February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Kaleidoscope of Cultures | New Books on Immigration


Taking up a timely and complex topic, these books offer opportunity to inform and enlighten students, while building empathy, understanding, and compassion for others.

Learn from History
Handsomely designed and carefully researched, Linda Barrett Osborne’s This Land Is Our Land (Abrams, 2016; Gr 5 Up) provides a readable and elucidating historical overview of American immigration. Thematic chapters begin with the first colonists and move forward chronologically to discuss succeeding waves of immigrants: “Germans, Irish, and Nativists” through the 19th century; “The Other Europe” (Italians, Jews, and Eastern Europeans); “Immigrants from Asia;” “Latin American Immigrants;” “Refugees;” and the period from World War II to the current day.

Throughout, the experiences and desires of these diverse newcomers are brought vividly to life through individual accounts, numerous and seamlessly integrated quotes, and an array of well-captioned historical photos. For example, Rosa Cassettari describes the conditions she endured in steerage during a 1884 voyage from Italy; a poem carved into the walls of Angel Island, the processing center opened in San Francisco in 1910, reveal the bitter feelings of a Chinese internee (“for over a month, I have experienced enough wind and waves…/I look up and see Oakland [California] so close by…/Discontent fills my belly…”). The now-famous Cesar Millan (“the Dog Whisperer”) describes paying a “coyote…one hundred dollars” to take him across the border from Tijuana when he was 21 and reflects on becoming a citizen 19 years later (“It was hard to touch my dreams, but this is the place in the world where dreams come true”). The refugee Tuan Nguyen relates fleeing Vietnam on a small boat in 1989, 16 years in a refugee camp in the Philippines, and his 2005 arrival in California (“It’s for my children…to give them a better life”); and a Mexican American teenager named Veronica reveals how her family was torn apart after her uncle was deported in 2006. Representing a wide variety of personal histories, these illuminating first-hand accounts add greatly to the historical detail while also enhancing empathy and understanding.

Throughout, the text eloquently highlights the numerous contributions made to America’s growth, prosperity, and culture by immigrants. The book’s logical organization allows Osborne to tell these individual stories, which are couched in specific time periods and set against historical events, while also emphasizing the very similar challenges and social attitudes that each wave of immigrants faced—government laws and policies, economic concerns, prejudice and discrimination—drawing parallels that allow readers to recognize relevant themes. In fact, many of the legal restrictions and arguments implemented through the centuries against different immigrant groups, as well as the impetus for emigrating to a new land, seem astonishingly familiar today.

The final chapter raises timely issues: should immigrants who enter without documents be allowed to become American citizens? How do we keep immigrants from crossing illegally over the Mexican border? What happens to the children of illegal immigrants? In her introduction, Osborne, descendant of eight great-grandparents who emigrated from Italy, encourages youngsters to think about the book’s title, a play on lyrics from the 1940 Woody Guthrie folksong: “Is it our land, the land of people who already live here, who were once but are no longer immigrants? Or is it our land, including the people who still come here for opportunity and freedom…?”

Providing historical perspective and a deeper understanding of the subject matter, this volume enables youngsters to begin to grapple with this question along with many other of today’s hot-button issues. This outstanding informational title can also be used as a launch point for further historical investigations. Have students compare and contrast this book with resources such as Gwenyth Swain’s Hope and Tears: Ellis Island Voices (Calkins Creek, 2012), which pairs historical photographs with fictional vignettes to convey the experiences of the estimated 12 million immigrants who passed through the facility between 1892 and 1954, or Russell Freedman’s outstanding overview of Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain (Clarion, 2013), an engaging account that sparkles with archival images and primary source accounts.

