In 1986, I was a brand spanking new teacher of autistic preschoolers, and my mother gave me a book about an autistic boy who couldn’t attend his neighborhood school because no appropriate services were available where he lived. I found that disconcerting. I wondered, “Are there other children’s books teaching about inclusivity?” and “Are there any books that show kids having meltdowns, like my students do?”
I couldn’t find any at the time.
Then, on a balmy February day in 1999 on the island of Maui, Dr. Mary Anne Prater
(University of Hawaii-Manoa) presented a conference session about using fictional characters
in juvenile literature to teach about individuals with intellectual disabilities. Among other
teachers and professors at that international conference (which is now called the
Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities or DADD), I listened in awe. A professor was actually studying authentic portrayals of individuals with autism and other developmental
disabilities in KidLit!
In a post-session discussion with Dr. Prater and Dr. Sharon Cramer (Buffalo State College),
they had similar questions and concerns to the ones I had been asking since 1986. We brainstormed what we – three college professors – could do to push the field toward more authentic, inclusive, and diverse representation of people with developmental disabilities.
We agreed that a book award might help.
The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award’s mission is to recognize authors, illustrators, and
publishers of high-quality fictional and biographical children’s and young-adult books that
authentically portray individuals with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum
disorder, intellectual disabilities, and Down syndrome.
The award was named after a real-life girl, Dolly Gray, who was born with severe cerebral palsy in 1971. She loved to read, and throughout her eighteen years of life, found that books helped open the world to her. (You can read more about her story here.)
The award was first presented at the 2000 CEC-DADD conference in Baltimore, Maryland, to
Janet Tashjian for Tru Confessions and to Laurie Lears and Karen Ritz (illustrator) for Ian’s
Walk. That year, our screening committee found only twelve eligible books for the review panel to consider. By contrast, in 2022, the panelists reviewed forty books.
Many current titles – and certainly the award-winning books – avoid didactic approaches
when portraying individuals with disabilities. Characters in high-quality books are not
sanitized – they portray strengths as well as weaknesses, and they are realistic – not super-
human or sub-human. These characters engage in meaningful reciprocal relationships with
family and friends in their communities and are educated with typically developing
classmates while receiving appropriate educational services.
They are protagonists and they are antagonists, but their primary purpose is not to help another character grow while they remain unchanged as “eternal children.” Instead, they are dynamic and multidimensional.
Their stories are told not from an outsider’s point of view, but by their own voices – because
they have ideas, hopes, dreams, and experiences worth sharing.
The characters are relatable: readers can empathize with a character who is worried that a snowstorm might cancel a daddy-daughter dance (2022 winner, Dancing with Daddy by Collette Divitto and Katie Mazeika, illustrator), and they can relate to a character who is fascinated with outer space (2022 winner, Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos), regardless of the character’s abilities or disabilities.
In 1986, I knew of only two fictional books written for children or youth that portrayed
characters with autism or other developmental disabilities. Now, in 2023, hundreds of such books can be found in libraries, classrooms, therapy rooms, and homes. When these
books depict characters authentically, then readers who are neurodivergent or developmentally disabled can see themselves and their own experiences mirrored.
Typically developing readers view the characters as if through windows by which they safely interact with new literary friends. Making new friends in books may lead to the opening of doors of greater awareness, understanding, acceptance, and celebration of those around us.
For more information about the Dolly Gray Award, including the rating scale to help readers
choose appropriate books, and a list of all winners since 2000, visit
www.dollygrayaward.com. Click here for an analysis of the forty books considered for the 2022 award.
Professor Tina M. Taylor is an associate dean in the McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University. The focus of her teaching, research, and service is to facilitate increased quality of life for individuals with disabilities and their families. She is co-founder of the Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award and has been working with children and families for over 35 years. Follow the award on Facebook and Instagram @dollygrayaward.