Remember, stories do two things — they build empathy for some and in other cases, show that we are not alone because others have gone through similar things.
Stories allow us to walk a mile in the shoes of another, in this case, someone who has experienced migration, immigration, or being a refugee.
I love helping kids see perspectives of individuals who’ve experienced worlds that they have or haven’t.
Even more, I love when readers recognize their story in the book that they’re reading. It’s why representation matters!
In a world polarized by migration, refugees, and immigration, it’s vitally important that kids (and adults) see the humanity of the real people that are involved.
Immigration, Migration, & Refugees
Where Will I Live by Rosemary McCarney
Short sentences and phrases plus large photos show people fleeing to safety. Their questions will make kids understand the uncertainty refugees face as they look for a new home. The photographs in this picture book about migration and refugees help kids see this is happening to real children in real-life situations. Beautiful.
The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil, illustrated by Aaait Semirdzhyan
A wonderful story that shows the value of being bilingual and sharing your language and culture with others! Kanzi’s family moves to a new school. Luckily, her new teacher values Kanzi’s culture and language. She helps Kanzi share her Egyptian culture and Arabic language with her classmates which ultimately builds bridges and friendships with her new classmates.
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
The artwork is exquisite. The narration takes you on a journey of a mom and child together going to a new place to live. It celebrates their loving bond, how books helped them develop their voices in a new country.
The Day the War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
It’s a day like any other with breakfast and school. But after lunch, the war comes. The writing and artwork allude to the destruction with only a few specific details. The little girl’s journey shows the hardships of leaving her home as well as the refugee situation in another country. Only with help and kindness from others does she begin to heal.
The Voyage by Robert Vescio
One word one each page combines with detailed illustrations narrate the journey of a family fleeing from “Chaos” in their home country on a small boat with “Memories” and “Wild” and “Fear” eventually to “Safe” and “New” in a new home and new country. It’s hard to determine the culture or time in history but that’s okay. Use the details to make inferences if you want to explore that further. Ultimately, the importance of this book is that this story shows the big concepts involved with escaping a country at war and immigrating to a new country.
Marwan’s Journey by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borras
This is one of the best refugee experience/immigration picture books I’ve read. The boy walks away from his homeland with very few things carried on his back. Precise, sensory text perfectly narrates this little boy’s difficult journey… “Sometimes, in the cold right, I cry out to her in my dreams. / She comes with her black hair streaming, and tucks me in / with her flour-soft hands.” As the boy walks, he remembers his home. He remembers when they came. And all the walking. He hopes that one day he will return home.
Idriss and His Marble by Rene Gouichoux, illustrated by Zau
Evocative, dramatic images add texture to this story about a boy escaping from a country at war. He carries his special marble with him until he reaches a new country where his marble builds bridges in making a new friend. It’s a simple story told as a relatable, young child-appropriate introduction to the concept of refugees.
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers
I’m so impressed by Dave Eggers children’s picture book; it’s funny, interactive, informative, and insightful. In fact, this amazing book builds to a poignant and timely message about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. Egger’s points out how the Statue’s right foot is raised as if she’s stepping. Eggers wants us to notice that the Statue is in motion. She is an immigrant, too. Her job of welcoming immigrants is active, never-ending.
A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui
A young boy wakes up early to go fishing with his dad. As they fish for their dinner, Bao helps his dad build a fire and put the fish in a bucket. While they’re together, Bao’s dad recalls fishing in his home country of Vietnam. The blue-black illustrations and precise prose help us feel the stillness of the early morning hours and the strong bond between father and son. Later that night, the entire family gathers together to eat the morning’s catch.
La Frontera El viaje con papa My Journey with Papa by Debora Mills, Alfredo Alva, Claudia Navarro
My Two Blankets by Irena Kobold, illustrated by Freya Blackwood
Cartwheel is an immigrant who arrives in a new country where no one speaks her language and everything sounds and feels strange and lonely. She meets a friendly girl at the park and they play on the swings but she still doesn’t understand what the girl is saying. But, the girl helps her learn new words every time they play. Soon, Cartwheel begins to feel comfortable in her new home.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna
Evocative graphic art illustrates in metaphorical and literal images depict first a dark world with war. After the father is killed, the mother tells the kids they’re going on an adventure to someplace safe. Their journey is filled with obstacles and loss. All the while, the mother keeps the kids safe. The family hopes that just like the migrating birds out the train window, they’ll find a new home.
Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs, translated by Falah Raheem, art by Nizar Ali Badr
Rama and her family must flee their now dangerous Syrian village to escape the escalating civil war. Transformative stone art collages show the family members walking with only what they can carry as they search for a safe place. It’s a powerful immigrant/refugee picture book story that kids can understand.
