I have been focusing my reading the past few months on middle-grade literature addressing the crisis of refugees and asylum seekers. It has been tough, frankly. Emotionally tough.
My goal in doing so was to offer you an array of titles and urge you to include one or more in your reading this fall. You could read them alongside your middle-graders, or just for your own benefit, incorporate them into your lesson plans or book clubs, but please, do not simply turn away from this important conversation in our nation and world.
These books open our hearts and minds to a more compassionate and informed understanding of what exactly is precipitating these mass movements of harassed people, what terrors these young children experience in their homelands and on their formidable journeys. Understanding steers us away from blame, fear, callousness, oversimplification, and fosters responses of love, mercy, and generosity. Those are the impulses I want to cultivate in myself.
A common misunderstanding of refugees and asylum seekers is that they dislike their homes, are glad to leave them behind, and must be ever so happy in their new communities, whether that’s the U.S., Canada, Germany, Sweden…wherever. Yet even at its grimmest, home and extended family are fled reluctantly, in the most extreme of circumstances. Although a new setting may be safe and have opportunities, there is grief, loss, alienation, and often trauma to overcome. Several of these stories address the hurdles of settling in to a new homeland.
I have tried to give some guidance about emotionally-difficult content so you and your children can make informed selections. I highly recommend tackling these stories with discussion partners or groups. There are a lot of complex issues and traumatic elements better tackled through dialogue.
All of these are in addition to more than 50 titles about the refugee experience already on my blog — picture books, nonfiction, and chapter-length fiction — which you can find here.
Without Refuge, by Jane Mitchell
first published in Ireland, 2017; American edition 2018 by Carolrhoda Books
269 pages + back matter
Ghalib, age 13, and his Kurdish family are forced to flee their home in Syria. They’ve persisted in staying through bombings, the arrival of ISIS, death and injuries all around them, water shortages, streets turned to rubble and rotting trash, perilous insecurity. But the threat of Ghalib being conscripted as a soldier is unbearable, so they begin the harrowing journey towards safety.
Don’t let the cover of this book dissuade you from picking it up. I have no idea why the American cover looks like this! Here is the UK version — so much more appealing!
It’s a well-written novel, one of my top choices today, illuminating many aspects of the plight of Syrian refugees. Contains graphic violence and peril including drowning. Ages 10 and up.
Escape from Syria, written by Samya Kullab, illustrated by Jackie Roche, colorist Mike Freiheit
published in 2017 by Firefly Books
87 pages + back matter
This excellent graphic novel tells the story of a young girl, Amina, who flees Aleppo with her family. Their journey to safety in Canada includes a long stay in a Lebanese refugee camp, enabling us to learn of the immense difficulties and hazards faced by families and particularly young girls in these settings.
The graphic novel format is an outstanding vehicle for succinctly informing us about many facets of life for Syrian refugees while still hooking us into Amina’s poignant story. I was underwhelmed by the cover, but thoroughly won over by what I discovered inside.
Endnotes expand information on some key points of the text. The story references the unique dangers of assault faced by young girls in refugee camps, though not graphically. Great choice for ages 10 and up.
Escape from Aleppo, by N.H. Senzai
published in 2018 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Nadia, age 15, is separated from the rest of her family as they seek to flee Aleppo, a city awash in horrific conflict. Crippled by PTSD, she’s nevertheless forced to make her way with a small band of strangers through a maze of terrors, seeking escape while holding onto a thin thread of hope that she’ll be reunited with her family somehow, somewhere.
This book seemed to battle itself, unsure whether to be fiction or nonfiction, with too much information cobbled awkwardly into the text. It would have benefited, perhaps, from a docu-novel sort of format. On the other hand, Senzai weaves in a great deal of background to the war and introduces many complexities of the conflict, even the contribution of climate change which is rarely mentioned, all of which could make it more helpful for some readers. It’s also less graphic in its descriptions of violence. Ages 9 and up.
Welcome to Nowhere, by Elizabeth Laird, illustrated by Lucy Eldridge
published in 2017 by Macmillan Children’s Books
Omar, age 12, is an ordinary boy living in Bosra, Syria as the tensions from the Arab Spring begin to impact his life. His older brother, afflicted with cerebral palsy, is far more engaged with politics, including anti-government resistance, and soon Omar is also drawn into dangerous activities. Eventually his family is forced to flee their city, but safety proves to be elusive.
