I’m a child of an immigrant. And so I jumped at the chance to put together a list of some of my favorite children’s books about the immigrant experience.
I know first-hand just how difficult it is for someone to get to America for a better life and work toward citizenship, let alone having to leave their homeland, family members, and the only life they’ve known behind, sometimes forever.
With immigration a big topic in our country right now, our children are hearing about these issues too. They have so many questions, whether they’re watching the news with you, discussing it in school or attending a protest in support of their immigrant and refugee neighbors and friends.
I know a lot of children are feeling sad, confused, and overwhelmed by the stories; I know that I sure am.
So as with so many topics, I thank goodness for books, which are powerful tools. They impart knowledge, and can offer comfort too, with stories like these about the immigrant experience — most from the point of view of other children.
While by no means is it a comprehensive list, it’s our hope that you can find one that’s right for your child, to help foster empathy, to inspire and motivate, and to bring us together through communication and understanding.
Related: 14 magnificent children’s and YA books for HIspanic Heritage Month
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The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
There are so many important lessons children will gain in this picture book for young readers from Korean-born author and artist, Yangsook Choi. It’s the story of a little girl named Unhei who has just immigrated from Korea. In simple but captivating terms, the book relates her difficulties trying fitting in, especially with a name that the American kids can’t pronounce — or even make fun of in school. When Unhei and her teacher decide to solicit suggestions from her classmates on a new American name, she learns that maybe she doesn’t have to change who she is to be accepted. And her classmates learn an important lesson in empathy too.
Madlenka by Peter Sis
Our editor Liz is a huge fan of this captivating picture book for young children, in part because it so perfectly captures a day in the life in a city like New York — where Liz happens to live, too. It’s just an ordinary part of Madlenka’s day to interact with her neighborhood’s French baker, Indian news seller, Asian shopkeeper and the German lady who sits by her window. Her journey around the block is like a trip around the world, making this much celebrated book a great reminder of melting pot so many of us are privileged to be a part of, and how the contributions of many different cultures truly bring color and life to our communities. Kids in pre-k through about third grade will get lost, Waldo-style, in the remarkable illustrations.
Related: 10 outstanding children’s books about activism
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
This lovely book, for grades 3–5, tells another story of a girl who feels like she doesn’t fit in. This time it’s Farah, a recent Muslim immigrant who doesn’t speak English and dresses differently than her schoolmates. A class trip to an apple picking farm helps deliver the lesson that children from different countries and cultures are really more alike than they may have realized. And I love how it comes to life with Ted Lewin’s gorgeous watercolor illustrations that both depict Farah’s feelings of isolation, and later, her feelings of hope.
I really like this beautifully illustrated, poetic picture book (also shown at very top) featuring a child with a background we don’t often see in books: she’s a Mennonite from Mexico. Anna lives a migrant life with her family of farmers, and her story truly captures what it’s like to feel like a stranger in a strange land, from a child’s perspective. I think early grade readers from about 6-8 will find the metaphors in this book relatable, helping them easily empathize with that feeling of wanting to belong, whomever you are.
Related: The simple difference between Latino and Hispanic, in one clever cartoon
A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi
An excellent children’s book about the immigrant experience for middle readers, A Long Pitch Home tells the story of Bilal, a 10-year-old boy from Pakistan whose father is sent to America to live with his aunt and uncle. The book explores his thoughts in a thoughtful and honest way, with a focus on what it feels like to leave your home, friends, and most importantly, family. When he does arrive, we see Bilal’s efforts to assimilate by learning English in his ESL class and trying to fit in with his classmates, and the struggles that ensue. Ultimately, Bilal is able to find some joy in learning to play baseball, which not the same as his beloved Cricket, but an activity that helps him bridge the gap, if only a bit. The imperfection of this solution is in part what makes Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s books so special.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by
I love so many things about this true story of Clara Lemlich, the young Ukrainian immigrant who used her strength and perseverance to lead the largest strike of women workers in our country’s history. It covers so many of the topics that remain strongly relevant still today including immigration, fair labor laws, and the fight for women’s equality. It’s an excellent way for children to understand how difficult life was for immigrants in America in the early 1900s, and the book gives parents a chance to open up a discussion about what has changed and what has not for American immigrants over the past century.
