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.


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.






Clubbing (With Books)


How many book clubs have you been in? C’mon, I could have asked if you’ve been in a book club, but you’re reading this blog. The jig is up. You’re a book club person, am I right? Book clubs are nerd fests, which is why I love them. As a librarian, I’m the ultimate nerd (pushes glasses up on nose). I’m someone who would probably start a book club, which I may or may not have done in the past. That book club might have ended because I had a second child and gave in to the fact that as a working mom with two small children, I was useless after 7:00 pm.

Flash forward three years, and guess what? I joined a book club! Shocking, I know.

At our first (and thus far only) book club meeting, I found myself feeling a bit of pressure. Lady librarian better have some cool recommendations on hand. Don’t worry, I have an excuse why I came to the first meeting without even a cheese plate. As a school librarian, I needed to be ready to recommend books to kids. As a writer of young adult fiction, I wanted to read comp titles. Basically, I have spent six years exclusively reading children’s and young adult novels (with a few exceptions). Therefore, the recommendation well was pretty dry.

As another book club member was fumbling to find a list she had on her phone, I finally came up with a possible title. I’d read an interview with a writer on Cup of Jo. The interview was about health and beauty, I’ll admit, but I later saw the writer’s new book in my beloved local bookstore and read the jacket. It piqued my interest because the setting was Brooklyn and the story sounded modern and humorous. When I suggested it to the clubbers, they jumped on it. Modern Lovers by Emma Straub, sounds great! Gulp. I hoped I hadn’t led them astray.

Then a summer storm struck and a tree fell on my minivan. Yes, I’m a librarian who drives a minivan. Don’t be so judgey. The tree has nothing to do with this story, but it was a pretty exciting end to a book club meeting. I tried not to take it as an omen.

Modern Lovers is a book about growing old and growing up. Two middle-aged couples living in gentrified Brooklyn–Andrew & Elizabeth and Zoe & Jane–are contending with marital discord and existential questions. Andrew, Zoe and Elizabeth were in a modestly successful band in college, but have all gone on to have traditional careers (or, in Andrew’s case, to live off a trust fund). Their marginally talented bandmate, *Lydia, went on to become famous for singing a feminist anthem that was written by Elizabeth. Lydia was addicted to drugs and died at age twenty-seven, and now Hollywood wants to make a biopic about her life. Andrew, Zoe and Elizabeth must decide if they will sign over rights to their famous song. Feelings resurface around their connection to Lydia and their unfulfilled musical careers. The couples are also dealing with typical issues in marriages entering a third decade: waning sex lives, looming empty nests and mid-life regrets.

As the adults flounder, their teenaged children are consumed with the anxieties and passions that accompany coming of age. Harry, son of Andrew and Elizabeth, is an almost freakishly “good kid” who is adored in part because he has never been a nuisance or a concern. Ruby, daughter of Jane and Zoe, is quite the opposite. Straub does an excellent job of depicting Ruby as both spoiled and self-aware. She is a brat sometimes, but she knows it, and has some cause for her resentments. She also displays a strong ownership of her sexuality and her boundaries, even when she is taking risks. As a young adult fiction fan, I appreciated that Ruby is allowed to enjoy and initiate intimate moments with her partners. What I’m trying to say in PG terms is that teenage girls have hormones, too. Thank you, Ms. Straub, for acknowledging that without judgment. And, as the author points out, sometimes teenagers make out in school playgrounds because there’s nowhere else for them to be alone. It’s not all vampires and mossy forest floors out there.

I’m curious if my love of Brooklyn weighed into how much I enjoyed the book. We’ll have to see what the other clubbers have to say. I was kind of ready to get away from hipsters when I left Brooklyn in 2002, but it’s fun to visit, both in real life and novels. I recommend reading this book with a nice cup of kombucha.

I’d love to hear what you and your book club are reading. Nerds, unite!

Photo via Visual Hunt

*I tried to picture someone comparable to Lydia in real life and failed so if you thought of someone, please let me know in the comments.


