates a deal: If he does well in a science project competition, which involves an egg-drop, both can stay put. But they’ll have to work together to win.
Many kids struggling with learning disabilities hide their problems. They memorize books they hear, or fly below the radar in class by being quiet. Their fears of being “discovered” or repeating a grade are very real, and they need to learn that it’s okay to need help. Your child can learn this along with Helen, a student who fears she’ll be in sixth grade forever.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is hardly a new theme, but in a story about a child with dyslexia, it’s an important one. Doris doesn’t like Yellow Bird, but when she signs on to tutor him and help him learn his lines for the school play, she becomes his friend – and later his advocate. Ultimately, she helps Yellow Bird’s teachers realize that he has dyslexia. And when he lands the lead role in the play, Doris and other classmates start to see him as the unique, talented person he is.
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Updated on October 9, 2020