Ultimate Guide to Disability/Illness/Disfigurement Fiction
Updated: Oct 22
Representation within fiction has been a huge passion of mine for as long as I've been active as a reviewer. No form of representation has had the same personal significance to me as that of disabled, (chronically) ill or divergent bodies. Growing up, illness and disability were always a big part of my life, and I've spoken about how it shaped my relationship with reading as well. My love of reading started in hospital-beds, escaping the reality of my own "stroke of bad genetic luck": a rare form of cancer as a child, the life-long chronic health-detriments that came with ánd a completely seperate progressive genetic connective-tissue-disease. I read together with my mum, who was also wheelchair-bound for as long as I can remember, and we were always on the hunt for books where we could see those parts of ourselves reflected on the pages. Unfortunately, growing up, those books were few and far between. Over the years however, I've gathered quite the collection of gems that I would love to share with anyone on a similar journey. This list has been a labour of love that has been years in the making, and will hopefully continue to grow as I read more.
Some household-rules before we get into the list:
- all books are linked to their respective Goodreads-pages where you can find a full synopsis, as well as trigger-warnings for all of them. Please be responsible and kind with yourself and your mental well-being. Some of these books contain heavy topics, and it is completely okay to avoid those at certain times of your life, depending on your circumstances.
- I have clustered these books based on audience-age-range, with non-fiction/memoirs being a seperate category. I also seperated books featuring mental-health into a seperate category, since it's represented much more frequently nowadays than physical health, and would otherwise completely dominate the list.
- the penultimate section contains books I actively recommend against, as I personally disliked (elemens of) the representation. This doesn't mean they are objectively bad books, just that I found elements of them harmful.
- the books in the final section are books that are as off yet unread on my TBR-pile. I hope to get to them ASAP and will update this post once I do. If you have any recommendations for books that I should add to the list: feel free to send me a message via my site, my goodreads or my email (email@example.com).
- Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies – Maddie Mortimer Genre: literary fiction Representation: cancer
One line synopsis: Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies is the lyrical tale of a woman, her body and the illness that coinhabits it. Told from the perspectives of Lia herself, her daughter Iris and the (callous? Cynical? Caring…?) voice of the disease itself, we follow her life after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. A coming of age story, at the end of a life.
One of my personal favourite novels of all time.
- Where the Forest Meets the Stars – Glendy Vanderah Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: cancer
One line synopsis: A heartwarming but not sappy story of a young woman slowly finding her way back to life, friendship, love and her job as an ornithologist in training, after the subsequent losses of her mother and her own health to breast-cancer.
- Elena Knows – Claudia Pineiro Genre: mystery Representation: Parkinson’s disease, dementia One line synopsis: a desperate mothers search for answers regarding the death is complicated by her own faltering health. We follow what would for many people be an ordinary track through the streets of Buenoz Aires, but is an exhausting Odyssey fueled by the determination of a woman navigating the world with the effects of Parkinsons Disease.
- The Unseen World – Liz Moore Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: Alzheimers disease (father of protagonist)
One Line synopsis: years after his passing, a young woman uncovers answers and grieves about a side of the life of her eccentric late father, who she never fully got to know.
Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: Life-threatening anaphylaxis
One line synopsis: A family’s life is completely upended by the sudden realization of their daughters mortality, following an unexplained life-threatening case of anaphylaxis. Each family member finds their own way with- or around this newfound uncertainty.
A stunning portrait of what the realization of your health no longer being a guarantee can do to a person and their surroundings.
- The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night – Jen Campbell Genre: short-stories, magical realism Representation: limb-differences/disfigurement. Own-voices
One-line synopsis: a collection of twelve haunting stories; modern fairy tales brimming with magic, outsiders and lost souls.
- Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit - Jen Campbell Genre: poetry magical realism Representation: limb-differences/disfigurement. EDSS1 syndrome. Own-voices
One-line synopsis: poems exploring disability, storytelling, and the process of mythologising trauma. Jen Campbell writes of Victorian circus and folklore, deep seas and dark forests, discussing her own relationship with hospitals — both as a disabled person, and as an adult reflecting on childhood while going through IVF.
