Fiction allows universal truths to be felt personally.
When we read fiction, we build empathy, according to Emanuele Castano and David Kidd, who conducted five studies that proved it. By fictionalizing the experience of refugees and immigrants, authors bring the story to the reader in a way that the reader may never have experienced before. Migration stories like the Grapes of Wrath have been part of curriculum for over fifty years, and now we are able to bring books to our classes that open our libraries and lives to migration from all regions of the world.
The selection of books from people speaking with their own experiences has exploded recently. We have an opportunity to embrace the world’s experiences and to bring more people to understand the experiences of immigrants and refugees through books published in the past two years. These are only some of the books I’ve read in the past few months that brought me to tears and reminded me that sharing the resources we have with those who have left their homes behind can only help the world.
Davies, N., & Cobb, R. ( 2018). The day war came. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Her parents prepared her for school and the class learned a bout volcanoes and birds. Then the city was bombed around her and the child could not find her family at the hole that was her home. She followed the migrant caravan alone, eventually boarding a boat for a new place where she was turned away. She wasn’t allowed in the school; the teacher said there was no seat for her. At a migrant camp, she sleeps in the cold of an empty hut until a child brings her a chair and welcomes her, and all children.
The simplicity and the ordinary nature of the protagonist’s life on the day the war arrived is echoed in the school she sees, only the doors are closed. The school is learning the same thing she learned, but she is turned away. People look the other way and she goes to the migrant camp to sleep alone. The simplicity of the drawings brings the importance of the lines that there are to the forefront. This is a perfect book to share in a read aloud and to start discussions at all different ages and levels of complexity.
Ferish, T., & Daley, K. (2016). Joseph’s big ride. Canada: Annick Press.
Joseph lived in a refugee camp in an unnamed African country. He watches the world, including a boy who has a bike. Joseph wants to ride the bike, but he never gets a chance. Soon enough Joseph and his mother flew to America, and Joseph had new experiences. The book talks about new smells and the paintings show children playing in the streetlights outside the apartment building. That darkness around the streetlights gives the play and understanding a sense of being surrounded by unknowns. Joseph learns more and compares and imagines what his school will be like. As he understands more, we see more daylight scenes. He finds a girl at school has a bike very much like the one Joseph remembered in the refugee camp. He doesn’t know how to approach the girl who owns the bike. He offers her a picture, “something precious.” He offers her help, and fixes the bike after she hits a tree. Joseph gets to ride and learns with action and experiences children can relate to. The colors and expressions pull readers in, and any person can relate to wanting to experience something they have not tried before that looks like as much fun as the bike. The universal shyness in trying to make a connection and to understand while learning about a new place speaks true. The images convey energy and excitement, with bold colors and happy expressions. Children will pick up this book on their own, even before they can read it.
Del Rizzo, S. (2017). My beautiful birds. Canada: Pajama Press, Inc.
I added this one because I felt it fit well in the list. The story opens with our narrator fleeing his burning town, and his father encouraging him on, cheering him as everything behind them is lost. The story shows images, clay photographed, of finding a refugee camp and how life starts to return. Our narrator tries to paint his beloved carrier pigeons in the camp’s school, but “smoky black spars from edge to edge, swallowing everything underneath.” They slowly begin to recover mentally as they do physically. The narrator makes new friends with birds and has quiet moments with his family. They are emotionally available to help the next group of refugees who join the camp. This one made me cry. It talks about that precious pet that we can understand and the protagonists’ pain in losing and that it’s only when the child begins healing from the pain of loses and unwanted change that the child can begin finding new birds and open his heart again now that it is healing.
Hiranandani, V. (2018). The Night Diary. New York: Dial Books.
The Night Diary is an excellent example of how to use fiction in a CCSS Social Studies unit, as occurs during the separation of Pakistan from India. Nisha writes most nights to her Muslim mother, who died when she and her twin brother were born. Over the course of the narrative, we learn that this is the time of India’s independence, and due to a contract that no one in the neighborhood agreed to on a personal level, Nisha’s family must flee to India from what has been declared Pakistan, since they are Hindu and her mother was the reason they were in that town. Her father is a doctor who works long hours, so Nisha and her brother do not bother him with small fights. Only on the long walk to India when they travel with all their belongings, do we see her father than a direct hand in their care. This story was a very hard one to read as it is so richly detailed. It puts the reader in the kitchen and in the desert the family walks through. Brief rains and places to stay for the evening are as much a relief to the reader as to Nisha and her family. It’s a beautifully told piece of a single life that makes refugee plights accessible to people who may not have even realized these changes happened in the world. Over the course of the narrative, Nisha and her family change along with the countries the walk through. When they arrive in a city where they can stay in India, they are as changed as the country.
Guerrero, D. & Moroz, E. (2018). One girl’s journey of home, loss, and hope: My family divided. New York: Henry Holt. (Grades 5+; Non-fiction). This is Diane Guero’s personal story of how her parents came to live the US, and the way they lived their life there with Diane’s half brother, even her birth in the US. The story does not end when they are deported in 2001, but continues on, following Diane’s life as she lived without her family and the emotional tole that took while she moved forward with her desire to act. We know she eventually became a TV star, and that her parents are able to come back, but what I did not expect was for a middle grade book to have such a political tone to the narrative. Because we are accustomed to neutral narration, I recommend this for high reading 11 year olds and up, as it is a very straight-forward narrative with little flowery writing to distract from the story. I loved this one enough to recommend it for my daughter’s diversity unit as they talk about current events and the CCSS for interpreting narrative voice.
Woodson, J. (2018). Harbor Me. New York: Nancy Paulson Books. (Grades 4-8). The children in this story have been singled out for a special class because they are not keeping up with the other classes and attempts to help them gain the background knowledge are taking time from them meeting current academic standards. They are a small group of middle schoolers, and largely changing over the course of the year as families move. It’s moving narrative opens with, “We think they took my papi,” a refrain that brings the students together as they individually share their experiences through discussion with Haley’s narration. They tell their stories of immigration, deportation, profiling, love, and bullying. This one made me cry. It’s told without frills, and that simplicity makes it far more true as it made me think of the practically empty classroom and the tweens meeting in it sitting far from the windows, talking out their lives.
Yang, K. (2018). Front Desk. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books. (Grades 3-7) This is a very relatable telling of coming to America and fearing the police will find out that you and your parents and friends are here illegally. After visiting Houston and seeing the brightest and best in the form of Houston Space Center, Mia and her family settle in California. Mia’s parents find work at a hotel where the Chinese owner will let them stay for free, if they run the desk and clean the rooms. After the initial promise in salary is found false, Mia harbors hard feelings for the hotel’s owner, feelings that only increase when his son makes fun of her and her friends staying as long term guests with “contracts” similar to the ones her family is on are treated badly due to the owner’s racism. Through it all Miya puts on a brave face and pretends with her friends at school, dreams of becoming a writer, and believes she can be friends with people different from herself. When Mia’s mom and the hotel owner insist she cannot speak English well or write well because she was born in China, Mia is all people who have been told they can’t do something that their talent proves otherwise. The racism and cultural truths we see daily are there.