Related: The fabulous new book that teaches kids empathy while celebrating diversity.
My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aquí hasta allá by Amada Irma Pérez
This sensitive story of Amada, a young Mexican girl, details her family’s journey from Mexico to Los Angeles, touchingly capturing her fears, hopes, and dreams through her own words. In her diary, she shares realistic concerns and worries about whether she really will have a better life in America. As with many of the heros of these children’s books about immigration, Amada struggles with leaving her home behind — however her loving and tight-knit family help her realize she is stronger than she ever imagined. An excellent book for children in grades 2–5.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs
Created around the stunning stone artwork by Nizar Badr, this relatively new book is receiving so many accolades for its timely story about the Syrian refugee crisis, personalizing it through the story of a girl named Rama. She and her family are forced to flee civil war and walk on foot with their belongings with the hopes of finding safety and freedom in Europe.While the journey itself is difficult and filled with danger, there’s a happy ending that will satisfy younger children. And because the family is depicted solely by figures comprised of faceless stones, the story has has a Waldorf-like style that a lot of parents will like for open-ended discussions about what the characters might be thinking or feeling.
Related: How to help the Syrian victims: A comprehensive list of 20+ outstanding organizations.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna
The Journey is a gut-wrenching, timely tale that we named among our 18 best children’s books of 2016. It describes heartbreaking true stories the author collected about war and the refugee crisis, sharing them from a child’s perspective and a mother’s pain. Sanna’s exquisite illustrations perfectly evoke just how agonizing the immigration process, and especially the refugee experience, can be, making this children’s book about the immigrant experience a great way to help discuss tough issues with younger and middle-grade readers, and to help us describe how and why families like the ones depicted here need our understanding our help. Plus, we can never shy away from a book with a moral about kindness making all the difference in people’s lives.
Do you have a favorite children’s book about the immigrant experience? Please share in the comments!
Thank you for this post ! I highly recommend Edwidge Danticat’s Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation; I got to hear Ms. Danticat read this at the Miami Bookfair the other year; it’s the story of a young girl in the U. S. whose Haitian mother is in immigration detention in Miami. https://www.amazon.com/Mamas-Nightingale-Story-Immigration-Separation/dp/0525428097
Thanks for the recommendation Kate! I love Danticat’s work, will have to check this one out.
Thank you! Just reserved 7 of these at my local library! I can’t wait to read them to my children.
That’s fantastic! Please let us know which ones were the biggest hits. Happy reading!
Thanks for sharing! All of these books sound wonderful! Perfect for my future ESL students 🙂
Thanks Mary Lynn, I hope they enjoy them!
I wanted to mention this lovely book – I’ve given to many teachers who teach refugee populations: “Here I Am” by Patti Kim and Sonia Sanchez. It’s especially valuable for English learners since it’s told through the images – perfect for any language! https://www.amazon.com/Here-I-Am-Patti-Kim/dp/1479519316/
Thanks so much Carrie, it looks fantastic.
My book: Hopping to America: A Rabbit’s tale of Immigration, by Diana Pishner Walker
This is such a wonderful resource! Thank you! We posted it on our blog and are so grateful to you all for putting this list together.
Thanks Emily + Cady for letting us know. So glad to help! (and don’t miss the other suggestions coming in in comments.)
Painted Words/Spoken Memories by Aliki.
There is a great trilingual book about refugee children called “The journey of Halima” and it is free of charge if you want to download it.
You can visit http://thejourneyofhalima.com/ and learn more about the project and the book.
Canadian author and storyteller Robert Munsch co-wrote the book From Far Away with a young immigrant who wrote him letters about her experience: http://robertmunsch.com/book/from-far-away
For something a little more metaphorical, I would also reccommend Sam Swope’s The Araboolies of Liberty Street, about how a neighbourhood rallies around its one family of ‘different’ people: http://us.macmillan.com/thearabooliesoflibertystreet/samswope/9780374303907/
Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago is a fantastic, child-appropriate discussion of the trials and tribulations some Latinx migrants face.
