Dolly's Picks: Top Novels from the Dolly Gray Award for Children's Literature

Rachel Pullan

The desire of adolescents to see a reflection of themselves and their own experience is a common consideration as we explore young adult literature. Novels depicting a wide range of life experiences and backgrounds have emerged in young adult literature in recent years, including books representing diverse abilities.

Every two years since 2000, the Dolly Gray Children's Literature Award has recognized a young adult novel that authentically portrays at least one character with a developmental disability. This award has made an outstanding contribution to the creation and appreciation of literature depicting individuals who have disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome.

The award is named for Dolly Gray, a young woman born in 1971 with cerebral palsy. During her short life Dolly was able to experience the world and understand others and herself better through literature. The award was established to motivate authors and publishers to produce books in which children and young adults with developmental disabilities can see characters with perspectives and challenges similar to their own. Another of its goals is to promote greater awareness and understanding of individuals with disabilities and to emphasize the importance of accepting and including them in society.

Dolly's father affirmed, "All of us know ourselves better for having encountered ourselves in literature, and books offered Dolly something precious. She enjoyed stories available in her time showing figures with whom she could identify. Without powerful and accurate depiction of persons with disabilities, literature itself is diminished."

The following is a list of notable titles selected from the 2016 submissions. All books submitted were read by a panel of reviewers from a range of backgrounds; each wrote an evaluation for every book based on the award criteria:

  • The portrayal of the individual with a developmental disability (DD) is well-developed, realistic, strength based (rather than deficit based), and not stereotypical.
  • The individual with a DD interacts positively with others, is accepted by other characters, and makes social contributions.
  • The narrative depicts the individual receiving services appropriate to his/her circumstances and time period promoting self-determination.
  • The narrative is readable, enjoyable, and of high literary quality.

Reviews based on these criteria were synthesized and the award winner selected in accordance with these responses. Many excellent books were submitted, and although only one could receive the award, those reviewed here are recommended as worthwhile reads.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is the award winner for 2016. The book follows Rose, a fifth-grade girl with high-functioning autism who loves homonyms, and her foundling dog, Rain. Rose's alcoholic father is generally apathetic about his daughter's challenges and does not appreciate her many capacities. When a hurricane sweeps through their town in upstate New York, Rain is lost in the storm and Rose must overcome daunting obstacles to find her missing friend.

Readers are attracted by Rose's quirky voice as well as her courage; they cheer for her through her struggles and triumphs. While her relationship with her father is strained
and sometimes painful to follow, Rose also has positive role models in a kind uncle, a patient aide and teacher at school, and new friends in her class. This story was enjoyed by all the reviewers, who found it appropriate for students in middle school or junior high.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold is the story of Mim Malone, who runs away from her father and stepmother in mosquito-infested Missouri to find her mother, who lives in Cleveland and has stopped writing to her. On the way, however, Mim's adventure takes her to places she never meant to go—from a blink-and-you-miss-it Midwest town to a Cubs game. It also brings her into contact with people she never meant to meet—a sweet old lady with a secret, a "psychotic" convict, a dashingly handsome young man on a mission, and a homeless teenage boy with Down syndrome. In the end Mim finds that the journey has meant more than the destination and that love can be found in unexpected places.

Walt, the boy with Down syndrome, is charming and endearing from the beginning. Though not the main character, Walt has an important role in the story and in Mim's personal development, both giving her someone to look after besides herself and teaching her to enjoy life as it comes. Mim and Walt's story is an amusing and quirky read for lovers of John Green and Rainbow Rowell on the high school level. Those who recommend and read this book should be aware that mature subjects such as sexual assault are touched on briefly but not described, and expletives are interspersed throughout.

The Emperor, C'est Moi is an autobiographical work by Hugo Horiot, a French actor with high-functioning autism. The book follows Horiot's life through a series of vignettes that progress chronologically from his toddler days until his introduction to professional acting in his young adult life. Some segments highlighted in the narrative include his childhood fascination with pipes and circles, his complex relationship with his mother, his social experiences in elementary school, his attempt to run for class president, and others, with all the dark and light, the ups and downs, and colors in between.

