Five Novels That Treat People With Special Needs With Respect

My older daughter has cerebral palsy, and living with her over the past 19 years has given me a sensitive gag reflex for the way people with special needs are portrayed in Hollywood movies. Novelists -- not surprisingly -- handle these characters with considerably more depth and complexity. Here's a list of five novels for which I'm particularly grateful.

1. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (2008).
This enormous debut novel had already been on the bestseller list for months when Oprah chose it last week for her popular book club. And what an excellent choice it is. Loosely based on Hamlet, this tender and suspenseful story is about a mute boy and his special breed of eerily aware dogs in a small Wisconsin town. Some of the most enchanting moments describe the private sign language Edgar has developed to communicate with people and animals.

2. Up High in the Trees, by Kiara Brinkman (2007).
I know people raved about Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but to me its depiction of autism relied on too many savant parlor tricks. I prefer this heartbreaking story of a little boy with Asperger's syndrome. His family is struggling to function in the months after his mother's death. Some sections are almost too emotionally painful to read.

Deafening.jpeg3. Deafening, by Frances Itani (2003).
The heroine of this Canadian novel loses her hearing as a child in the early 20th century, but a sharp-eyed grandmother intervenes and makes sure she gets the education she deserves. Later, her love affair with a soldier sent to fight in WWI is portrayed from both sides: his hell in Europe, her worry at home. It's bracing, romantic and captivating.

4. The Center of Everything, by Laura Moriarty (2003).
Ten-year-old Evelyn Bucknow tells this sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always insightful story about life with her welfare mother in a small Midwestern town. The title comes from the pastor at Evelyn's church, and some of the best lines are Evelyn's reflections on God and religion. When her ner'-do-well mom gives birth to a baby with special needs, their little family finds new reservoirs of patience and affection.

Lamb in Love.jpeg5. Lamb in Love, by Carrie Brown (1999).
My favorite romantic comedy is about an English postmaster, 55-years-old, who falls in love for the first time with an equally inexperienced woman. She's the full-time nanny for a profoundly disabled man, and the three of them make a thoroughly charming little group in this novel that you cannot help but love.

Of course, these books are very different from one another, with lots to enjoy and appreciate, but one of the things I like about them all is the way they fluidly integrate people with special needs into their stories without sentimentality, pity or romanticism. Someday I hope life will imitate art.

By Ron Charles |  September 25, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Fiction , Ron Charles
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I am not sure this qualifies, but I think it does. One of my all time favorite classics: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Posted by: CJB | September 25, 2008 2:00 PM

The "without sentimentality, pity, or romanticism" description makes me think of the characters with special needs in two Walker Percy novel, The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. While they are not main characters -- and the character in The Last Gentleman, Jamie, may be stretching the special needs definition -- the heroes of the two novels connect so strongly with those two characters, in a unstrained, comfortable way, that is truly rare, and special.

Posted by: mark tarallo | September 27, 2008 11:02 PM

Rules, by Cynthia Lord, which depicts a family united around their young boy's autism. The book is honest, tender and funny. And has inspired many youngsters to write Cynthia in thanks, for addressing autism in a mainstrean book.

Posted by: Gottawrite Girl | September 29, 2008 1:43 PM

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