For a non-fiction title about immigration:
97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life by Linda Granfield
–about families who lived in the Lower East Side Tenement building that housed thousands of new immigrants (and is now an immigrant experience museum)
True stories of remarkable immigrant families.
Esmeralda Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a great young adult novel about a young upper-class Mexican girl who immigrates with her mother to California after her father dies.
I would add an oldie but good one, Bread and Roses by Katerine Paterson. It deals with the immigrant experience for a bit older readers but also includes so much about early labor practices in the US.
For the Christian and/or Christmas-loving segment, I suggest Refuge. Also, $1 from each purchase until October 2017 will got to UNCOHR.
For older children, This Land Is Our Land: A History of American Immigration by Linda Barrett Osborne
The Rainbow Tulip, by Pat Mora
I always loved Angel Child, Dragon Child.
I Have an Olive Tree by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Karen Barbour. As the daughter of Greek immigrants, one of whom is from the islands, I was stunned at how astutely this book captured the idea of place as a part of the family. I cried when I read this book, kept thinking about my Dad and where he came from.
I’m so excited to read this one Pauline! I’m the daughter of a Greek immigrant too!
I really loved “We Came to America” by Faith Ringgold. I teach preschool, and it’s a good entry-level book on the subject for kids that age.
[NOTE: Post edited to remove unnecessarily antagonistic content]
I was born a refugee and am a naturalized US citizen. I don’t even know where to begin.
First of all, I find your comment about how these books will encourage kindness and empathy to be a little too precious.
Do you honestly think that all of us immigrants had the same experience? Or that a perfunctory reading of a children’s book can encourage empathy in a five year old?
More importantly, it might blow your mind, but my experience of bridging two cultures and seeing just how much members of my immigrant group cling to the outdated, sexist, homophobic and racist traditions of the old country makes me less sympathetic to all immigrants. Personally, I think if you come to America, you should assimilate, rather than holding on you the culture of the country you ran away from.
Finally, the topic of immigration and protecting America’s borders is far too complex to be summarized in a children’s book.
Many of our own writers are first-generation Americans and children of immigrants, including the author of this post, and she is entitled to her perspective based on her own experiences, same as you are.
There is no need to belittle her opinion.
Yes, we believe books can open up conversations which can lead to more empathic behavior. No, we do not believe that all immigrants have had the same experience nor have we ever stated that. And we emphatically disagree that any of us, however long our families have been in this country, should dismiss our ancestry and cultural traditions entirely — the variety of perspectives, holidays, culinary and cultural contributions here are in part what make America, America.
If you feel able to provide constructive suggestions for books or other resources, we’d be happy to hear them. – Eds
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say is a beautiful book which won the Caldecott Medal in 1994, It tells of a journey from Japan to California. It is a treasure!
Thanks you! My family loves Allen Say’s books.
A Charmed Life by Gladys Elizabeth Barbieri.
Thanks for these amazing books! Great to see that there are so many good ones out there. The book “Brave girl” is especially interesting as it talks about the US immigration history and has even a strong female character. Will definitely have a look. Books like these are difficult to find in my mother tongue Finnish, hence I decided to write a children’s book to my multilingual children when living in Australia. In my book I wrote about the life and things that happen to kids like mine with many cultures and languages living in a multicultural Australia. I think it is important that even kids like mine can hear a story where they can identify themselves. Maija book is published in Finnish, German and English. Great book for any family living with different cultures and languages. We donate all the sale royalties to http://www.malala.org and support their programs for educating underprivileged girls. https://www.amazon.com/Laura-Lohiniva-Hart/e/B01MRD27AR.
Molly’s Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, is a story about a young immigrant girl from Russia. Throughout the book, Molly is teased relentlessly by a group of girls in her class. They make fun of her for the way she looks and her lack of knowledge on the American holiday, Thanksgiving. When her teacher asks the class to make pilgrim dolls, Molly creates one that reflects her own pilgrimage experience.
Patricia Polacco wrote The Keeping Quilt, about an immigrant family and a quilt made of scraps of cloth they wore when they arrived, passed down through the generations.
Another Eve Bunting story “How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Story is a story about a family who is forced to flee their Caribbean island and set sail for America in a small fishing boat. Eve Bunting herself is an immigrant from Ireland.