- The Gracekeepers & The Gloaming – Kirsty Logan Genre: fantasy Representation: limb-differences/disfigurement
One-line synopsis: set in a waterlogged world flooded by the ocean, we follow two protagonists; Callanish who makes a living as a Gracekeeper, administering shoreside burials to the local islanders, and North; a circus performer with floating troupe of acrobats, clowns and dancers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. A beautiful friendship blossoms when their stories intersect
Representation: limb-difference, wheelchair use, blindness, various other disabilities.
One-line synopsis: Bound to wheelchairs and dependent on prosthetic limbs, the physically disabled students living in the House are overlooked by the Outsides. Not that it matters to anyone living in the House, a hulking old structure that its residents know is alive.
- Lean Fall Stand – John McGregor Genre: literary fiction Representation: stroke, aphasia
One line synopsis: a (medical) emergency on a remote Antarctic expedition has farstretching consequences, reaching beyond immediate survival, and into the return home.
- The Descendants - Kaui Hart Hemmings Genre: contemporary Representation: acquired brain-damage, coma
One line synopsis: a portrait of an afluent father and his two daughters whom life has been turned upside down following a boating accident that left his wife in a coma, set against the contrasting backdrop of sunny Hawaiian life.
- Never the Wind – Francesco Dimitri Genre: fantasy Representation: blind main character (retinitis picmentosa)
One line synopsis: a gothic fantasy of family, friendship, memory, and the uncanny told from the perspective of a blind teenager.
- Burntcoat – Sarah Hall Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: (long)COVID-like illness, caretaking
One line synopsis: Told in dual timelines, a 59-year old artist reflects on her life and imminent death, both of which have been marked by the pandemic she survived in her twenties.
- Welkom in het Rijk der Zieken – Hannah Bervoets Genre: magical realism Representation: fibromyalgia, chronic Q-fever Written by author with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome
One line synopsis: a man navigates the (metaphorical) spaces of his life with a recently diagnosed chronic condition finds himself in the "Kingdom of the Ill", where he confronts other chronically ill people, and parts of himself he didn't yet know.
Genre: magical realism Representation: neurodegenerative illness
One line synopsis: A lost young woman returns to small-town New Hampshire under the strangest of circumstances in this one-of-a-kind novel of life, death, and whatever comes after
Young Adult fiction
- Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak Genre: contemporary Representation: cancer (mother of protagonist)
One-line synopsis: a family of boys threatens to break apart after the death of their mother due to cancer.
- Like Water – Rebecca Podos Genre: contemporary Representation: Huntington’s Disease (father of protagonist) One-line synopsis: an 18-year old girl navigates milenial anxiety, love, changing future perspectives and grief over her dads diagnosis of Huntingtons Disease.
- Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses – Kristen O’Neal Genre: magical realism Representation: various chronic illnesses, own-voices
One-line synopsis: Teen Wolf meets Emergency Contact in this sharply observed, hilarious, and heartwarming debut young adult novel about friendship, chronic illness, and . . . werewolves.
- Breathe and Count Back from Ten - Natalia Sylvester Genre: contemporary Representation: hip-dysplasia, chronic pain own-voices
One-line synopsis: Verónica, a Peruvian-American teen with hip dysplasia, auditions to become a mermaid at a Central Florida theme park in the summer before her senior year, all while figuring out her first real boyfriend and how to feel safe in her own body.
- One Word Kill – Mark Lawrence Genre: fantasy/sci-fi Representation: cancer
One-line synopsis: a short sci-fi whirlwind about Dungeons and Dragons, childhood cancer, friendship, time travel and so much more, all wrapped up in a neat 200 pages.
- Magonia – Maria Dahvana Headley Genre: fantasy Representation: unnamed pulmonary illness
One-line synopsis: Since she was a baby, Aza Ray Boyle has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.
- Where Do You See Yourself – Claire Forrest Genre: contemporary Representation: cerebral palsy + college life in wheelchair One-line synopsis: an unforgettable coming-of-age tale, a swoon-worthy romance, and much-needed disability representation in this story about a girl who's determined to follow her dreams.
- Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom - Leigh Bardugo Genre: fantasy Representation: chronic pain, main character walks with cane
One-line synopsis: A ragtag crew of outcast teens sets off to pull off an impossible heist against the backdrop of a dark fantasy inspired version of the Amsterdam Cannals.
