25 Kid and YA Books That Lift Up Immigrant Voices

A collection of autobiographical or fictional stories based on childhood memories or that draw upon people's work with immigrant children, including works by Julia Alvarez, Nicola Yoon, and Edwidge Danticat.

170301-FO-ImmagrantStatusImmigration has been a focus in the news and public mind of late, with worldwide politicization around refugees on the move and thousands of unaccompanied Central American children entering the U.S. in search of safety. Reading stories written from the perspective of immigrant and refugee children can challenge privileged tendencies and attitudes that victimize or vilify the “other.” Simultaneously, such texts may present familiar narratives to immigrant youth, particularly titles that address more than just border crossings.

Thus, several of the recently published books here focus on controversial issues, such as violent historical and modern events that have forced people to leave everything behind, as well as the topics of documentation, deportation, family separation, and discrimination. These titles were primarily written and illustrated by #ownvoices authors, individuals of marginalized groups. Many present autobiographical or fictional stories based on childhood memories or draw upon their work with immigrant children. Countries of origin include: Afghanistan, Canada, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Jamaica, Korea, Laos, Mexico, the Philippines, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam. Most of the titles depict journeys to the U.S., although one book is set in unknown countries reminiscent of Syrian experiences, and another depicts Mennonite migrant workers on a circuit between Mexico and Canada.

A wordless graphic novel, a detailed foldout codex, a few bilingual books, and an easy-to-read photo-illustrated informational text augment this selection of picture books, novels, and memoirs, loosely divided into grade level categories. The websites provided complement these books with information on immigrants and refugees in the U.S., and are useful for educators and older students alike.

170301-FO-ImmagrantStatus-CVsElementary Grades

BUITRAGO, Jairo. Two White Rabbits. tr. from Spanish by Elisa Amado. illus. by Rafael Yockteng. Groundwood. 2015. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781554987412. K-Gr 3–In this moving picture book, expressive illustrations present the different perspectives of a Central American or Mexican child and father immigrating north. Oblivious to safety concerns, the young girl innocently recounts their journey, while the visual narrative depicts the father’s protective care for his cherished child. An open-ended conclusion leaves a lingering impression, promoting critical discussions. COY, John. Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land. photos by Wing Young Huie. Carolrhoda. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781467780544. K-Gr 4–Black-and-white photos, accented by a few color images, portray the diversity of 21st-century U.S. immigrants: ages, ethnicities/cultures, religions, and a range of occupations. The accompanying easy-to-read, informational text emphasizes their humanity, difficulties, labors, and successes, and asks readers: “What will we do with their great gift?” DANTICAT, Edwidge. Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation. illus. by Leslie Staub. ebook available. Dial. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525428091. Gr 2-5–Vivid oil paintings depict Saya’s longing for her mother, who is being held in an immigration detention center. Although the mother’s recordings of Haitian folktales bring some respite, the girl’s misery cannot be soothed. While the father makes repeated attempts to reunite the family, ultimately it’s Saya’s letter to a newspaper that makes the difference. Audio version available from Recorded Books. KIM, Patti. Here I Am. illus. by Sonia Sánchez. ebook available. Capstone. 2013. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9781623700362; pap. $7.95. ISBN 9781479519316. K-Gr 3–After immigrating to the U.S., the young boy in this wordless text longs for his former home. With mounting frustration, he mopes indoors until his precious red seed, brought from his native country, falls out the window. Illustrations use flexible graphic novel panels, sometimes spilling onto strategic white space, and colors that aptly express the plot’s emotional trajectory. LAÍNEZ, René Colato. From North to South/Del Norte al Sur. illus. by Joe Cepeda. Children’s Book Pr. 2010. pap. $9.95. ISBN 9780892393046. Gr 1-3–Endpaper maps depicting San Diego, CA, and Tijuana, Mexico, situate readers with José, who desperately desires his mother, deported two weeks earlier. Colorful, tender illustrations depict joy during a visit to Centro Madre Assunta, a refuge for immigrant women and children, as well as frustration on the return trip without her. LANDOWNE, Youme. Mali under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home. illus. by author. ebook available. Cinco Puntos. 2010. Tr 17.95. ISBN 9781933693682. Gr 1-4–Based on the experiences of artist Malichansouk Kouanchao, this book chronicles Mali’s peaceful life in Laos before civil war forced her family to flee their beloved home. Laotian terms complement the English text, and watercolor-wash illustrations evoke a sense of the girl’s loss and the slow healing that brings hope from memories. RUURS, Margriet. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey. tr. by Falah Raheem. illus. by Nizar Ali Badr. Orca. 2016. Tr $20. ISBN 9781459814905. K-Gr 3–A bilingual English/Arabic text illustrated with Badr’s unique stone-and-pebble collages present the migration of young Rama and her family, forced to flee the violence of war and their idyllic Syrian village. Rama lovingly describes her home, the sadness at leaving, and the tiring, scary journey to Europe. SANNA, Francesca. The Journey. illus. by author. Flying Eye. 2016. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781909263994. Gr 1-4–Narrated by an anonymous child, this title chronicles a family’s sudden migration following the father’s death during war. Worry, fear, sadness, and exhaustion accompany their arduous escape made possible by the mother’s strength and resolve. Stunning illustrations with a contrasting palette convey the family’s emotions in this unfinished, yet hopeful tale. TONATIUH, Duncan. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale. illus. by author. ebook available. Abrams. 2013. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781419705830. K-Gr-2 –A drought causes Papa Rabbit to travel to El Norte for work, and his worried son Pancho follows, paying food for Señor Coyote’s guidance…until the supply runs out. Papa’s homecoming saves the day, resulting in celebrations despite the possibility of a return to El Norte. Pre-Columbian–inspired art with digital texture adds rich color to this allegory. TROTTIER, Maxine. Migrant. illus. by Isabelle Arsenault. Groundwood. 2011. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9780888999757. Gr 2-5–Anna is a member of a German-speaking Mennonite community originally from Canada but living in Mexico since the 1920s. Her family treks to Canada annually as migrant workers, and she longs to be a tree, rooted in one place. Tender, full-color mixed-media illustrations feature protagonists accented over pastel backdrops.