I didn’t love this book, though it has some merits. On the downside, I was taken aback at how unlikeable the characters are. Omar’s family members continually trade insults, and are generally mouthy, scornful, and unkind. His father, who works for the Syrian government, is a particularly loathsome fellow. It was more difficult for me to care about the outcome of this group of people than those in other books.
On the upside, its excellent prologue gives readers needed background to the crisis in Syria and poses thought-provoking questions. Omar’s voice is young, contemporary, with quite a Western feel to it making him a more relatable character for some. Laird vividly portrays the ugly sexism faced by Omar’s older sister and strongly contrasts the normalcy, the dignified, sophisticated lives of prewar Syria, with the drastic change of identity to refugee status which feels degrading and surreal.
Significant graphic violence including discussions of torture and rape. Ages at least 12 and up.
Illegal, written by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, art by Giovanni Rigano
published in 2018 by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Another graphic novel, this traces the journey of two Ghanaian brothers, Ebo, aged 12, and his older brother Kwame. Without parents, left in the care of an unfit, alcoholic, uncle, the boys set off in search of their sister who fled to Europe earlier.
Their harrowing journey takes them across the Sahara desert to Libya, and is studded with extreme dangers, illnesses, a savage lack of water, food, and shelter, corrupt and violent guides, and traffickers who issue them a flimsy boat to cross the Mediterranean.
The plot flips back and forth between the journey leading to the sea and the journey over the sea, with Ebo alone surviving. It’s a heartwrenching account and includes the drowning of many fellow passengers. For those with the maturity to manage it, this story reveals the immense difficulties faced by thousands of young children, grasping at hope without understanding the consequences and perils of their route, and asks us to see them as human beings requiring our compassion. Ages 11 and up.
The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, by Victoria Williamson
published in 2018 by Floris Books
This compelling novel portrays the refugee experience after resettlement, a different sort of journey through scars of trauma and loss, navigating parents who are also wounded and struggling, beset by hostility from a new community, and plagued by homesickness in a foreign land.
Set in Scotland, the plot features two main characters, both 12-year-old girls. Caylin is a Glasgow native whose life has been shattered by her own set of losses. She’s developed a tough, harsh approach towards others as a defense mechanism against more pain. Into her apartment building moves Reema and her family, newly resettled having fled the war in Syria. Her father has been significantly incapacitated by nerve gas, her brother is missing in Syria, and her uphill climb to adjust to Glasgow is formidable.
This was one of my favorite reads of the bunch. These two girls are honestly, realistically drawn characters, and there are many familiar elements to the story — school friendships, a track team, and one beautiful, wild fox — that welcome readers into their world. This is how most of us encounter refugees — as new members of our schools and communities — making it an especially helpful perspective.
Williamson also weaves in valuable details about Islamic culture, and the story contains much less violence and disturbing content than stories about the flight from war itself. There are a number of Glaswegian and Arabic words, yet the book has no glossary, making it a challenge in spots for young readers. Highly recommended for ages 10 and up.
Nowhere Boy, written by Katherine Marsh
published in 2018 by Roaring Brook Press
This novel features the most unusual twist on today’s theme and will work extremely well for book clubs. If you’ve got a boys’ reading group, I’d strongly consider it.
Max is a 13-year-old American boy who, along with his older sister and parents, has just moved to Brussels for a year. He is thoroughly unenthused about this, particularly resenting being forced to attend the local Belgian school rather than the American one.
Ahmed is a 14-year-old Syrian refugee who through tragic circumstances has landed in Brussels completely on his own, and undocumented at that. Searching for any sort of shelter, he winds up hiding in the wine cellar in Max’s house.
Max discovers two things about his new home: A former resident achieved heroic status for sheltering Jews there during WWII; and now there’s a refugee in the basement needing his help. The challenges involved in sheltering someone the law is looking for, the flagrant lying and conniving Max employs to better Ahmed’s life, the inner battles Max fights in light of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the search for the perpetrators in Brussels, all make for one page-turning, thought-provoking read!
