Author Picks: 7 Books About People with Intellectual Disabilities

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Jeannie Zusy has written several full-length plays, screenplays, and works of fiction. Her work has been performed off-Broadway and appeared in McSweeney’s. The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream is her first novel.

According to the Special Olympics, there are approximately 6.5 million people diagnosed with intellectual disabilities in the United States. Worldwide, approximately 200 million. Intellectual disability is a term used to describe a person with “certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills.” As someone who grew up with a sibling with ID, I witnessed the many challenges my brother had and observed the impact he had on every member of the family. My brother Davie brought so much sweetness to our lives. He challenged us, taught us compassion and resilience, and even now that he is gone, provides us with daily inspiration. Having a family member with this kind of developmental disability is a great responsibility and special honor.

After my brother died, I was inspired to write about our adventures together, particularly the last three years of his life, when my siblings and I relocated him from the small town where we all grew up to live near me and my family in a different state. Soon, the story had a life of its own. It turned into a novel called The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream, about a woman named Maggie taking care of her sister Ginny. Here are some novels that moved and enlightened me in which one of the central characters has intellectual disabilities.

The Sound and the Fury
by William Faulkner

The first part of this complex Southern Gothic novel is told from Benjy’s point of view. Benjy cannot speak and is only able to communicate with sounds, such as grunts and moans. His family and most of the people around him lack understanding and compassion, sometimes referring to him as an “idiot.” His own mother sees him as a poor reflection of herself and the family, and his sister, who treated him lovingly, is eventually sent away. Thank goodness for Dilsey, the older Black servant, who sees Benjy as a child of God. As she says, “The good Lord don’t care whether he is bright or not.” It is indicated that while Benjy does have his limitations, he sees, understands, and feels deeply much that goes on around him.

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The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner

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Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck

Lennie is likely the most iconic intellectually disabled character in twentieth-century literature, one many readers are familiar with. Lennie means well, but he doesn’t know his own strength, and this causes so much trouble. George is his companion, who, after Lennie’s aunt Clara died, has taken him under his wing in pursuit of farm work. It’s a love/hate relationship for sure, with George often reminding Lennie how much easier his life would be without him. He calls Lennie a “crazy bastard” and then later defends him, saying, “He’s dumb as hell but he ain’t crazy.” Despite all his tough talk, George acknowledges that their bond is special, and while sometimes he dreams to be rid of the responsibility of Lennie, he also imagines a life in which some day they have their own farm together.

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Of Mice and Men
John Steinbeck

“Le’s do it now. Le’s get that place now.” —Lennie Small

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Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes

Another classic that is often assigned reading in middle school, this science fiction story is about Charlie, a thirty-two-year-old man who volunteers to participate in a first-time experimental surgery that promises to increase his intelligence. Even after being told that he is doing a great thing for science that may even make him famous, Charlie’s motivation remains humble. “I just want to be smart like other pepul so I can have lots of friends who like me,” he writes in his ongoing progress report. With a rapid rise in intellectual growth comes complex memories and emotions, and then a decline as the experiment wears off. This powerful story questions the value of intelligence versus kindness.

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Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes

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Welcome Home, Jellybean
by Marlene Fanta Shyer

Told from twelve-year-old Neil’s point of view, this is the story of when his fifteen-year-old sister, Gerry, first comes home to live, after many years in an institution for people with mental disabilities. Just a few decades ago, this practice was more common. A child who was “different” was often sent away to be raised in a hospital-type setting. The transition home isn’t easy for any of them, but fortunately, the mother here has patience and love. Ultimately, Neil comes to appreciate his sister, considering, “If people would only give her a chance, they’d see she was a person like everybody else even if she was a bit of a variation.”

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Welcome Home, Jellybean
Marlene Fanta Shyer

Welcome Home, Jellybean is Marlene Fanta Shyer's "skillful juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible elements—light humor and the serious theme." (School Library Journal)

Neil Oxley's older sister, Geraldine, is coming home for the first time. After spending most of her life in institutions for the intellectually disabled, she is finally going to live with her family and adapt to the real world.

