Just the Same: Recently Published Picture Books About Immigrant and Refugee Experiences

“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!”

Emma Lazarus

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)imgres-copy-2

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)images-3

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)imgres-14

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 imgres-13Leslie 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.

Wimpy Kid Read-Alikes

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The most popular series in my school library was Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The copies would come back tattered, stained and well loved. They passed from hand to hand before I had time to check them in and out again. Many parents asked me to recommend a similar series so they could get their kids to read something – anything! – other than a Wimpy Kid book. I think it’s pretty wonderful that Jeff Kinney created a series to hook the most reluctant of readers, and I’m always happy to suggest titles that kids can move to next.

There are the three elements in the Wimpy Kid books that I believe make them so popular:

  • Humor
  • Realistic (usually cringe-worthy) life events
  • Hand drawn illustrations/cartoons

The following books have the trifecta: humor, realistic tween problems, and cartoon illustrations. I listed the series title first (if there was one) followed by the title of the first book in the series:

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  1. My Life Series: My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian — Twelve year-old Derek Fallon is crushed when he has to spend his summer at “Learning Camp.” Reluctant readers will particularly identify with Derek, and all readers will enjoy his adventures and sympathize with his humiliations. I feel like this series has a little more depth and heart than Wimpy Kid and highly recommend it.

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  2. Tom Gates: The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by L. Pichon — Tom Gates is a British version of Greg Heffley. You’ll find the same humor about school and home life. A glossary at the end helps readers understand some of the British terminology. In my library, this series was a huge hit with Wimpy Kid fans.

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  3. Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang by Amy Ignatow  — This journal format series chronicles the adventures of best friends Lydia and Julie as they attempt to uncover the formula for popularity. I think boys would love this series just as much as girls if they would give it a shot. It really bothers me that boys have been socialized to resist “girl” books, and I encourage parents to buy the book and cover it with a brown paper bag. Maybe then little dudes will be comfortable reading it.

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  4. Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell — I have to admit, I have not read this series myself. The reviews are mixed, with some saying the main character Nikki Maxwell doesn’t show enough growth over the course of the story. I included it because it’s hugely popular with female reluctant readers. I think it’s worth it for parents to check it out and see what they think.

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  5. Origami Yoda: The Strange Case of Origami Yoga by Tom Angleberger — Dwight, an odd kid in the sixth grade, starts making accurate predictions for his classmates by speaking through a finger puppet shaped like Yoda. This offbeat concept yields hilarious results and realistic portrayals of tween angst. Interestingly, Angleberger is the husband of the author/illustrator of book #6…

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    cover of the novel El Deafo

  6. El Deafo by Cece Bell — This memoir follows Cece Bell through her childhood as she adjusts to becoming deaf after a bout of meningitis. Reluctant readers will love the graphic novel format and Bell’s humorous take on her life-altering situation. Adults will appreciate the fact that the book has something important to say. I wrote more about the book here.

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  7. Charlie Joe Jackson: Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Not Reading by Tommy Greenwald — The title says it all. Charlie will go to great lengths to make sure he doesn’t have to complete a reading assignment. Hilarity ensures and reluctant readers will love him.

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  8.  Big Nate: In a Class by Himself by Lincoln Peirce — Big Nate is another series that flies off library shelves. Like many of the main characters in this list, Nate is a ne’er-do-well who can’t seem to get a break. Big Nate is heavy enough on the humor and illustrations to hook reluctant readers.

I know many parents hope to get their children to read something more challenging than Wimpy Kid. Please note that this is not the purpose of my list. These are read-alikes to keep kids reading, especially kids who aren’t always thrilled to pick up a book. I like to tell people that I spent junior high reading every book in the Sweet Valley High series. I went on to become an English major, a librarian, and an appreciator of great literature (as well as seriously low brow books). I believe that it’s important to make reading a pleasurable experience for children. The hope is that this will lead them to more substantial literature and lifelong reading habits.

Books to Read on the First Day(s) of School

As a teacher and a librarian, I always eagerly anticipated that first day of school. I was well rested. My lessons plans were solid. My room was lice free. And I knew that my students would be on good behavior for at least a week. This year, I’m heading back into the school year as a parent, not as a teacher or a school librarian. It’s strange to be on summer vacation instead of being part of the hustle of teacher workdays. Today I found myself hanging bulletin board paper in my husband’s classroom because apparently I can’t stay away.

In the spirit of keeping my head in the game, here is a list of great books to read aloud the first day(s) of school (pre K through third grade). I noted which books have main characters who are people of color because I think diversity is an important consideration when selecting read alouds. Please feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments. Wishing all my former colleagues and educators everywhere a great first day of school!

Preschool and Kindergarten

Kindergarten Diary by Antoinette Portis — This book chronicles one girl’s first month of kindergarten. The illustrations are colorful and engaging, and the story will reassure students that school is fun.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn — Mama Raccoon comforts her baby as he starts school. This book addresses the separation anxiety many children feel. If you’re a sap like me, it may bring tears to your eyes.

