african, arabic, book list, culture, hispanic, social studies, social-emotional

Book List: Refugee Stories

It’s calculated that at least 26.4 million people worldwide are classified as refugees, but the number of people displaced as a whole is closer to 83 million right now. If you live in North America or Europe, your life has been touched by these people seeking a safe place to live their lives. To not have the refugee experience represented in your school or classroom library is to do a disservice to the children coming in and out of your classroom. Adults often have the most difficult time getting outside of their comfort zone, and we see it so often with the most pressing human rights issues of our day. Children who are refugees and the children of refugees have a right to be seen in the literature they and their peers are reading. I hope you find some great selections here that you can add to your stacks.

The Journey (Flying Eye Books)
Written & Illustrated by Francesca Sanna

For ages: 5-8
Francesca Sanna’s excellent book does not specify a nation or a time, but it still communicates the experience of refugees coming from a war-torn region. The characters depicted possess enough diverse elements that this story could really be about anyone. The emphasis here is on the struggle of the journey, and through the images, we watch as luggage disappears with each day, and eventually, the family’s father is no longer there. His absence is never explicitly explained or even mentioned in the text. The illustrations share these moments through the eyes of a child, imagining the guards are monstrous giants skulking through a dark forest looking for them. The family travels via boat, train, even a produce delivery truck, and we are constantly reminded of how the children look to their mother for assurance. This is a perfect text to introduce the concept of refugees to young children and help them understand the plight they go through in search of a safe, happy life. 

Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation (Dial Books)
Written by Edwidge Danticat
Illustrated by Leslie Staub

For ages: 5-8
Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat is known for her works written for an adult audience but delivers a beautiful story about the struggles of being the child of an undocumented immigrant. Saya’s mother is in an immigrant detention center after being picked up by authorities from her workplace. As the family navigates the complicated and scary legal maze, Saya’s mother sends bedtime stories on cassette tapes for her daughter to be soothed. Saya eventually writes her own story to her mother, and it is such a perfect distillation of the little girl’s emotions that her father asks if it can be sent to a local paper. This results in more attention, and eventually, Saya’s mother is released. A great book that reminds us how expressing ourselves through art can sometimes be the way out of a difficult situation.

Dreamers (Neal Porter Books)
Written & Illustrated by Yuyi Morales

For ages: 5-8
In 1994, Yuyi Morales journeyed from Mexico to the United States with her infant son. Her love for her child drove Yuyi to make this dangerous trek and weather the obstacles. One of the results of this is her children’s book, which retells that story through some absolutely gorgeous artwork. Through Yuyi’s eyes, we see the mythic nature of the U.S. to her, a strange place where people speak an unfamiliar language but which holds a promise of hope for her child. We follow her as she struggles to understand the social norms of this place and focuses on the love between her and her baby son to help her get by. While our previous book was through a child’s eyes, this one touches on the parent’s perspective. I personally think Dreamers is a modern children’s lit masterpiece, one of those rare books that never talks down to its audience but delivers its message with tenderness.

Stepping Stones (Orca Book Publishers)
Written by Margriet Ruurs & Falah Raheem
Illustrated by Nizar Al Badir

For ages: 5-8
Syria has been the battleground for a brutal war that has resulted in almost 6 million refugees worldwide; nearly half of those are children. In this story, illustrated through the beautiful stone art of Nizar al Badir, we learn about Rama and see what life was like before the war. As the fighting intensifies, the little girl sees her way of life slipping away. We feel Rama’s emotions transition from happiness to deep confusion over why she can’t go back home through the story. Eventually, she reaches a new land where she becomes curious about their customs and culture. This is all so wonderfully shown through non-traditional illustrations. Al Badir uses rocks just like a painter uses his tools, expertly choosing stones based on shape, size, and color, placing them so deftly to capture the words on the page.

Brothers in Hope (Lee & Low Books)
Written by Mary Williams
Illustrated by Gregory Christie

For ages: 6-9
Over 3 million Sudanese have been displaced by ongoing wars and civil conflicts in their country. Many of those refugees were children, and boys were targeted by some armies to make them child soldiers. After Garang, our protagonist has his village destroyed in a conflict, he gathers his remaining family to escape. Brothers in Hope shows how being without a home, a feeling so few of us have experienced, is so strange. The boys find themselves waiting in one camp in Ethiopia in the hopes of getting to another in Kenya. This is the story of multiple journeys born out of a single moment of destruction. While the publisher recommends this for 6-9, I think a slightly older age group may be better. The honest depiction of refugee life is very harrowing, and you’ll need to gauge the maturity of your students to determine if this one is right for them. It is a fantastic text, though, and should be accessible to students.

My Two Blankets (HMH Books for Young Readers)
Written by Irena Kobald
Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

For ages: 6-9
The journey to a safe place is not the focus of this book. Instead, My Two Blankets is primarily about how a refugee connects with others in their new home. A girl, nicknamed Cartwheel by her aunt, is forced to flee her homeland. She misses her old life and likes to close her eyes and get wrapped up in a blanket of memories. Another little girl becomes curious about Cartwheel and approaches her. They can’t speak each other’s language but share moments of play and also origami. This friendship becomes the second safety blanket for Cartwheel. The book explores how being displaced from your familiar culture can be incredibly frightening and how others, reaching out not to erase your love & memories of your old home but to welcome you into theirs can be a transformative experience. 

La Frontera: My Journey With Papa (Barefoot Books)
Written by Deborah Mills & Alfredo Alva
Illustrated by Claudia Navarro

For ages: 6-9
Co-author Alfredo Alva made the journey from Mexico to the States when he was a child. Accompanying him on this odyssey was his father and this book tells their story in both English and Spanish. Little Alfredo is worried when he learns mama and the rest of the family will stay behind while he and papa look for work in their new home. Their guide abandons them at one point, and they must cross the harsh wilderness to arrive in Texas. There are so many fantastic details sprinkled through this book that flesh out how it must feel for a child in these circumstances. The family is reunited at the end, so this book does provide a happy, hopeful ending. However, those critical details that only someone who went through can provide makes the text stand out. An essential book for any classroom, especially those in regions where children like Alfredo are present.

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