Celebrate Diversity

their-great-giftPart photo-essay and part free-verse poem, Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land (Carolrhoda, 2016; K-Gr 5) focuses on the experiences of modern-day immigrants. Wing Young Huie’s striking photographs, mostly in black and white, are thoughtfully grouped together on eye-caching spreads. Shot over 30 years in neighborhoods located in Huie’s home state of Minnesota and throughout the United States, the images feature immigrants from a variety of cultures and countries (“including Mexico, Laos, Somalia, China, Sweden, Haiti, Latvia, Korea, and Nigeria”) engaged in moments from everyday life: families sharing a meal or relaxing at home, children attending school, hardworking adults laboring at a variety of jobs, people gathered for community events. Expressive and evocative, the pictures celebrate the diversity of these immigrant families, while also emphasizing the universality of human emotion. Presented in concise phrases, John Coy’s lyrical text poignantly draws out common experiences and challenges shared by newcomers—“My family came here from far away…because they dreamed of more”; “They made mistakes and people laughed’; “They worked long, hard hours, at difficult jobs”; “They shifted between languages, between cultures, between places”; “They kept going day after day so we’d have choices they didn’t have.” The fact that there are no identifying labels or captions inspires readers to look more closely at the photos, take notice of and muse over cultural differences, and extrapolate similarities between these very different families…and maybe even their own. Words and images blend to convey a message that is eye-opening, uplifting, and empowering.

Pairing lyrical text with color-drenched paintings, Faith Ringgold’s We Came to America (Knopf, 2016; K-Gr 4) celebrates our nation’s diverse heritage: “We came to America,/Every color race, and religion,/From every country in the world.” After recognizing that “Some of us were already here,” and that “…some of us were brought in chains,/Losing our freedom and our names,” the poem moves forward in time to acknowledge the millions of immigrants who have arrived ever since, traveling by “boat and by plane,” some “…running/From injustice, fear, and pain.” The aforementioned refrain peals throughout the book, which also recognizes the bountiful gifts bestowed by immigrants: “We brought along our joyful songs./Our stores wise and true,” and made the nation great with “Our food, our fashion, and our art.” While the text remains broad, Ringgold’s lushly brush-stroked paintings portray families from different historical periods and a variety of cultural backgrounds. The bright color combinations, dynamic presence of the depicted individuals, eye-catching patterns and hues of clothing, and upbeat rhythm of the text combine to create an exuberant mood. The repeated use of pronouns such as “we” and “our” makes this celebration feel inclusive and welcoming. The final illustration shows a group of diverse children gleefully interacting, underscoring the author’s eloquent message of acceptance and unity: “In spite of where we came from,/Or how or why we came,/We are ALL Americans,/Just the same.”

These two books approach similar themes in very different ways, and students can compare and contrast the narrative and visual styles utilized in both volumes. Encourage your students to explore their own family histories, interview relatives, and write accounts to present in the classroom. Kids can identify the differences and similarities in their individual family arrival stories, and how cultural traditions play a role in their day-to-day lives.

The Perilous Journey

somos-comosSomos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds (Groundwood, 2016; Gr 3-6), an affecting picture book written in both Spanish and English, evokes the plight of the thousands of refugee children who flee their homes in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico and travel to the United States in hopes of finding safety and a better life. In his introduction, poet Jorge Argueta, himself a refugee who fled the war in El Salvador in the 1980s to journey to the United States, describes the anguish experienced by youngsters who have left everything behind, been torn from loved ones and friends, and forced to make heart-wrenching decisions. “Like the clouds, like dreams, our children come and go. Nothing and no one can stop them.” From the first selection (“Somos como las nubes/We Are Like the Clouds”), which is paired with an illustration showing a child floating dreamlike in a sky filled with clouds shaped like elephants, horses, pumpkins, and other whimsically depicted items (the San Salvador volcano looms in the background), this metaphor poignantly weaves in and out of the free-verse poems.

The first few entries highlight the joys of home (a “Flame Tree” with flowers that “sway in their little red-winged hammocks”) as well as the terrors (the profusely tattooed street gang members of El Salvador’s “El barrio La Campanera/La Campanera Neighborhood” are described as “painted people” and visually depicted with a single menacing cyclops eye), and convey feelings of sadness about leaving the familiar behind. Other offerings depict the harrowing dangers of the journey and the anxiety of an uncertain future. One youngster, stretched out to sleep on “La arena del desierto/The Desert Sand,” longs to return to the father left behind, but promises him, “When I get to my mother,/we will send you a kiss/just as big/or bigger than the moon.” As they walk endless miles, another child is told by a parent to keep singing, to “…scare away all the tiredness/and the fear/and become a song.” A prayer entreats “Santo Toribio/saint of the immigrants,” to show the way and protect the travelers from “the migra” (Immigration Services), the traffickers, and “the minutemen” (armed patrols of civilians). Finally, dreams come true, as a mother tells her child, “You are in my arms./Your are in Los Angeles./You are a champion.” Alfonso Ruano’s acrylic-on-canvas paintings blend realism with a touch of fancy to expand upon the poems’ content and echo their powerful emotions. Poignant and heartfelt, this book provides a starting point for classroom discussion.

