Special Needs, Spectacular Reads

posted by Gina

One of my greatest challenges as an elementary school teacher was finding the kind of read-aloud that appealed to my entire class and motivated my students to read the same or similar books on their own. Skill levels in my classroom ran the gamut from a student who was reading high school books to another who didn’t know the alphabet.  Interest in school ranged from the reluctant student I saw maybe once a week to the always-there, always-early.  I had stereotypes on both ends of the gender spectrum, and those who defied every one.

In addition, the constant question: where to find the protagonists who reflect my students?  Where can my students who struggle find themselves as the hero? 

I think it was Beret who introduced me to Joey Pigza.


I love Joey.  Beret loves Joey.  Every one of my students loved Joey.  Joey is not a traditional hero.  He makes mistakes and bad choices.  The adults in his life are consistently exasperated.  His peers are wary.  His teachers don’t quite know what to do.

With an unspecified but likely diagnosis of ADHD, Joey struggles to succeed on medication that doesn’t quite work in an relatively hostile learning environment (there’s a valuable lesson in why we’re told not to run with scissors).  The ‘bad choices’ Joey makes are comprehensible to any students who ever let curiosity get the better of them, who suspected they should stop but didn’t, or who failed to anticipate the consequences of their seemingly harmless exploration. Joey especially speaks to kids who want nothing more than to fit in and to impress their teachers, but instead seem to stumble at every turn.

We’ve come a little farther from the special education set-up in this fictitious world that’s considerably more punitive than inclusive, and that bears discussion with your kiddo.  But the insight into the kid who struggles to just sit still is invaluable for both young people with the same issue and young people who will gain empathy.

As a bonus, there’s a whole Joey series, which meant that my students were anxious to read more on their own.

Looking for another read about a student who struggles?  Let me also recommend Sahara Special.

sahara special

Sahara, rebelling against her assignment to a special needs teacher, stops doing work completely so as not to give the school additional ‘evidence’ against her.  Although removed from the special education program at the bequest of her less-than-tolerant mother, Sahara still faces repeating 5th grade.

This is indeed one of those stories about the teacher who finds what is wonderful in a student and brings it out, but is no less magical for that inevitability.  ‘Miss Pointy’ is delightfully untraditional, and any student who loves to write but dislikes ‘writing class’ will find a soulmate in ‘Secret Writer’ Sahara, who hides her ‘Amazing Adventures’ behind books in the library.

Still want more?

Beret already mentioned Wendy Mass’ fabulous A Mango Shaped Spacein which the heroine’s synesthesia makes – among other things, math class extremely difficult.

Cythnia Lord’s Rules tells the story of a twelve year old girl’s longing for a normal life, which is difficult when caring for an autistic younger brother.  She creates lists of ‘rules’ for him, ranging from the simple (‘Don’t stand in front of the TV when someone is watching it’) to the sometimes (‘It’s ok to hug your mom but not the lady at the checkout counter’) to the secret ways of the world (‘When someone is upset it’s not a good time to bring up your own problems’).  After befriending a non-verbal paraplegic, our heroine confronts her own prejudices and perceptions.


R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is taking the world by storm these days.  6th grader Grace, of Invisible Ink That Works fame, told me she had to read it in class and couldn’t put it down. “They’re making the whole school read it,” she said.  Well, kudos to ‘them,’ because it’s great.  This is the story of Augie, born with a severe facial deformity, and heading to regular school, as a 5th grader, for the first time.  It’s told from various points of view, including that of Augie, his classmates, and his sister.


And finally, while not exactly in the special needs category, it’s well worth mentioning Jerry Spinelli’s (and if don’t already know Mr. Spinelli, please – proceed at once to your bookstore or Kindle store and peruse everything he’s ever done) Loser.  Social structure and traditional schooling can do much to suck the joy from a kid’s soul – but Donald Zinkoff’s spirit simply can’t be broken.  The Publisher’s Weekly review says it best: “By creating such an unusually good-natured protagonist, Spinelli can show the ugly, cruel behavior of other children without making Zinkoff into a pathetic victim. This tack may well encourage listeners to consider how they treat their friends, classmates and teammates.”  That, plus Zinkoff is one of the most wonderful, likable characters you’ll ever come across.


Have any more recommendations?  Let us know in the comments!

Notes from Beret: Just read The Library Card–another Spinelli book–to my 8- and 10-year-olds. A very challenging book, thought provoking and intense, it was probably a bit much for the younger one. The book is comprised of four short stories, unrelated except for the appearance in each one of a blue library card. The third story, “Sonseray,” is about an angry, violent thirteen-year-old boy, whose mother died of a drug overdose, and whose uncle is trying to look after him. They sleep in a car, and drift from town to town, forced to move because of Sonseray’s aggressive behavior. What is so incredible about this story is that little by little, we are allowed to peek at the pain festering at the root of the boy’s violence–not to excuse the behavior, but to understand why and how someone could make such terrible choices. 

Author: Gina L. Grandi

Moderately well-read. Fairly socially awkward. According to Greg, 'a sentimental cynic with artistic sensibilities.' Somewhat nifty.

3 thoughts on “Special Needs, Spectacular Reads”

  1. Check out Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman about a boy with cerebral palsy. His brain forms the thoughts but he can’t express them, and the book is told from his perspective. Pretty heavy. But a good message. And highly engaging for non-readers or those who can relate to the struggle to have their voices heard.


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