- The Diviners - Libba Bray Genre: historical fantasy Representation: post-polio paralysis
One-line synopsis: after small town girl Evie O'Neill is shipped off to her uncle in New York following a scandal surrounding her unnatural gift of reading objects, she finds herself wrapped up in a supernatural crisis bigger than she imagined. Luckily, she soon finds support in a handful of fellow New Yorkers, each outcasts, each with unique talents of their own.
- Cursed - Karol Ruth Silverstein Genre: contemporary Representation: Juvenile arthritis
One-line synopsis: 14 year old "Ricky" Bloom, is newly diagnosed with a painful chronic illness and pretty pissed off about it. Her body hurts constantly, her family’s a mess and the boy she’s crushing on seems completely clueless. She knows nothing better than rebel at school. But when her truancy is discovered she must struggle to catch up in school to avoid a far worse horror: repeating ninth grade.
- Drömfrangil - Cynthia McDonald Genre: fantasy Representation: main character is an amputee
One-line synopsis: Though he doesn't know it, Marcus Talent is special. Unfortunately for Marcus, he discovers this unexpectedly when he wakes up in an unfamiliar forest, has his prosthetic arm eaten by a horrifying monster, and then wakes up in his own bed, terrified and bleeding.
- A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness Genre: magical realism Representation: cancer (mother of protagonist)
- How To Disappear Completely – Ali Standish Genre: contemporary Representation: vitiligo, Alzheimers (grandmother of protagonist)
- This Appearing House - Ally Malinenko Genre: contemporary Representation: childhood cancer (protagonist is a survivor) - Song for a Whale – Lynne Kelly Genre: contemporary Representation: deaf protagonist
- The Island at the End of Everything - Kiran Millwood Hargrave Genre: historical fiction Representation: leprosy
- Julia and the Shark – Kiran Millwood Hargrave & Tom de Freston Genre: illustrated middle-grade contemporary Representation: bipolar disorder (mother of protagonist)
- The In-Between – Rebecca Ansari Genre: fantasy Representation: type I Diabetes (sister of protagonist)
- Red White and Whole – Rajani LaRocca Genre: contemporary novel in verse Representation: leukemia (mother of progatonist) Own-voices
- The Hour of Bees - Lindsay Eagar Genre: magical realism Representation: Alzheimers (grandfather of protagonist)
- The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree – Paola Peretti Genre: contemporary Representation: Stargardts Disease, loss of vision Own-voices
- The Secret of Haven Point - Lisette Auton Genre: fantasy Representation: various disabilies (including audio-visual impairments, wheelchair use, facial disfigurement and agoraphobia)
- The Girl from Earth's End - Tara Dairman Genre: fantasy Representation: wheelchair use, parent with terminal illness
- What Stars are Made of – Sarah Allen Genre: contemporary Representation: Turner Syndrome Own-voice
- Half Moon Summer – Elaine Summers Genre: novel in verse Representation: parent with motor neuron disease.
- Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper - Els Pelgrom (translated as Little Sophie and Lanky Flop) Genre: magical realism Representation: cancer
- Ruptured - Joanne Rossmassler Fritz Genre: contemporary Representation: ruptured brain aneurysm and neuro-rehabilitation (mother of protagonist). Own-voice
- A Face For Picasso – Ariel Henley Genre: memoir Representation: Crouzon syndrome, disfigurement
Genre: memoir in vignets Representation: acute encephalitis, chronic illness
- Some of Us Just Fall – Polly Atkin Genre: memoir Representation, Ehlers Danlos, Hemochromatosis.