Mango Moon by Diane de Anda, illustrated by Sue Cornelison
When the girl’s dad gets deported, she leaves behind her soccer team her dad coached and her house with the swingset her dad built and moves in with her tios and cousins. She gets to write letters but her stomach hurts from missing her dad. Mama tells the daughter that love is like the orange moon that Papi and she can see no matter where they are. The story in this book feels authentic and heartbreaking but also empathy building.
A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting
A young boy named Francisco accompanies his non-English speaking grandfather to look for day labor and gets him a job as a gardener, even though the grandfather knows nothing about it.
Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleishman, illustrated by Bagram Ibotoulline
A little girl’s Italian grandfather shares his immigration story with her by showing her objects stored in tiny matchboxes in a cigar box that spark his memories. He did this because he couldn’t read or write before he came to America so this was his way to remember his life. Gorgeous illustrations.
IslandBorn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Díaz captures Lola’s heartfelt longing to remember the island of her birthplace for a school assignment. She left the island as a baby as an immigrant. Lola interviews her family and friends, listening to their snap-shot, detailed stories of the island’s bats, music, agua de coco, heat, and the Devil Monster. Through their stories, she creates her own tapestry of island memories that will always be in her heart. Stunning illustrations explode in colorful exuberance on every page of this 2018 picture book.
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
Farah struggles with living in new in a country where she doesn’t understand the language or culture. But a field trip to an apple orchard helps her find common ground with her new classmates.
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
Yoon loves writing her name in Korean but her father insists she must write her name in English. Yoon decides she isn’t sure about her name in English and wonders if another name would be better. A story about the real struggles that immigration can bring.
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
Grandfather loves both his countries, his old country and the new one he’s immigrated to. Winner of the 1994 Caldecott.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Unhei tells her new American classmates that they can pick out her name. But what name will she pick? Or will she find the importance in her own Korean name? This sweet book helps show kids the value in each person’s heritage.
When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
With great sadness, a poor European village girl leaves her beloved grandmother for immigration to America narrating a more classic story of European immigration.
The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Freya Blackwood
In this children’s book, Peter and his father flee their burning village carrying suitcases and a treasure box holding a precious book, the only one left. In the last village with mountains looming and his father now gone, Peter buries the box. He returns later, when it’s safe, finding the box and the book which he takes to the city’s new library to share with others.
Lilah Tov Good Night by Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G), illustrated by Noar Lee Naggan
This gentle Hebrew lullaby that celebrates family, nature, and love shows a family of three traveling to a new home. Lilah Tov, says the little girl, to the creatures and landscapes she passes including roosters and hens, bears in their dens, bats in their caves and the beach and the waves. Extraordinary. This will become a new bedtime favorite. When they finally arrive at their new, safe home, the girl’s parents tuck her into bed. Lilah Tov, sweet girl.
I’m an Immigrant Too! by Mem Fox, illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh
This worthwhile book shares the immigration stories of people living in Australia who consider themselves Aussies but originally came from places like China, Somalia, England, and Italy. I LOVE Mem Fox. She’s one of the few contemporary authors who can write in rhyme and it actually works!
“My auntie came from Athens
with her brother and her niece.
And now we live in Adelaide
because it’s so like Greece.”
CHAPTER BOOKS: Immigration, Migration, & Refugees
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (ages 8 – 12)
When her father dies, Esperanza and her mother flee from Mexico to the United States where they must work as migrant farm workers. This well-written, beautiful story will stay with you so you can remember what it’s like for undocumented immigrants and migrant workers and be inspired at the resiliency of Esperanza and her mom.
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai (ages 8 – 12)
Pie in the Sky is an insightful, funny, and poignant look at the struggles of immigrating to a new country (Australia) and the difficulties of learning English along with growing up and grieving the loss of a father. Jingwen’s observations and wit make him a likable main character and the illustrations capture the depth and flavors of his experiences. Like Jingwen says about his new beginnings and sad losses, it’s a story that is both salty and sweet. Only in truth, this book for kids is actually the perfect blend of savory deliciousness.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (ages 8 – 12)
Written in evocative verse, follow a young girl from her home in Syria as she moves with her mother the United States. Jude’s journey is one of growing up, being brave, and discovery. Kids will see how Jude navigates her new situation as she relates to other ESL students in their safe classroom space, finds new friends, and performs in the school play. Her insights on life in America readers understand her immigrant experience.
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes (ages 8 – 12)
I picked this book because of the cat pictured on the front cover — and found it to be absolutely way more powerful and meaningful than I had expected. Gaby loves animals and hopes to one day adopt a cat. But that’s not possible now ever since her mom was deported to Honduras and Gaby had to live with her neglectful father who doesn’t notice her or even remember to buy food. But she hopes that when her mom returns, everything will be better and she can finally adopt her favorite shelter cat.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang (ages 8 – 12)
Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf (ages 8 – 12)
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez (ages 8 – 12)
When Mari’s parents are deported to Mexico, she and her sisters are stranded in the United States, desperately worried about what to do next. This is SUCH a powerful book — heartbreaking and wonderful and important — because you’ll see the human complexities of blanket deportation policies that don’t consider children.