Max’s wonderful, contemporary voice, dashes of humor which are so unusual in refugee selections, and a host of likeable characters make this book an easy bridge into conversations about complex issues. There’s a sprinkling of French in the text; some is translated in context, some is not. The book begins with a traumatic drowning but has almost no other graphic content. Ages 10 and up.
The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz
published in 2016; a Paula Wiseman Book, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
277 pages + back matter
12-year-old Jaime and his cousin Angela, age 15, are forced to flee violent gangs in their small Guatemalan town. The alternative is to join the gang with their horrific demands, or watch their family members be murdered. That fact is underscored when the gang kills Angela’s younger brother in cold blood.
This is the story of their perilous journey through Guatemala and Mexico and across the U.S. border where Jaime’s brother has lived, legally, for a number of years. The story contains graphic physical violence and oblique references to the further assaults faced by young girls. It’s an excellent choice for a book club with lots to discuss in this day of Central American undocumented minors seeking asylum in the U.S. Ages 10 and up.
Journey of Dreams, by Marjorie White Pellegrino
published in 2009 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
241 pages + back matter
Set in the 1980s when more than 150,000 indigenous Guatemalans were massacred by government soldiers, this is a very well-written novel following the flight of 13-year-old Tomasa, her father, younger brother, and baby sister. They’re struggling to make their way to the U.S. where Tomasa’s older brother, Carlos, has fled with his mother to avoid conscription into the army.
Pellegrino’s lyrical text, weaving in indigenous folk tales, includes vivid details of the beauty and soothing familiarity of life in these Guatemalan villages, of the hard work done with pride and steadfastness, planting, weaving, cooking tamales, minding children — all set against an ominous backdrop of genocide, a menacing, ruthless power overshadowing their lives. It’s one of my favorites from this my reading project, fostering empathy and lucid understanding of asylum seekers. Ages 10 and up.
The Bone Sparrow, written by Zana Fraillon
published in 2016 by Disney Hyperion
I was glad to find one story highlighting the plight of Rohingya refugees from Burma/Myanmar. Their horrific struggle is much less known in the United States, yet it’s a vital humanitarian concern. The story takes place in a detention center in Australia, making it relevant for those currently protesting detention both in Australia and in the U.S. where currently over 12,000 children are living in “federally contracted shelters.”
Subhi, age 9, was born in this detention center after his mother and sister fled persecution. The bleakness and cruelty he faces there feel normal to him; he truly has never seen anything beyond this scrabbly compound. But he dreams, especially of being reunited with his father who was left behind in Burma.
Jimmie is a young Australian girl living near the center. She’s grieving the loss of her mother and is not well cared for by her dad or older brother. One day she finds an opening in the fence, slips into the camp, and meets Subhi. The comfort and courage they provide one another make a bigger difference than they could ever imagine.
This reads a bit like a contemporary The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. There’s a lot of imaginative, symbolic threads running through the story, as well as a great deal of graphic violence. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s an important story as we consider humane solutions to the refugee crises which will continue to grow in our world. Ages 12 and up.
Lost Boy, Lost Girl: Escaping Civil War in Sudan, written by John Bul Dau and Martha Arual Akech
published in 2010 by National Geographic
John was 13 and Martha 6 when their worlds were blown up by civil war in Sudan. Though they did not know one another, John coming from a small village and Martha from the city of Juba, their journeys overlapped as they fled unspeakable violence first to Ethiopia, only to be forced to flee once again on another treacherous journey, hundreds of miles long, to refuge in Kenya.
Eventually, the two made it to the U.S. and married. Here they take turns narrating their incredible, traumatic escapes. Although there are a number of stories about the Lost Boys, there were, tragically, far fewer Lost Girls to make it out of Sudan, making Martha’s story particularly important. A powerful and well-written account. Contains graphic violence. Ages 11 and up.
That’s it for now. Later this fall I’ll bring you some beautiful new picture book titles on the refugee/immigrant experience. Meanwhile my Refugee/Immigrant page lists over 50 other titles including many for much younger readers.
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Thank you for this list! The books I have read on this topic have been very powerful reads and I’m sure these will be too.
Have you seen/read the adult book A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea? I keep meaning to read it and know it won an Alex award for adult book that’s also great for a YA audience. I need to pull it off my shelf!
Yes, I’ve had that one on my list as well. I just saw that it is coming out in a Young Readers edition, too!