Fraidy Cat Writes a Thriller

3663663012_c4b06e1e63_bHistorically, I steer away from the horror and thriller genres and tend to read fiction where no one gets sliced, stalked or slowly driven insane. I blame my mother and Jack the Ripper for this aversion.  I grew up the 70s when people commonly had one TV in their home and mini-series were a huge deal (Roots, Thornbirds, *North and South, etc.). There was no way Mom was missing a juicy miniseries like Jack the Ripper. When I voiced my concern about having nightmares, she told me I had two options: watch or go to bed. At the time, I had cause to believe that a vampire lived in the drawer under my bed so I wasn’t going upstairs alone. I was a coward, but I wasn’t an idiot. Therefore, I watched and was scarred for life. My mom thinks this story is hilarious and responds by saying, “Well, you could have gone upstairs. It’s not like we had DVR back then so what did you want me to do, miss it?”

I know from experience as a school librarian that kids adore Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series. Ten year olds are aghast when I tell them I can’t get past the early scenes where someone’s head gets lopped off. I know what they were thinking: wimpy librarian. I can live with that. I’m thrilled to recommend the Grimm series to students who like their horror served with a head on a plate. Kids seem less bothered by gore, in general. To my credit, I did get through the spooky novel Behind the Bookcase by Mark Steensland, even though it totally creeped me out (as the author intended), and the young horror fans I handed it to were delighted with it. I also frequently recommend Seraphina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty.  Beatty succeeds in providing just enough chills (skin in gloves!) without being inappropriate or gratuitous, and even though I figured out the main mystery pretty early on, there was a later twist that I didn’t see coming. For me, that rarely happens with children’s books, and I thought he did a masterful job of plotting. I look forward to reading the sequel.

Like me, some children frighten easily, so you have to know your audience when you make recommendations. I usually ask kids directly, “Do you like scary books or do they give you nightmares?” They know their limits. Right now, I’m trying my hand at writing a young adult thriller. It was an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone and even though I’m a little scared to write it, these characters want to get on the page. I’m reading both adult and young adult thrillers so I can better understand the elements of this genre, and I started with Sister by Rosamund Lupton. The gore was minimal, but the suspense was gripping. Having a beloved sister, The Bean, I could relate to the main character’s drive to discover the truth. Some of the thrillers and mysteries I read in the past seemed to sacrifice character development in favor of complex plotting. Lupton’s characters were so well developed out that I found myself crying at certain points of the novel. I don’t think even the greatest plot can make you cry unless the writer fully invests you in the characters. I highly recommend reading Sister if you haven’t already.

I’ll write further updates on my foray into reading and writing thrillers. It’s getting late, and I need to check under the bed for vampires.

Photo credit: LuisRaa via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

*I’m pretty sure that when my mother bought me the book version of North and South, she was unaware that it was R-rated. She probably should have surmised it from the naughty bits in the TV version, but I certainly wasn’t going to tell her!

Weeping, Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

It all began in grade school when some well-meaning librarian figured me out as a sensitive kid who liked to read and handed me a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. Henceforth, that librarian will be known as the stone cold witch who killed my innocence and made me cry. At the time, I was cool with the fact that many beloved characters–Sara Crewe (A Little Princess), Little Orphan Annie, Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden)–had dead parents. First of all, we never really met the parents so their loss had little impact. Secondly, these orphans were always adopted by fantastically rich people and ended up fabulously happy. Bridge to Terabithia? Not so happy an ending.

I don’t think I need a spoiler alert, but in case you still have Bridge to Terabithia on your Goodreads “want to read” shelf, then stop here and go get it already. It was published in 1977 so you’ve had ample time. I am one of those people who do not remember much from childhood, but I specifically remember reading this book, sobbing uncontrollably, and wondering why, oh why, this stone cold witch who killed my innocence and made me cry thought I should be exposed to such tragedy. Didn’t she know I would be destroyed when Leslie, the young female protagonist, died in a senseless accident? Now, as a librarian myself, I understand that she read the book, recognized its greatness, and wanted to share it with someone. When I think about it that way, it is actually kind of flattering that she wanted to share it with me…or would be if she hadn’t shattered my innocence and crushed my heart. You know a book is powerful if you still remember the story–and your visceral reaction to it–thirty-five years later.