Middle Grades

AGOSIN, Marjorie. I Lived on Butterfly Hill. tr. from Spanish by E. M. O’Connor. illus. by Lee White. ebook available. S. & S./Atheneum. 2014. Tr 18.99. ISBN 9781416953449; pap. $8.99. ISBN 9781416994022. Gr 5-8–A dictator’s rise to power results in many “disappearances” in sixth-grader Celeste’s beautiful Valparaíso, Chile. Her multigenerational, multiethnic family is affected as her parents go into hiding while Celeste is exiled to Maine, where she copes with the cold, loneliness, and a new language as she waits to return. ALVAREZ, Julia. Return to Sender. ebook available. Yearling. 2010. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780375851230. Gr 4-7–Eleven-year-old Tyler and Mari alternate as narrators for this book, which humanizes immigrant child experiences. Mari is the daughter of a Mexican family hired to save Tyler’s Vermont family farm from closure. His worldview is challenged following an ICE raid as he learns that only Maria’s younger sisters have “papers.” Audio version available from Listening Library. ARGUETA, Jorge. Somos Como las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds. tr. by Elisa Amado. illus. by Alfonso Ruano. Groundwood. 2016. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781554988495. Gr 3-6–In this hauntingly illustrated collection of bilingual poems, Argueta shares the fears, dreams, and border-crossing stories of children from Central America and Mexico. Their small forms move across countries atop the “La Bestia” train and by foot through the desert—until Border Patrol agents round them up for processing and they wait, like the clouds. DIAZ, Alexandra. The Only Road. ebook available. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481457507. Gr 5-7–Jaime and cousin Ángela (ages 12 and 15) leave Guatemala to avoid joining, or being killed by, the drug-trafficking gang that murdered a close family member. Family sacrifices enable them to cross Mexico, the desert, the Río Grande, and the border wall to locate Jaime’s brother in New Mexico. Also available in Spanish: El Único Destino. DUMAS, Firoozeh. It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel. ebook available. HMH. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544612310. Gr 4-7–When 11-year-old Iranian-born Zomorod (aka Cindy, “Like Cindy from The Brady Bunch”) moves—for the fourth time—for her father’s job, the 1979 American hostage crisis in Iran brings unanticipated challenges for the family, including possible unemployment and encounters with racism. Dumas infuses difficult family and school situations with humor and feeling. Audio version available from Brilliance. LAI, Thanhha. Inside Out and Back Again. ebook available. HarperCollins. 2011. Tr 16.99. ISBN 9780061962783; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9780061962790. Gr 4-6–In this free-verse novel based on the author’s childhood, 10-year-old Hà and her family escape Vietnam during the war. In anguish over their missing-in-action father, the girl and her older brothers endure the long crossing to Alabama with their mother, where Hà encounters dull food, a new language, and school bullies. The support of family and a neighbor moves Hà toward hope. Audio version available from Recorded Books. MATEO, José Manuel. Migrant: The Journey of a Mexican Worker. illus. by Javier Martínez Pedro. Abrams. 2014. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781419709579. Gr 3-5–In this vertically unfolding codex, with a detailed visual narrative and simple, lyrical English text (verso) repeated in Spanish (recto), a Mexican boy recounts abrupt life changes when his mother must take her two children on the arduous journey to find work in the U.S. and to search for their father already there. RESAU, Laura. Star in the Forest. ebook available. Yearling. 2012. pap. $6.99. ISBN 9780375854101. Gr 3-6–Eleven-year-old Zitlally’s story begins just after her father is deported to Mexico when his illegal status is discovered during a routine traffic violation. Her family strains to cope economically and emotionally, a difficult task for a preteen whose heart rests between different countries, cultures, and languages (Nahuatl, Spanish, and English). SENZAI, N. H . Shooting Kabul. ebook available. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. 2009. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781442401945; pap. $7.99. ISBN 9781442401952. Gr 5-8–Eleven-year-old Fadi is tasked with his sister’s care as the family escapes Afghanistan for San Francisco. However, Mariam is lost amid the chaos, and the family’s grief is palpable. Subsequent middle school adjustments are made difficult by 9/11, until Fadi’s participation in the school photography club results in a surprising conclusion.