Refugee by Alan Gratz (ages 9 – 12)
Follow three distinct, alternating stories of refugees. First is a young Jewish boy who escapes from Nazi Germany on a ship to Cuba. Second is a Cuban girl in the 1990s who, with her family and neighbors, flees in a homemade raft to the United States. Finally is the story of a fleeing Syrian boy who is from a country at war. Gatz skillfully connects all three stories with a satisfying, realistic conclusion. A well-written, must-read book that gives kids a sense of historical events, context, and empathy.
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
Santiago is thrown out of his cruel tia’s home in rural Mexico with nowhere to go except back to an even worse grandmother. But, Santiago unexpectedly meets a kind woman and her daughter who let him join with on their journey to el Norte. Santiago is a keen survivor and helps them find a trustworthy coyote but their group is attacked and must find the route without their coyote’s help. The heat and lack of water almost kill them, he and his adopted little sister are rescued half dead and taken to an internment camp where they’re separated. He learns that his sister is reunited with her mom but without papers or any way to prove he’s related to them, he’s confined for endless, hopeless days with guards who treat him like a criminal. He learns to read until the school funding is cut. Will Santiago get a happy ending? This book is amazing — unflinchingly honest about the situation of illegal immigrants with a heroic main characters who you’ll love.
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Beast Rider by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads (ages 8 – 12)
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Sendai (ages 8 – 12)
Fadi and Mariam’s parents illegally flee their home of Afghanistan and emigrate to the United States but events happen that leave Mariam behind in Afghanistan while the rest of the family escapes. Award-winning children’s book about immigration.
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh (ages 8 – 12)
Marsh writes a stunning novel about two young boys from very different backgrounds — one is a refugee from Syria while the other is an American who has just moved to Belgium. Interwoven in this timely, poignant story are the big issues of refugees, prejudice, fear, friendship, and kindness. To avoid the overcrowded refugee centers, Ahmed hides in the basement of the house where Max lives with his family. When he’s discovered by Max, the boys develop a friendship; Max keeps Ahmed hidden from everyone. The kids come up with a plan to enroll Ahmed in Max’s school. And it works. But it can’t last forever…
The Red Umbrella by Christina Gonzalez (ages 8 – 12)
When Fidel Castro and his soldiers revolt, Lucia’s Cuban parents send she and her brother away (immigration) to safety in Nebraska. (Also read a similar children’s chapter book about Cuban immigration with male characters called 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis.)
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (ages 8 – 12)
Kek immigrates to America only to be separated from his mother. He’s sent to Minnesota where he makes friends with a foster girl, an old woman, and a sad cow. It’s a powerful chapter book story about the challenges of immigration, survival, kindness, and finding a new home.
Star in the Forest by Laura Resau (ages 8 – 12)
Zitlally’s dad has been arrested and deported back to Mexico. As she waits anxiously for him to come back via an illegal “coyote,” she befriends a maltreated dog named Star.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (ages 8 – 12)
This Newbery Honor book shares the story in verse of a girl, Hà, who is fleeing Vietnam with her family and immigrating to the southern United States. Ultimately, her immigration transition is difficult yet sometimes funny.
A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord (ages 8 – 12)
Is it possible for the daughter of a migrant farmworker to be friends with a town girl? And what about entering the local blueberry queen contest? Lord thoughtfully explores the topic of immigration and migrant workers .
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
Although it may sound like a heavy book, this is a funny, realistic story about growing up and living in a culture that is not your own. It’s the late 1970s and Zomorod (Cindy) and her family are back in the U.S. from Iran –again. Nevertheless, she’s desperate to fit in with the other kids despite facing both family pressures and anti-Iranian prejudice.
Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs (ages 8 – 12)
15- year old Victor wants to help his family in Mexico by working in the United States. But first, he must survive the dangerous immigration journey to get there.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan (ages 13+)
This is a wordless, evocative graphic novel showing one man’s journey from his old country to a wonderful and strange new country.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (ages 12+)
The Good Braider by Terry Farish (ages 14+)
Having left her home of Sudan, Viola remembers her old world while trying to understand her new reality in the United States. Written in verse, this chapter book shows one girl’s journey immigration and growing up will help kids understand the challenges of arriving and living in a different culture.
Children of the River by Linda Crew (ages 13+)
Sundara left the war in Cambodia four years ago to migrate to the U.S. Understandably, she finds it difficult to be both American and Cambodian.
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