Field Guide to Families

Nurturing strong relationships—one issue at a time

Characters With Special Needs Make for Exceptional Stories

Novels that focus on exceptional children

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the American Montessori Conference in Dallas alongside the remarkable Temple Grandin, author of many nonfiction books, including The Autistic Brain. She mesmerized the audience, sharing anecdotes about her childhood and how her insightful mother nurtured her at a time when little was known about autism. Her real life stories stole my heart, and got me thinking about the fictional ones I’ve been impacted by over the years.

I’ll admit I was late to the game reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I tend to shy away from phenoms du jour, but my daughter kept putting the tome on my bedside table until I had no choice but to acquiesce. Ten pages in and I was as hooked as the rest of the world with this gorgeous novel loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, about a mute

boy, his dogs, and his search for the truth about his father’s murder. The Christian Science Monitor said of the novel, “Edgar might be silent, but his story will echo with readers for a long time.” I couldn’t agree more.

Shortly after reading Edgar, I became equally enchanted with Rachel Simon’s, The Story of Beautiful Girl. Hard as it is to fathom, as recently as the nineteen sixties, children born with disabilities such as deafness and Down Syndrome were institutionalized, forever separated from family. Simon (also the author of the acclaimed memoir, Riding the Bus with My Sister) believes like I do in the power of fiction to teachI spoke with Rachel about what it’s like to write from the heart about the plight of the most vulnerable among us (those put away as they were once referred to), who have been cast out of society, forced to make sense of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to find love. “She felt so lovely in his hands. She felt so loved in his eyes.”

Another deeply moving story is the powerful Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern. This hypnotic thriller centers on the disappearance of two children into the woods behind their school. Hours later a young girl has been found murdered and the only witness is a child who cannot tell what he saw. The child is autistic, and so begins his mother’s quest to give voice to the tragedy her child endured, and to find peace for the girl’s parents who desperately need to know what happened to their daughter.

All of these novels are as well-plotted as they are rich in authentic character details. Each hero goes beyond the stereotypical or sensational, working his or her way into our hearts because the challenges they face are both uniquely personal and universal. Readers will love them, not because of their special needs, but because they think and feel, as all of us do, about loving and being loved, about what it means to be part of a family. Readers will turn pages all the faster when these memorable characters are in jeopardy, and they’ll mourn each book’s closing despite their hero’s triumphs. All of these selections are must-reads because the stories are so compelling and the writing so beautiful.

Other Notable Selections:

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Lark and Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips

Icy Sparks, Hyman Rubio

Young Adult

Wonder, R. J. Palacio

Out of My Mind, Sharon M. Draper

What stories/novels have you read featuring a special needs character that made a difference in your life?

Lynne Griffin is a nationally recognized expert on relationships and family life. She is the author of the novels, Sea Escape (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Life Without Summer (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), and the nonfiction guide Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment (Penguin, 2007). Lynne teaches family studies and leadership at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Wheelock College in Boston. She recently completed a second year as visiting scholar of education in Singapore. Lynne teaches fiction writing at Grub Street Writers in Boston, and co-created an innovative, intensive program for soon-to-be-published writers called Launch Lab. Follow Lynne: https://twitter.com/Lynne_Griffin or https://www.facebook.com/LynneGriffin

Lynne Griffin, R.N., M.Ed.researches family life and is a novelist.

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