“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Over the last few years, I have been disturbed by the growing global trend of anger and fear toward immigrants and refugees. I understand that prejudice against immigrants and refugees is not a new concept, but there has definitely been an increase in hateful rhetoric. Where once we were proud of being “a nation of immigrants,” we are now debating building walls and excluding people because of their religion. I believe we will look back on this period in history with shame.
I want my children to understand that we all deserve basic human rights, and people who come to our country seeking freedom from poverty, war and other dangers are not a threat to us. The titles listed below are all recently published picture books that address the immigrant and refugee experiences. They are appropriate for elementary school, and I believe they could be used at the middle school level, as well. I often used picture books to introduce new topics to my middle school students. Most importantly, these books have the power to spark important conversations about compassion and empathy. What could be more important to discuss with our children?
We Came to America by Faith Ringold (2016)
Ringold’s poetic approach to immigration is both honest and appropriate for young children. In the first few pages she notes that American Indians were the first Americans, a fact that is left out of many immigration lessons. She also does not ignore the issue of slavery: “And some of us were brought in chains/Losing our freedom and our names.” She goes on to convey the reasons immigrants came to this country, as well as the beauty that comes from the blending of diverse cultures. The colorful illustrations depict a wide array of immigrant families in the traditional clothing of their native countries. Ringold concludes with the line “We are all Americans/Just the same,” a simple message that at this point in our country’s history feels incredibly relevant. This book would be a fantastic choice for discussions on diversity and tolerance.
Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng (2015)
This picture book humanizes the issue of illegal immigration by bringing it down to a personal level. The story is told through the eyes of a little girl who travels with her father along the border. He attempts to earn money to keep them alive, and she counts the things she sees: chickens, clouds, stars. The little girl never gets an answer to her question about where they are going, and her confusion adds to the quiet desperation of this story. The illustrations help convey the obstacles immigrants face: the camps of people who live by the railroad track, the escape from soldiers (presumably border police), the father’s look of exhaustion and despair. The words and images are appropriate for young children, yet they will provoke conversation and raise important questions. There is epilogue that concludes with the question, “What do those of us who have safe comfortable lives owe to people who do not?” I think children often have a much more generous answer to this question than adults.
Here I Am by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez (2014)
In this wordless picture book, we follow the experiences of an Asian boy who has come to live in America with his family. At first, he feels confusion, loneliness, and grief. He cherishes a red seed he has brought with him from his native country, and it is this treasure that pushes him to explore his new neighborhood and connect with others in his community. There is so much to enjoy about this book that I found myself poring over the details on each page. It would be best read aloud with a small group, as the illustrations might be harder to enjoy from a distance. This book could be very powerful to read with children who are new immigrants. Even students who know little or no English can enjoy wordless picture books like this one, and I believe the story would be a wonderful way to connect with them. This book would also be useful in teaching about inferences (what can you infer based on the boy’s body language in the pictures?) and fiction writing (have students write the words to accompany the story).
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danicat and Leslie Staub (2015)
Saya’s mother has been sent to an immigration detention center, and her family does not know if she will be released or deported back to Haiti. During their separation, Saya listens to bedtime stories her mother has recorded for her on cassette tapes. She and her father work to get her mother released, and, in the end, they are reunited. For children, the idea of being separated from a parent will resonate strongly. As a teacher, I certainly had students with family members who were in prison or who were facing deportation issues, and I wonder if this book and others like it would have been helpful to them. I’m sure many of them felt alone and afraid, just like Saya.