Genre: memoir Representation: colon cancer
- When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi Genre: memoir Representation: lung cancer
- The Emperor of all Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee Genre: medical non-fiction Representation: history of cancer
- The Bright Hour – Nina Riggs Genre: memoir Representation: breast-cancer
- Below the Edge of Darkness – Edith Widder Genre: non-fiction, natural biology Representation: vision-loss
- The Salt Path – Raynor Winn Genre: memoir Representation: Cortico-Basal Degeneration (partner of author)
- Memento Mori - Tiitu Takalo Genre: graphical memoir Representation: subarachnoid hemorrage
- The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath Genre: literary fiction/classic Representation: depression
- Halibut on the Moon – David Vann Genre: literary fiction Representation: depression/bipolar disorder
- Aquarium – David Vann Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: depression, PTSS and addiction
- The Upstairs House – Julia Fine Genre: literary fiction/horror Representation: postpartum depression/psychosis
- Piranesi – Susanna Clarke Genre: fantasy/magical realism Representation: dissociative fugue
- Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: depression and addiction
- The Last True Poets of the Sea - Julia Drake Genre: YA contemporary Representation: depression (brother of protagonist)
- Pet – Akwaeki Emezi Genre: magical realism Representation: selective mutism
- Challenger Deep – Neal Schusterman Genre: fantasy/magical realism Representation: schizophrenia
- We Are the Ants - Shan David Hutchinson Genre: magical realism Representation: depression (protagonist and boyfriend of protagonist)
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon Genre: young adult contemporary Representation: Autism
- A Million Things - Emily Spurr Genre: YA contemporary Representation: hoarding, depression
Books i Recommend AGAINST
- The Fault in Our Stars – John Greene Genre: young adult romance Representation: cancer (both protagonists), not own-voice Recommended against for: romanticizing cancer
- Lump - Nathan Whitlock Genre: literary fiction Representation: cancer, not own-voice
Recommended against for: inappropriate humor at the expense of woman with cancer.
- Me Before You – Jojo Moyes Genre: contemporary
Representations: caretaking for sick sister, not own-voice Recommended against for: using the trope of “sick-character being used as object of personal growth for abled-bodies protagonist”.
- Roll With It – Jamie Summer Genre: middle grade contemporary Representation: cerebral palsy, wheelchair-use Recommended against for: being written by a parent of a disabled child, yet containing many harmful stereotypes, ableist language that isn’t always called out, and the strong feeling of “being a burden to your parents” (not called out!) that is very harmful to disabled children in my opinion, especially coming from a parent of one.
- Before I Die – Jenny Downham Genre: Young adult contemporary Representation: terminal cancer (protagonist)
Recommended against for: romanticizing cancer
- Komt een Vrouw bij de Dokter - Kluun (translated as Lovelife) Genre: contemporary Representation: cancer (wife of protagonist)
Recommended against for: romanticizing cancer, excusing cheating on a terminally ill spouse.
- Made You Up – Francesca Zappia Genre: contemporary romance Representation: schizophrenia (protagonist) Recommended against for: romanticizing schizophrenia + being factually inaccurate.
- Stravaganza – Mary Hoffman Genre: fantasy Representation: cancer Recommended against for: trope of “magical healing”
- All’s Well – Mona Awad Genre: horror, magical realism Representation: chronic pain Note: Although I personally enjoyed this novel, it’s a bit of a marmite one. There’s the “magical healing trope” (although subverted), representation of medical gaslighting and body-horror element that can be triggering to some readers. The protagonist is also very unlikable, which can be misinterpreted as being “because of her chronic pain”, although I’m fairly sure that isn’t the intended message.
- Chouette – Claire Oshetsky Genre: magical realism Representation: fictional illness Note: similar to All’s Well, I enjoyed this novel, but I don’t recommend it as a representation of “illness” or physical disfigurement, but more so as a portrayal of mental differences. I can see how it can be interpreted as offensive to those with intellectual disabilities or physical differences, although I don’t think this was the authors intent.
Unread/On My TBR:
- Moonflower – Kacen Callender Genre: middle grade magical realism Representation: depression (childhood)
Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: Huntingtons disease
- The Speed of Light - Elissa Grossell Dickley Genre: contemporary Representation: multiple sclerosis
- It’s Just Nerves – Kelly Davio Genre: non-fiction Representation: myasthenia gravis
- The Moth Girl – Heather Kamins Genre: magical realism Representation: fictional illness
- Breathing Underwater – Sarah Allen Genre: contemporary Representation: depression
- Disability Visibility – edited by Alice Wong Genre: anthology Representation: various disabilities Own Voices
- Too Late to Die Young – Harriet McBryde Johnson Genre: memoir/essays Representation: spinal muscular atrophy