Understanding Immigration and the Refugee Experience through Picture Books

Lynn: How do we talk to children about refugees, immigrants, and all the related issues dominating the news? It seems to us a large number of adults don’t even understand the horrifying situations that have forced masses of desperate people to flee their homelands—so how can we help young people understand this serious issue while fostering real compassion? Perhaps some of the answers lie in books. This week, we’re sharing first a list of outstanding new picture books and, in a few days, a list of new graphic novels we think will help children and teens understand these events by briefly walking in the shoes of those experiencing them. Perhaps in the future, decisions can be made from a foundation of empathy and solid understanding instead of by demonizing the desperate.

The Day War Came by Nicola DaviesIn The Day War Came (2018), Nicola Davies shows children that refugees are kids just like them who go to school, draw pictures, and learn about volcanoes. Then war comes and everything changes. Davies uses simple language to searing effect in her poetic text, giving examples children can readily understand. Rebecca Cobb’s illustrations abruptly change from cheerful, everyday scenes to dark swirls of black and gray. Using crayon, colored pencil, and watercolor, and making excellent use of space, her drawings are deeply evocative and easy for kids to relate to. In a new land, an unsmiling teacher sends the child away, telling her there is no chair for her.

“And then I understood that war had gotten there too.”

In a poignant ending, other children come to the bereft protagonist, bearing chairs and hope for her future.

Mustafa by Marie-Louise GayWhat is it like to BE an immigrant in a new home? Marie-Louise Gay’s affecting new picture book Mustafa (2018) gives children a first hand view of this unsettling experience. Mustafa and his family have traveled a very long way and now live in a tall apartment building in a new land. Many nights he wakes after dreaming of his old country, fire, smoke, and loud noises.

In the park, he sees children playing but he doesn’t understand their words and shyly he runs home. He yearns to play but none of the children seem to notice him.

“Mama,” asks Mustafa, “am I invisible?”

“If you were invisible, I couldn’t hug you, could I?” answers his mama.

One small girl does see him and slowly, with “words that sound like music,” she coaxes Mustafa into the start of a friendship. Gay’s charming signature illustrations have a delightful airiness and are peppered with clever details that underscore the many similarities of children at play everywhere.

Last, and hardly least, is Dreamers (2018), in which Yuyi Morales tells her young child the story of their arrival in America as immigrants. At first:

“Unable to understand and afraid to speak, we made lots of mistakes.”

Dreamers by Yuri MoralesIn her inspiring story, Morales tells of discovering a library where, through the kindness of librarians and the wonders of picture books, she learned English. Eventually becoming an award-winning author and illustrator, Morales includes her favorite books in the illustrations and also provides a bibliography of the books that inspired her most.

Stunningly illustrated in mixed media with vibrant figures and rich colors, Dreamers beautifully reveals the many mystifying barriers and struggles immigrants face but is also a joyous celebration of finally creating a new life in a new place.

Do you have suggestions of other outstanding new books on this important subject? Please share with us here.

Editor’s note: Booklist subscribers also have access to this feature, Core Collection: Picture-Book Refugee and Immigration Stories, originally published in the February 1, 2017 issue of Booklist.


About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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