Bailey by Harry Bliss — Bailey decides to attend school. What’s the problem? He’s a dog. If you’re looking for a lighthearted read, this is a great choice.

The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing — This take on the classic Christmas story is a solid choice for the first day. At the end of the story, the parents are the ones crying as they drop off to their kindergarteners. Too true.

I am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child — Lola’s brother Charlie tries to reassure her that school will be fun. I find that Lauren Child’s illustrations are better for one on one reading, but the story is funny enough to hold a group’s attention.

 

Grades 1-3

Brand New School, Brave New Ruby by Derrick Barnes — This book is for all the younger siblings who follow their brothers and sisters into a school. Ruby is sassy, smart and ready to make a name for herself. The main character is African American.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look — I love Alvin Ho because he represents the quiet, anxious introverts among us. Students who will only read Diary of a Wimpy Kid may enjoy Alvin enough to read the rest of the series. The main character is Asian American.

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes — You may know Henkes from his stellar career as a picture book author. This is what I would call a quiet book. Nothing zany or intense happens, but many students will relate to the experiences of second grade and family life.

Dory Fantasmagory: The Real True Friend  by Abby Hanlon — I haven’t loved a protagonist this much since Clementine. Dory is that strange kid, the one who talks to herself, wears weird clothing, and is generally under-appreciated. She desperately wants a girl named Rosabelle to be her new best friend. Hilarious. I want Dory to be my best friend.

Make Way for Dyamonde Daniels by Nikki Grimes — Dyamonde is dealing with her parents’ divorce and moving to a new school, but she retains a positive attitude. When a grouchy boy arrives as the new kid in her class, Dyamonde is determined to get to the bottom of his bad attitude. The main characters are African American.

 

 

 

 

 

Go Ahead…Make My Day

I love the challenge of being asked for book recommendations. You may think kids are open to book suggestions from librarians because (a) they are the ones asking me for book suggestions (b) I am a grown-up who spent two years getting my graduate degree in library science (c) these are the people who often refer to me as “the book lady.” If you think any of these things matter to a kid, you are wrong. Most of these little people are a hard sell. Sometimes they seem to want to reject everything I throw out there, but that doesn’t stop me. I am a book machine. And if their parents are the ones asking for suggestions, the challenge just intensifies. Bring it!

I always ask which books the child has enjoyed previously so I can get a feel for their taste. It’s also helpful to know what they didn’t like so I don’t suggest something they previously rejected. Nothing kills my credibility like offering a book that they think is a loser.

Today, a mom at school asked me for some summer reading suggestions for her son who is a rising third grader. This kid is way cooler than I am so I knew I had my work cut out for me. Here are the stats:

Book series he loved:

  • Shredderman
  • Geronimo Stilton
  • Magic Treehouse

Book series he rejected:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid (said it was “too easy,” which I didn’t really understand, but I went with it because it made sense to him)
  • 29 Clues (he just made a face at the mention of this one — see, I dodged that bullet because I mentioned it, but did not recommend it. I’m a librarian ninja!)

Parent request: something more challenging than early faves like Magic Treehouse

Child request: some humor, possibly illustration

I like to think of myself as crunching data like Google, but let’s be honest, my brain is much more random. Here is what I came up with for him:

1. Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger — I think he should try this series first. The humor will appeal to him, and it feels like a good fit for his personality. yoda

2. The My Life series by Janet Tashjian — This series has the illustration component to it, some humor and a relatable main character. Strong contender.

3. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume — This is a classic good stuff. It doesn’t have much illustration, but I think the characters and humor will appeal to him.

4. Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver — Disclosure: I have not read this series. I still think it might appeal to him from the description. Maybe it’s a back-up possibility.

5. The Lemonade War — I’m not sure if his teacher read this to the class already. If not, I think the conflict would appeal to him.

What would you recommend for this little dude?

Picture Books for Art Teachers & Young Artists

815zzVH2rfLAll kids–big and small–love to hear a story read aloud, and picture books can be used in so many ways in the classroom. Our amazing art teacher uses picture books all the time. Here are a few titles I recommended for her this year:

  • What Can You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, Mae Besom (illustrator)
  • The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt
  • Willow by Denise Brennan-Nelson & Rosemarie Brennan, Cyd Moore (illustrator)

I asked for the titles of some of her favorite classics. She recommended:

  • Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger — for making Star Wars origami
  • Circle Dogs by Kevin Henkes — she likes the shapes of the characters
  • Abstract Alphabet – this book is full of shapes that spell out words (you have to look at the key to see which letter each shape represents in order to read the words). She has her students create their own words using shapes.
I recently ordered the following titles for our library and can’t wait to get my hands on them. I know our art teacher will love them, too:
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  • Art2-D2’s Guide to Folding and Doodling by Tom Angleberger
  • Draw! by Raul Cocoon
  • How to Draw a Dragon by Douglas Florian
  • Louise Loves Art by Kelly Light
  • The Imaginary by A F Harrold, Emily Gravett (illustrator)
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
  • Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, Wendell Minor (illustrator)
  • Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, Tim O’Meara (photography)

If you have any suggestions for other books to inspire young artists, please send them my way!