Young Adult

DE LA CRUZ, Melissa. Something in Between. ebook available. Harlequin Teen. 2016. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780373212385. Gr 6-10–Successful high school senior Jasmine is the cheerleading captain, valedictorian, and winner of a prestigious scholarship. When her loving, hard-working Filipino parents reveal the family is undocumented, her college dreams shatter. This semiautobiographical novel presents the emotional trauma experienced by many U.S. immigrant students, while weaving in romance and teen drama. Audio version available from Blackstone Audio. FARISH, Terry. The Good Braider. ebook available. Skyscape. 2012. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781477816288. Gr 9 Up–Viola, age 16, recounts her immigration journey in powerful free verse. Propelled by the Sudanese civil war and the horror of rape, she walks barefoot to Cairo, navigating land mines, hunger, and loss. The teen and her mother attain refugee status, escape to Maine, and navigate their identities with new freedoms. GRANDE, Reyna. The Distance Between Us: Young Reader’s Edition. ebook available. S.& S./Aladdin. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481463713. Gr 6-9–In this memoir adapted for a younger audience, Grande recounts her childhood in Guerrero, Mexico, her immigration to the U.S., and her drive toward a successful academic career. The child’s voice expresses longing for parental love while also struggling with poverty, identity, health, and domestic violence. Deep sibling bonds and resilience propel her forward. JIMÉNEZ, Francisco. Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University. ebook available. HMH. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780547632308. Gr 9 Up–This fourth title in Jiménez’s autobiographical series, all available in Spanish editions, chronicles his graduate studies at Columbia University in the late 1960s. Narrated in a sincere voice, he references life as an immigrant child of migrant workers while describing the disciplined tenacity that led to high academic and vocational goals. NAZARIO, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey (The Young Adult Adaptation): The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother. ebook available. Delacorte. 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780385743273; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780385743280. Gr 7 Up–Seventeen-year-old Enrique leaves Honduras for the U.S. on a long and dangerous trek. Desperate for the mother who left years before, he endures violence, hunger, thirst, and deportations before reuniting with her. Their emotional scars and difficult lives promote readers’ consideration of the losses and injustices that many immigrants face. YOON, Nicola. The Sun Is Also a Star. ebook available. Delacorte. 2016. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780553496680. Gr 8 Up–Chance brings Jamaican-born Natasha and Daniel, son of Korean immigrants, together for a day in New York City. She seeks legal assistance to avoid deportation, while he struggles with parental expectations at odds with his love for poetry. Despite personal and cultural differences, the teens develop a romantic relationship and share their stories in alternating chapters.

Quiroa-Ruth_ContribRuth E. Quiroa, Ph.D., is an associate professor of reading and language at National Louis University in Lisle, IL.

Digital picks

BRYCS: Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services. www.brycs.org. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Washington, D.C. A project of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services, this site maintains the “nation’s largest digital resource collection” to support refugee and immigrant children and families. Topics include child welfare, family strengthening, youth development, and anti-trafficking. Migration Policy Institute. www.migrationpolicy.org. Migration Policy Institute. Washington, D.C. A nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank, MPI focuses on the analysis of the movement of people worldwide. The site offers links to reports, fact sheets, policy statements, books, and the institute’s online journal, Migration Information Source. National Immigrant Justice Center: A Heartland Alliance Program. immigrantjustice.org. National Immigrant Justice Center. Chicago, IL. The NIJC provides legal services and advocacy for low-income immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as well as information on detention, anti-human trafficking, LGBT rights, asylum, and unaccompanied children.
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Thank you, Ruth! Can't wait to share these with teachers in the field!

Posted : Mar 28, 2017 09:13


Thank you for your article and collection of great books that I am sharing with our district on Monday meeting. Want to hear more of you. Sincerely, Elizabeth

Posted : Mar 25, 2017 01:47

Ruth E. Quiroa

Thank you Elizabeth. So glad these books are getting into the hands of children. Please share widely!

Posted : Mar 25, 2017 10:51


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