I’m still blubbering over great books, probably more than usual lately. Typically, it isn’t over a character’s death. In fact, I recently read a book where the main character’s best friend committed suicide, but I wasn’t emotionally invested enough to have much of a reaction. Yet, in the following books, I went totally Terabithia. Great writing does that to me.


Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly – I randomly checked this book out of the public library because l loved the cover and the jacket copy. It turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age books I have ever read. Apple Yengko is a badass. She is the only Filipino girl at her school, longs to play guitar like George Harrison, and has just found out she is on the Dog Log at her school. As someone who was called a “dog” in junior high by a boy I liked (Or maybe by his best friend? I can’t remember. I told you my memory is bad.) I related to Apple’s situation. Boys can be cruel. Girls can be worse. Those who survive middle school are warriors, and Apple…she really rises above. After reading this book I almost wanted to go back to junior high and have a do-over. Almost.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell – Friends have been raving about this book for years. I finally got it and when I started out, I didn’t think it was going to live up to the hype. By the end, I was a weepy mess. It’s the underdog love story of the century. Seriously, what book have you ever read where the chubby, unkempt girl gets to be the romantic lead without first getting a makeover? And the male romantic lead is an introspective Asian American boy? Never. Happens. Rowell makes you fall in love with Eleanor and Park, and I’m still making up stories in my head about what happens to the two of them after the book ends. (P.S. Loved this fan art.)

I highly recommend both of the books above if you need a great read and a good cry. See also: Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech and Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick. Or you can go old school and check out Bridge to Terabithia, but don’t say I didn’t warn you…

El Deafo and the Triumph of Graphic Novels

cover of the novel El Deafo

Every so often, a student will tell me that his (it’s usually a boy) mom has put the kibosh on graphic novels. “I’m not allowed to check out any more comics,” he’ll say, wandering aimlessly off into the chapter book section. *Womp womp* I nod and smile sympathetically, but inside I’m wondering what we are doing to our kids’ love of reading by telling them their choices are a waste of time?

I know graphic novels can be what I call a gateway drug to other books because parents have told me so. In fact, today I approached the mom of a reluctant reader about the two Wimpy Kid books from the school library (ahem) that her son accidentally left in a foreign country. Yeah, I won’t be seeing those books again. But let’s focus on what she told me: once he found the Wimpy Kid series, she didn’t have to nag him to read anymore! He even came to the library today wanting to check out more books–score one for reading! I have heard similar comments from parents about the Big Nate series. I’m not sure everyone considers Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate to be true graphic novels, but let’s not quibble over details. Kids are reading, people. This is good stuff.

The thing is, graphic novels are not just a way to get kids reading. Just like any genre, there is some great literature being written in this form. In graduate school, I was assigned American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and this book blew my mind with its interwoven storylines and takedown of prejudice both subtle and obvious. I just finished reading another masterpiece in graphic novel form: El Deafo by Cece Bell. I have no idea why Bell decided to draw her human characters as rabbit-like creatures when the book is basically an autobiography, but it works. We follow Cece as she is diagnosed with meningitis as a small child and survives the disease only to find her hearing permanently damaged.

Young Cece’s experiences resonate because they are familiar in many respects: moving to a new town, bossy friends, unrequited crushes, and a general feeling that you are different and weird. Cece, however, is navigating these waters with the added complication of her disability. At school, she must wear Sonic Ear, a cumbersome sound amplifier, on her chest. Her humiliation at wearing this device is tempered when she realizes she has the superability to hear her teacher’s voice from anywhere in the school (even the restroom–heehee). Much of Cece’s social isolation results from her inability to participate in activities that make lip-reading impossible: watching TV, listening to the radio, and whispered conversations at sleepover parties. To deal with her frustration, Cece creates an alter ego – El Deafo – who has a solution for every awkward, demeaning situation she encounters. Bell stated in an NPR interview that she wanted readers to see the humor in her situation – the misunderstood words and the funny things that happen when you rely on equipment such as the Sonic Ear. Like Greg Heffley, Cece gets to struggle through the joy, pain and absurdity of childhood, the hero of her own story.

I challenge any adult who believes “comics” have no place in our children’s lives to read El Deafo. They will discover one of the most relatable, vulnerable, triumphant main characters in children’s literature. When did we start judging storytelling based on the number of words on the page, anyway?