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.