This book is a beautifully crafted work of literature that frequently reads like poetry. High school readers interested in autism, acting, literature, and art will enjoy Horiot's mystifying view of the world and of himself.

Girls Like Us by Gail Giles begins with two unlikely roommates, Quincy and Biddy, who are paired after graduating from their high school's special education program. At first they seem as different as night and day—one forceful and outspoken, the other timid and shy. As time goes on they begin to realize that they are more similar than they had realized. Both have intellectual disabilities, both have had a hard home life, both are glad to be on their own. When a tragic event drives them together, they must look to one another for support as they seek healing and help.

Quincy 's and Biddy's interwoven voices give texture and complexity to the story as similar events are related by two different personalities. Because this book deals with abuse and rape, it must be approached with sensitivity. Although the subject matter is heavy, the message overall is uplifting: that there is hope after injury, and that there are people who truly do care about "girls like us." 

Fragile Bones by Lorna Schultz Nicholson follows Harrison, a fifteen-year-old teen with autism, who is fascinated with human anatomy, and Anna, a senior with medical school aspirations, who are paired in their school's Best Buddies program. As the two get to know each other through the program, Harrison has to learn how to interact with others (like not naming all the bones in the body when he gets nervous), and Anna has to learn how to get along with Harrison (such as not wearing high heels, which can damage one's arches). Through a school year of ups and downs and Grey's Anatomy, the two look to each other to cope with the world as it comes.

This book alternates between Harrison's and Anna's perspectives, giving a multifaceted look at autism as the reader sees Harrison from inside his own head and from Anna's outsider eyes. The whole narrative is engaging, uplifting, and often humorous. Anna's efforts to prepare for college and her relationship with the Best Buddies president contribute the feel of a normal high school experience, while Harrison's feelings give high school a very different spin. Junior high and high school readers will love this story of life, coping, and friendship.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel combines reality and fantasy to tell a gripping story with a beautiful message. Steve has his fair share of problems. He has personal mental health struggles of his own, a wasp nest on the eaves of his house, and a baby brother with birth defects who is fighting for life. When a mysterious figure in Steve's dreams offers to fix not only the baby but also Steve, it seems too good to be true. He only has to say "yes"—but will he? And if he does, where will it lead?

This novel is a stunning introduction for teens to the genre of magical realism. Oppel's flare for the fantastic shines through in his descriptions of the Wasp Queen and of Steve's struggles to reconcile reality with the powers invading his life. Readers won't be able to put this book down, and they will come away with the message that no one is perfect and that, in our own small ways, it's OK to be broken.

How to Speak Dolphin by Ginny Rorby finds 14-year-old Lilly with some conflicts and challenges. Her half-brother, Adam, has severe autism, and often Lilly is the one who has to care for him. She loves her brother, but at the same time wants her own autonomy.

Lilly's stepfather, Don, resists traditional therapy and education for Adam. As an oncologist, he is invited to be a consultant regarding a young dolphin, Nori, who has cancer. Adam, who has always loved dolphins, is allowed to swim with Nori as a therapy animal.

At first Lilly is thrilled, but when a new friend helps her understand the problems of dolphins in captivity, Lilly is conflicted. Should she help Nori escape? Or should she leave the situation alone to avoid interfering with Adam's treatment?

While humorous and entertaining, this book is filled with compelling conflicts and real life issues, from unconventional therapies to teenage friendships. Lilly's voice is realistic and engaging, and her story, especially her relationships with her brother, her stepfather, and her friend Zoe, are endearing. Intermediate readers will enjoy this story.

For more information on the Dolly Gray Children's Literature Award, please visit

For more information on the Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children, which sponsors this award, please visit

Rachel is a recent graduate from Brigham Young University's English Education program with a minor in Theater Arts Studies, and is an avid reader. She worked as an assistant for the Dolly Gray Children's Literature Award and is currently serving an LDS mission in Bismarck, North Dakota.