As parents of a 23-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy, my wife and I are celebrating the 23rd anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act with special enthusiasm.
For us, some of the great sources of solace and encouragement over the years have been novels that portray people with special needs sensitively, respectfully and — most important — realistically.
Here’s a list of our top 10. Please leave more suggestions in the Comments section below:
1. “Under the Eye of the Clock,” by Christopher Nolan (Skyhorse, 1987). This autobiographical novel by the late Irish poet Christopher Nolan, who had cerebral palsy, is a gorgeous and insightful book about the expansive life of a man who seemed entirely trapped in his chair. He pecked out this story with a pencil attached to his forehead. My wife and I have given away more copies than we can count.
2. “Lark and Termite,” by Jayne Anne Phillips (Vintage, 2009). This powerful, complex novel moves between two stories: the No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War in 1950 and a devastating flood that confronts a West Virginia family in 1959. Termite, a profoundly and multiply handicapped boy, is cared for by his aunt and his devoted 17-year-old half-sister, Lark. Theirs is one of the most affecting sibling relationships in American literature.
3. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” by Mark Haddon (Vintage, 2003). In this quirky novel from England, a boy with autism tries to figure out the mystery of the death of his neighbor’s dog.
4. “The Revised Fundamentals Of Caregiving,” by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin, 2012). In this warm-hearted novel, Evison, who once worked as a caregiver, describes the friendship between a down-on-his-luck personal aide and a teen with muscular dystrophy.
5. “The Story of Beautiful Girl,” by Rachel Simon (Grand Central, 2011). Simon, who wrote a celebrated memoir about her sister with special needs, here presents the harrowing adventure of a mentally disabled white woman and a deaf African American man.
6. “The Center of Everything,” by Laura Moriarty (Hyperion, 2003). The 10-year-old narrator of Moriarty’s wonderful debut novel lives with a frustratingly irresponsible mother and a little brother whose special needs should break this family — but don’t.
7. “Up High in the Trees,” by Kiara Brinkman (Grove, 2007). Brinkman’s narrator, an 8-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, describes his family’s efforts to survive in the wake of his mother’s death. For anyone bravely grasping for order and solace amid unspeakable loss.
8. “Lamb in Love,” by Carrie Brown (Algonquin, 1999). A delightful novel about the late-in-life romance between a postmaster and a woman who cares for a young man with special needs.
9. “Good Kings Bad Kings,” by Susan Nussbaum (Algonquin, 2013). This is the only book on the list that we haven’t read yet, but today’s review in The Washington Post makes it sound powerful. Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Nussbaum’s novel is about a group home for young people with special needs.
10 “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge,” by Paul Guest (Ecco, 2008). Okay, I’m cheating. This isn’t a novel; it’s a collection of poems. But Guest, paralyzed from a bike accident when he was 12, writes courageous, funny, angry verse that shows what human beings — and poetry — can do.