A while back I shared some excellent middle-grade reads illuminating the immensely difficult sagas of refugees and asylum seekers.
Today I’ve got another stack of powerful, poignant, hopeful stories of both immigrants and refugees.
Some are ideal for young children;
some are best suited to older children and even adults.
So watch for my age recommendations.
The world will be a better place if we choose to listen,
to soften our hearts towards those whose struggles, sorrows, circumstances, fears,
have pushed them away from home,
to respond with kindness and compassion,
to base our actions on love rather than fear.
What would it feel like, if this was your story?
These thoughtful books offer a great starting point for understanding.
Marwan’s Journey, written by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borràs
first published in Chile, 2016; English edition 2018 by Michael Neugebauer Publishing Ltd.
Ravishing illustration work is coupled here with an expressive, innocent, moving text narrating one young boy’s foot journey across the desert, fleeing war, yes, but also distancing himself from the home he loves so dearly.
This striking picture book captures the rending of people from their homelands, the scourge of war upon sweet lives, the fatigue of a refugee’s journey, yet ends on a note of hope for a future return, for happiness, and peace.
An outstanding choice for children ages 3 and up.
Sea Prayer, written by Khaled Hosseini, illustrated by Dan Williams
published in 2018 by Riverhead Books
Such a thin volume, yet its gorgeous free verse and stunning artwork sweep over us with tidal force, producing an extraordinarily moving piece.
The narrator, a Syrian father, begins by painting a warm, pastoral scene of his childhood in Homs, addressing these bittersweet recollections to his small son, Marwan.
He is heartsick that his little one will have no remembrance of these landscapes, traditions, dear family gatherings, as all Marwan knows of Homs is the airborne grit, deafening noise, and deadly destruction of war, the war they are now fleeing, fragile humans on a desperate search for safety.
What does a father pray, under such circumstances? Accompanied by Williams’ glorious, evocative paintings, this book comes with my highest recommendation for ages 13 through adult.
The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees, written and illustrated by Don Brown
published in 2018 by HMH Books for Young Readers
This stunning graphic novel offers an outstanding, heartbreaking window on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Beginning with his lucid background to the Syrian conflict, Brown strikes a brutally realistic tone, laying as a foundation the abject horrors faced by Syrian people which thrust them from their homeland.
Actual circumstances and specific details from a host of refugee accounts provide the stark, plainspoken commentary of the journeys we then witness, a tragic sampling of the nearly 6 million registered Syrian refugees.
Riveting graphic panels zoom us in to share personal space and come face to face with these dear human persons, then reel us out to a bird’s eye perspective of unrelenting, shocking, devastation. Brown has synthesized and unfolded this vast, unspeakable, refugee crisis unflinchingly and clearly. Highly recommended for ages 12 to adult.
Dreamers, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales
published in 2018 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House
Award-winning artist Yuyi Morales has given us a slew of robust, exuberant stories bursting with the Latinx experience over the past number of years.
Now she eloquently tells her own story and as always it’s saturated with so much punch and vibrancy and heart you feel like standing up and cheering by the time you’ve finished reading it.
Morales immigrated to the U.S. almost 25 years ago with her infant son. Watch her encounter an ocean of unfamiliarity, and then — oh, joy! — witness the magical power of the library with its shelves and shelves of stories that grab Morales by the hand, teach her the English language, and even more, inspire her to dream.
You cannot imagine the splendors in Morales’ brilliant collage illustrations. There’s a fabulous photo essay of her process here, if you’d like to know more. It’s a book to linger over, bursting with hope and the glory of story. Ages 4 through adult.
La Frontera: El viagje con papá ~ My Journey with Papa, written by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva, illustrated by Claudia Navarro
published in 2018 by Barefoot Books
Alfredo Alva was just a young boy when his father, driven from his homeland by economic adversity, takes him on the journey across the Rio Grande and into a new, undocumented life in Texas.
Leaving behind family and home, bravely pushing through enormous dangers and dispiriting circumstances, tenderfooting his way into a new culture, language, school, Alfredo presents to us the odyssey so many Dreamers have experienced.