panchoTwo picture books can be used for comparisons and to further discussion. Featuring animal characters, Duncan Tonatiuh’s allegory, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (Abrams, 2013; K-Gr 5), expresses many of the circumstances and emotions faced by families who cross the border in search of a better life. Several harvests ago, a drought forced Papá Rabbit to journey to El Norte to find work in order support his family, and he has not returned home as planned. Devastated, eldest son Pancho heads north to search for his father, and meets a coyote that promises to show him a shortcut in exchange for the sweet and spicy mole the youngster carries. Señor Coyote’s demands continue throughout the arduous journey via foot, train-car roof, rushing river crossing, tunnel beneath a border fence, and desert crossing. Finally, left exhausted and weak, Pancho has nothing left to give, and is about to become the coyote’s meal, when Papá arrives to save the day. They return home together for a fiesta with loved ones and friends, but the family’s future remains in doubt if the rains do not return. The flat, stylized paintings, inspired by Pre-Columbian art, incorporate modern details and brim with emotion. Filled with references to Mexican culture, the beautifully written text reveals the courage of the tale’s hero, along with the closeness of a loving family. An extensive author’s note packed with information, statistics, and websites for further research offers an eye-opening starting point for investigation and discussion. A helpful 2015 educator’s guide produced by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs (CLASP) on behalf of the Américas Award, can be downloaded.

two-whiteJairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng’s Two White Rabbits (Groundwood, 2015; K-Gr 5) is told entirely from its young protagonist’s point of view, a little girl who likes to count the things she sees as she travels with her father. Meanwhile, the harsh realities of their journey are depicted in the detailed two-page illustrations, beginning with “one chucho, as my dad calls them”—a character depicted as a shifty-eyed orange coyote that remains with them throughout their odyssey. In successive scenes, the travelers cross a roiling river via raft to “Frontera,” ride atop a moving train car (the girl looks up to count shape-changing clouds), flee into the countryside as soldiers interrogate some of their fellow passengers, make an unscheduled stop in a small town while Papá earns money (she counts the two rabbits a new friend gives her), and pile into the back of a red pick-up truck for a ride that lasts into the night (she counts the thousands of stars and lonely moon, but refuses to count the soldiers she sees). Throughout, the simple text keeps the girl’s experiences tethered to her sensibilities, as she utilizes her imagination, clings to her stuffed rabbit, and tries to make the best of her circumstances. The artwork details the day-to-day challenges father and daughter face with courage and persistence, while also conveying their unwavering affection. The ending is ambiguous, further underscoring the very real dilemmas and dangers faced every year by many thousands of children from Central America and Mexico who travel north to the U.S. border.

Utilizing a variety of narrative approaches and artistic styles, these three picture books focus on the topic from a very intimate perspective, evocatively enlightening readers about the emotional impact of events on young children and their families and providing an accessible way for students to think about, discuss, and begin to fathom the situation faced by undocumented immigrants. Themes of the importance of family relationships and the emotional resilience they provide are affectingly expressed. Accessible, honest, and profound, all three works can be appreciated on many levels, shared to help encourage empathy for others, and utilized to initiate further research and discussion of immigration and refugees from around the world.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those referenced in the above books and classroom activities:

RI 1.1 Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RI 2.9 Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.
RI 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text.
RI 3.9 Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.
RI 5.5 Compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.
RI 6.9 Compare and contrast one author’s presentation with that of another.
W 2.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects.
W 3.7 Conduct short research projects that build knowledge about a topic.
W 5.7 Conduct short research projects that use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic.


Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.


  1. Cecilia Horn says:

    Hi — I am going to do a presentation on this topic. Please email me so I can ask you some questions. Much appreciated!