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.
Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children by Hollis Kurman, illustrated by Barroux
I love the message and the artwork style so much! From one to ten, read about possible experiences of refugee children leaving their homeland (“2 Two hands lifting us to safety“) and traveling to a new home. “10 Ten friends making us happy.” Understandable kid-language synthesizes the gist of being a refugee and the importance of a kind welcome in the new home.
The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil, illustrated by Aaait Semirdzhyan
This wonderful story shows the value of being bilingual and sharing your language and culture with others! Kanzi’s new teacher values Kanzi’s culture and language. She helps Kanzi share her Egyptian culture and Arabic language with her classmates, building bridges, and friendships with her new classmates.
Wherever I Go by Mary Wagley Copp, illustrated by Munir D. Mohammed
Meet a brave girl filled with imagination, hope, and stories who lives in a refugee camp. She shares about her in the camp, helping her family and playing with cousins. When she leaves the camp and arrives at her new home, she is sad but also remembers that she brings with her the stories and memories of her life at the camp. Gorgeous, dramatic illustrations!
Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
A loving mother and child journey to a new place to live. When they arrive in the new country, they find that books help them develop both their language skills and also their voices. Exquisite artwork and lyrical text.
The Day Saida Arrived by Susana Gomez Redondo and Sonja Wimmer, illustrated Lawrence Schimel
Lyrical and descriptive, two girls, one who is an immigrant, develop a friendship based on kindness even though they don’t speak the same language. “With a finger, I drew a welcome for her, warm and soft, like long scarves and fluffy pillows.” When Saida arrived, the friends teach each other new words and build a friendship of new words.
The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam
Cut-paper collage art in black, white, and pink depicts the wordless journey of a family’s escape from Vietnam, beginning with the girl’s life in war-torn Vietnam where they travel by boat towards safety. In a parallel story, a group of ants escapes onto a paper boat on the same river. Both experience bad weather, thirst, and hunger before finally arriving somewhere new. Masterfully illustrated and conceived, this book will prompt discussion and build an understanding of the hardships of migration.
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.
Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le
In first-person, a girl remembers moving to this country to live with her aunt and uncle and feeling so alone and sad…Her aunt tells her the story of a group of travelers from Persia who traveled, searching for a new home. When they came to a kingdom, the king told them that there was no room, showing a full glass of milk as a metaphor for his crowded kingdom. The Persian leader stirred into the milk a spoonful of sugar which dissolved. Without words, it was clear that the Persians would sweeten the country and live in it peacefully. So they were allowed to stay. After the story, the girl feels like everything changed and notices the friendly smiles and hellos of people she passes in her new, welcoming home.
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
Funny, interactive, informative, and insightful, 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.
The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
A tired stranger arrives with the suitcase and curls up to sleep. The others don’t trust him and break into his suitcase. When the stranger awakens, he finds his things fixed with a kind apology for their mistrust. It’s a lovely example of fixing a mistake and kindness toward others.
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.
Tani’s New Home by Tanitoluwa Adewumi
In this true story, Tani Adewumi lives in Nigeria with his family. But one day, terrorists threaten his father so the family escapes to the U.S. where they live in a homeless shelter. Tani doesn’t love his new home but when he discovers chess, it helps everything. He dedicates himself to the game and goes on to win the New York State Chess Championships.
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. Since no one speaks her language, 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. Lovely.
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
In a story about honesty and immigration, a young boy named Francisco accompanies his non-English speaking grandfather to look for a day labor job. Francisco lies to get his grandfather a job as a gardener, even though the grandfather knows nothing about it. The grandfather learns of the lie and the two of them tell the client and work to fix the client’s gardens.
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. Since he couldn’t read or write before he came to America, the objects are his way to remember his life.
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.
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.
“My auntie came from Athens
with her brother and her niece.
And now we live in Adelaide
because it’s so like Greece.”
A Journey Toward Hope by Victor Hinojosa & Coert Voorhees, illustrated by Susan Guevara
Follow four children from different Latin American countries as they leave their home countries, meet during the trip, and travel towards the U.S. for asylum. The story shows these exhausted kids making the best of their new, unexpected situations. It’s developmentally appropriate for young children because it does not include the actual horrors of what it could be like; instead, it focuses on the children’s friendship and general piece of the journey.
CHAPTER BOOKS: Immigration, Migration, & Refugees
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan (ages 8 – 12)
When her father dies, Esperanza and her mother flee an abusive situation in Mexico for the United States where they get work as migrant farm workers. Well-written and memorable, this story shows the lives of undocumented immigrants and migrant workers and you’ll be inspired at the resiliency of Esperanza and her mom despite their circumstances.
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. The charming illustrations totally capture the brother’s personalities, too!
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 to 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 will help readers understand her immigrant experience.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illustrated by Victoria Jamieson and Iman Geddy (ages 8 – 12)
In an emotional true story of a Somali boy and his brother growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp, readers are transported into their day to day lives that are filled with hunger and boredom. Omar doesn’t attend the dusty camp school until age 11 because he must care for his younger brother Hassan who has special needs. Years pass with many struggles yet education and the camp friendships continue to be bright spots for Omar. The book ends with a bittersweet, wonderful new beginning when they’re finally approved by the UN to leave and move to another country.
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes (ages 8 – 12)
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. Now Gaby lives 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 character whom you’ll love.
Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar
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 her 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, 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 that 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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