Fortunately for the Alva’s, they were able to take advantage of President Reagan’s granting of amnesty to millions of immigrants in 1986. Alfredo and his father became citizens and were able to be reunited with the rest of their family, to begin a new life together.
Back pages introduce us to the real Alfredo. Written in Spanish and English. A hopeful, thought-provoking story of opportunity and friendship for ages 5 and up.
Mustafa, written and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay
published in 2018 by Groundwood Books
Mustafa and his family have fled, by foot, by boat, by foot again, some unnamed homeland.
Now his life is engulfed in newness — new city, foreign language, baffling customs, even puzzling animals and flowers. He’s also battered by nightmares. The combination makes Mustafa approach this place and its people with a strong dose of timidity. Which entirely makes sense, doesn’t it?
Months go by. Finally it’s the gestures of welcome and kindness from a child that bridge the gap of misgiving and loneliness, ushering Mustafa into a burgeoning sense of belonging and gladness.
Marie-Louise Gay’s honest, sensitive, warmhearted story is accompanied by her genuinely human, predominantly sunny illustrations. It’s a deeply engaging, inspiring book for ages 4 and up.
Me and My Fear, written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna
published in 2018 by Flying Eye Books
Francesca Sanna’s book, The Journey, is at the top of my list of exceptional refugee reads.
This is a sequel, though it has quite a different feel. The young girl who underwent such a treacherous escape has now arrived in a new city where she faces daunting new challenges.
The key difficulty is that the small, ordinary amount of anxiety she has carried all her life has inflated into a massive, overblown companion, a bossy fear which stifles her ability to flourish, to settle in, to make friends.
Sanna depicts fear brilliantly, showing its impact on this young refugee’s life, and the way in which a gesture of welcome and friendship helps it to shrink back to manageable size.
Trauma is an important dynamic for all of us to understand and Sanna has provided a helpful tool for parents and caregivers to have these discussions. I do think the book requires some interpretation for the young, but it’s worth doing. Ages 5 and up.
The Day War Came, written by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
published in 2018 by Candlewick Press
On a sunny, seemingly innocuous day, one little girl’s world collapses in sudden, devastating, destruction. War falls upon her city, her home, her family, literally like a bombshell.
She is left alone to make the arduous, treacherous journey to safety. Yet even there, the war seems to have followed her. War, she comes to realize, is not only a rain of deadly explosions. War is weariness and misery, it’s ragged discouragement, and the wariness, fear, and contempt that greet her in this new place that doesn’t feel a lick like home.
Again, it is the empathetic welcome of a child that touches this young girl and changes her circumstances. His kindness starts to “drive the war out of my heart.”
I find this a tricky book for an age recommendation. Rebecca Cobb’s trademark gentle, endearing, soft illustrations give this story, like everything she does, an enormous appeal for young children. Yet Davies’ story is considerably raw and traumatic. I’d suggest sharing it with caution with ages 7 and up. It’s an important, timely title about unaccompanied minors, for sure.
The Eleventh Trade, by Alyssa Hollingsworth
published in 2018 by Roaring Brook Press
I’ll add one middle grade novel to the list today, the story of a young Afghani refugee beginning a new life in America.
Sami is 12 years old; he and his Baba (grandfather) have been on their refugee journey for four years already, ever since they lost the rest of their family to a suicide bombing. Before they even have a chance to settle into their new Boston home, Baba’s prized musical instrument is stolen in a subway station. In desperation, Sami commences a seemingly impossible endeavor to retrieve it through a series of trades.
His efforts put him in contact with a number of helpful new friends as well as some immensely difficult people. Sami’s story excels at revealing the effects of PTSD on refugee children, the immense losses they have faced, the push and pull of new lives vs. old familiar homes, the unseen difficulties of their lives away from school, the xenophobic reactions they receive, making this an excellent window for American children meeting refugees in their classrooms. It also presents a richer, more positive view of Islamic culture and practices than many middle grade novels. Great read and a good book club choice for ages 10 and up.
I’ve reviewed many, many more exceptional stories about the immigrant and refugee experience — picture books, graphic novels, chapter books, nonfiction — which you can find in my list here.