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.






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?

Reflections on Diversity and Writing Workshops

This weekend I went to a wonderful writing workshop. It was an intensive workshop for people who had a completed manuscript, and I am so grateful to the volunteers who put it together. There was a keynote speaker, critique groups, and two sessions with editors that work for major publishing houses. Surveying the room on Friday evening, my first thought was, “White women sure do like to write books.” Among the crowd of about 30+ writers were three white men. There was one writer who was a person of color, and her name is Judy. She and I got to know each other a little over the weekend. We discovered that I had the pleasure of knowing her good friend, picture book author Kelly Starling Lyons, and we bonded over our desire to see more diversity in children’s literature.

In the last moments of that weekend, when we were walking out to our cars, Judy and I saw a TV screen in the lobby airing a news story. Bold words on the screen shouted at us, Is the t-word the new n-word? Judy said that the t-word must mean “thug.” In my white privileged world, I hadn’t even been able to think of that myself. I don’t have to worry about my son being called a thug, being followed by the police because of his skin color, being shot because he is walking down a dark street at night and someone saw him as a threat. All weekend we had been immersed in our fantasy world of writing and publishing, and here it was, the reality of life in America 2015. We are still coming up with code names to degrade and stereotype other human beings.

A few moments later, the topic of Judy’s presence at the workshop came up. She breathed a sigh of relief when I acknowledged that yes, I noticed she was the only person of color there, and yes, it bothered me, too. Judy said she felt some guilt – were there people of color she could have encouraged to come along to the workshop? She used the description of putting out her hand to lift others up. It made me reflect that noticing the lack of people of color at the conference is not enough. What am I doing to lift other people up? What am I doing to bring forth the voices of those who have been silenced for so long? This is not about white guilt. I know someone will think or say, “But you can’t help that you were born white.” No, I cannot. But I can acknowledge that some things have been given to me because I am white. I did not earn them. I can acknowledge that it is difficult to be the only person of color at a writing workshop. I can invite people of color to come speak to my students about their writing, and I can read their books in the classes that I teach.

The first thing we usually talk about when we discuss the need for diverse books is that children of color need to see themselves in literature. They need to see themselves traveling to magical lands, solving a mystery, falling in love. This is absolutely true. But I contend that white children need diverse books just as badly. The “thug” stereotype will only disappear when it is replaced by a positive image that is more powerful. White children must be required to look through the lens of someone with a different skin color. It doesn’t matter if the book has anything to do with race or prejudice. I believe that white children need to experience being the “other” because it shifts the paradigm in a powerful way.

I hope Judy keeps working on her book and that it gets published and not just because she is a warm, kind, talented person who deserves success. I want that book to be in the bookstore and the library for children to read. We must all hold out a hand and take accountability. Thank you, Judy, for reminding me of that.