Ultimate Guide to Disability/Illness/Disfigurement Fiction
Bijgewerkt op: 27 nov.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies – Maddie Mortimer Genre: literary fiction Representation: cancer
- Where the Forest Meets the Stars – Glendy Vanderah Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: cancer
- Elena Knows – Claudia Pineiro Genre: mystery Representation: Parkinson’s disease, dementia
- The Unseen World – Liz Moore Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: Alzheimers disease (father of protagonist)
Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: Life-threatening anaphylaxis
- The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night – Jen Campbell Genre: short-stories, magical realism Representation: limb-differences/disfigurement. Own-voices
- The Gracekeepers & The Gloaming – Kirsty Logan Genre: fantasy Representation: limb-differences/disfigurement
- Lean Fall Stand – John McGregor Genre: literary fiction Representation: stroke, aphasia
- The Descendants - Kaui Hart Hemmings Genre: contemporary Representation: acquired brain-damage, coma
- Burntcoat – Sarah Hall Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: (long)COVID-like illness
- Welkom in het Rijk der Zieken – Hannah Bervoets Genre: magical realism Representation: fibromyalgia Written by author with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome
Young Adult fiction
- Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak Genre: contemporary Representation: cancer (mother of protagonist)
- Like Water – Rebecca Podos Genre: contemporary Representation: Huntington’s Disease (father of protagonist)
- Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses – Kristen O’Neal Genre: magical realism Representation: various chronic illnesses own-voices
- Breathe and Count Back from Ten - Natalia Sylvester Genre: contemporary Representation: hip-dysplasia, chronic pain own-voices
- One Word Kill – Mark Lawrence Genre: fantasy/sci-fi Representation: cancer
- Magonia – Maria Dahvana Headley Genre: fantasy Representation: unnamed pulmonary illness
- Six of Crows & Crooked Kingdom - Leigh Bardugo Genre: fantasy Representation: chronic pain, main character walks with cane
- The Diviners - Libba Bray Genre: historical fantasy Representation: post-polio paralysis
- Cursed - Karol Ruth Silverstein Genre: contemporary Representation: Juvenile arthritis
- Drömfrangil - Cynnthia McDonald Genre: fantasy Representation: main character is an amputee
- 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 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
- What the Stars are Made of – Sarah Allen Genre: contemporary Representation: Turner Syndrome Own-voice
- Kleine Sofie en Lange Wapper - Els Pelgrom (translated as Little Sophie and Lanky Flop) Genre: magical realism Representation: cancer
- Constellations – Sinéad Gleeson Genre: memoir Representation: Chronic Illness, Leukemia
- Sitting Pretty – Rebekkah Taussig Genre: memoir Representation: paralysis, wheelchair use
- A Face For Picasso – Ariel Henley Genre: memoir Representation: Crouzon syndrome, disfigurement
Genre: memoir in vignets Representation: acute encephalitis, chronic illness
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)
- 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 Last True Poets of the Sea - Julia Drake Genre: YA contemporary Representation: depression (brother of protagonist)
- We Are the Ants - Shan David Hutchinson Genre: magical realism Representation: depression (protagonist and boyfriend of protagonist)
- Pet – Akwaeki Emezi Genre: magical realism Representation: selective mutism
- The Upstairs House – Julia Fine Genre: literary fiction/horror Representation: postpartum depression/psychosis
- Challenger Deep – Neal Schusterman Genre: fantasy/magical realism Representation: schizophrenia
- Piranesi – Susanna Clarke Genre: fantasy/magical realism Representation: dissociative fugue
- Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi Genre: literary fiction/contemporary Representation: depression and addiction
- 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 Representation: cancer Recommended against for: romanticizing cancer
- Me Before You – Jojo Moyes Genre: contemporary 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: cancer
Recommended against for: romanticizing cancer
- Komt een Vrouw bij de Dokter - Kluun (translated as Lovelife) Genre: contemporary Representation: cancer
Recommended against for: romanticizing cancer, excusing cheating on a terminally ill spouse.
- Made You Up – Francesca Zappia Genre: contemporary romance Representation: schizophrenia 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
- Never the Wind – Francesco Dimitri Genre: fantasy Representation: blind main character
- Breathing Underwater – Sarah Allen Genre: contemporary Representation: depression
- The Moth Girl – Heather Kamins Genre: magical realism Representation: fictional illness
- 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