Whenever I see a used copy of one of the Hank Zipzer chapter books, I grab it. I loan them out often, and rarely get them back. But that’s OK. They are doing their work. Hank Zipzer is a series written by Henry Winkler (yes, the Fonz) and Lin Oliver about a boy, Hank, who is a lot like Henry Winkler was when he was a kid. Both Hank and Henry have learning disabilities. The series (up to #17 now) is wonderful and continues to make me laugh. Hank is a likeable boy with two best friends, a silly dog, a quirky family and disabilities that keep getting in his way. The books (try the audio versions, too) make Hank’s learning challenges just part of who he is. He talks about them in a matter-of-fact way that then gives parents and teachers a natural way into a conversation with their own child or student about their learning disabilities.
Books can open doors into safe, easy discussions about differences. It’s my favorite way to introduce kids to their own disability, their siblings’ or their classmates’. When my daughter Sabrina was young, I started with reading children’s picture books that featured characters with differences. I used it to introduce the concept of ‘disability’ because she, like many kids with autism or cognitive differences, didn’t yet understand what a disability was. At 5, 6 and 7 years old, we just talked about the characters and did not link it back to her and her disability. Concept first.
As she got older, I started talking to her about things that were hard for her to do, based on the characters in the books I read. I still did not call it something, just made the link from being aware of the range of disabilities to her own struggles. If she had asked if she had a disability, then I would have said “yes” and answered her questions. But she didn’t, so I didn’t give her more information than she was ready for.
By the time she was in 5th grade, I increased my pointing out disabilities and connected them to people she knew. She could see that Sofia couldn’t talk and used a wheelchair but she couldn’t see that her friend Bonnie had learning disabilities. At some point during that time, she made the connection and realized she, too, had disabilities.
For Sabrina, it helped her name what she could feel was “wrong with her brain.” She had come home from school more than once “mad at her brain” because she couldn’t read like the other kids. She was starting to internalize her feelings of not being capable, and that she was broken.
Learning that she has a disability and that all academics are very difficult for her to master allowed her to separate herself from her disabilities. And because she had years of just being herself without any labels (that she was aware of) she had a strong sense of self.
But it’s not easy to acknowledge our kids’ disabilities to our kids. It brings up our own grief. Not long after Sabrina understood she had disability, we were driving by her older brother’s high school. “Maybe you will go there someday,” I said. “Mom, do they have teachers for kids with disabilities there?” she asked. My heart cracked a bit. Though I was proud of Sabrina and glad she grasped her own needs, I was sad to realize that now she also was a card-carrying member of the disability community.
I still read any and all picture and chapter books that feature kids with differences. Over the years, the quality and quantity of these books has risen significantly. Reading stories that allow me, as a parent of children with differences, to hear what might be going on inside them — to have hope that things will get better, to feel like I am part of a community that values all the variables in the human condition — is a wonderful gift.
I read books about disabilities for comfort, for information, and most of all for hope. I want that for my children too. I hope that someday Sabrina can read a chapter book and recognize herself in the funny, charming, kind character who also can’t make change, read a map or get into college.
A few books about Learning Disabilities
That’s Like Me!: Stories about Amazing People with Learning Differences by Jill Lauren
Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver
My Name Is Brain Brian by Jeanne Betancourt