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Early Morning Riser
by Katherine Heiny

This story follows seventeen years in the life of Jane, a second-grade teacher who just moved to the small town that is Boyne City. The large and charming cast of characters includes Jimmy Jellico, who is described as “slow learning.” Jimmy assists Jane’s boyfriend Duncan, a furniture restorer. He’s loyal, has a penchant for disrupting romantic moments, and is deeply dependent on the care of his mother. When tragedy strikes, and Jimmy is left without her, Jane witnesses how truly vulnerable he is, particularly to some who don’t have his best interests in mind. Jane makes the life-changing decision to take on Jimmy’s care, and in time, she, Duncan, their children, and Jimmy grow together as a family.

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Early Morning Riser
Katherine Heiny

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White Elephant
by Julie Langsdorf

Terrance and Ted are twins, though Terrance is the one who didn’t get enough oxygen to his brain when they were born. Now adults, Ted feels a great responsibility for him. While Ted seemingly has it all—a good job, his own family, even lives in the family home—it’s Terrance, who works as a custodian and lives in a group home, who is more at peace. When their idyllic suburban town gets a little wacky, Terrance keeps Ted grounded in what’s truly important. In response to things unusual or unexpected, Terrance will sometimes say, “It’s not normal.” Ted will agree. And then one of them will conclude, “But what is normal?” Indeed, all of these books seem to share this theme. What is normal? Who is normal? Is anyone truly so? 

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White Elephant
Julie Langsdorf

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The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream
by Jeannie Zusy

THE FREDERICK SISTERS ARE LIVING THE DREAM comes out on September 20!

Every family has its fault lines, and when Maggie gets a call from the ER in Maryland where her older sister lives, the cracks start to appear. Ginny, her sugar-loving and diabetic older sister with intellectual disabilities, has overdosed on strawberry Jell-O. Maggie knows Ginny really can’t live on her own, so she brings her sister and her occasionally vicious dog to live near her in upstate New York. Their other sister, Betsy, is against the idea but as a professional surfer, she is conveniently thousands of miles away. Thus, Maggie’s life as a caretaker begins. It will take all of her dark humor and patience, already spread thin after a separation, raising two boys, freelancing, and starting a dating life, to deal with Ginny’s diapers, sugar addiction, porn habit, and refusal to cooperate. Add two devoted but feuding immigrant aides and a soon-to-be ex-husband who just won’t go away, and you’ve got a story that will leave you laughing through your tears as you wonder who is actually taking care of whom.

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The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream
Jeannie Zusy

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine meets Early Morning Riser with a dash of Where’d You Go, Bernadette in this very funny, occasionally romantic, and surprisingly moving novel about how one woman’s life is turned upside down when she becomes caregiver to her sister with special needs.

Every family has its fault lines, and when Maggie gets a call from the ER in Maryland where her older sister lives, the cracks start to appear. Ginny, her sugar-loving and diabetic older sister with intellectual disabilities, has overdosed on strawberry Jell-O.

Maggie knows Ginny really can’t live on her own, so she brings her sister and her occasionally vicious dog to live near her in upstate New York. Their other sister, Betsy, is against the idea but as a professional surfer, she is conveniently thousands of miles away.

Thus, Maggie’s life as a caretaker begins. It will take all of her dark humor and patience, already spread thin after a separation, raising two boys, freelancing, and starting a dating life, to deal with Ginny’s diapers, sugar addiction, porn habit, and refusal to cooperate. Add two devoted but feuding immigrant aides and a soon-to-be ex-husband who just won’t go away, and you’ve got a story that will leave you laughing through your tears as you wonder who is actually taking care of whom.

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo iTunes logo Indiebound logo Kobo logo Kindle logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo

MENTIONED IN:

10 Insightful Novels That May Just Heal Your Soul

By Jana Li | December 1, 2022

The 12 Most Popular Books of November

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 30, 2022

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By Alice Martin | November 29, 2022

Rediscovered Reviews: 10 Historical Fiction Reads to Get Lost In

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 28, 2022

5 Novels About the Power and Importance of Words

By Chris Gaudio | November 25, 2022

Staff Picks: Our All-Time Favorite Book-to-Screen Adaptations

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 23, 2022

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