Contemporary Immigration and Children’s Books
By Jennifer Bergen, Youth Services Manager
This year’s three-part TALK program (Talk About Literature in Kansas) at the library will focus on books about contemporary immigration. It is a timely topic that many adults struggle to understand more fully. When it comes to children, explaining what it means to be an immigrant or a refugee can be even more of a challenge. Reading one of these picture books together may help open communication.
Their Great Gift by John Coy tells a heartfelt story of a shared experience that rings true. Describing the unnamed family of the story, Coy writes, “They made mistakes and people laughed. Others didn’t understand how much they’d sacrificed.” This thin book is full of remarkable photographs of immigrants by Wing Young Huie. Each photo is striking and seems to have a story of its own.
In I am New Here, author/ illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien shows three children experiencing the lonely and confusing transition after leaving a country and a language behind. Maria, Jin and Fatimah show bravery and courage as they find ways to fit in at their new school. In an interview, O’Brien says she “noticed there was a missing piece” when people seemed to think immigrant children came as “blank slates.” The truth is these children “bring with them full, complete, rich lives in which they have already accomplished so much and know so much.” In her book, she strives to bring out that richness and fullness.
Jose Manuel Mateo and Javier Martinez Pedro chose to create their book Migrant in the format of a codex. The book unfolds like an accordion and is read from top to bottom. The topic is heavy, describing a mother who must take her children and leave their country. The detailed ink drawing is fascinating as it evolves from a happier time in Mexico to their new life in L. A.
Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng is also a somber tale of a father and his daughter traveling by various means – walking, riding atop a train or in the back of a truck. The unnamed setting is desolate and marked with homeless people, refugees, foxes and soldiers. The young girl’s voice is not distraught, though. She finds beauty in the clouds and friendship in the people she meets, but their traveling does not seem to have an end. This book could bring out questions from children for which we do not have many answers.
Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat tackles another tough situation when Saya’s mother is imprisoned for being an illegal immigrant. The mother sends Saya cassette tapes so she can listen to her mother’s voice, and Saya is moved to write a story of her own to try to change her situation.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna is a child’s view of leaving everything behind to escape to a new place, with illustrations that Kirkus Review describes as “playing dramatically and beautifully with light and shadow…to accentuate the family’s struggles.”
In the award-winning picture book My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald, the main character, nicknamed Cartwheel, has left her home country to be safe. But nothing feels right. “The food was strange. The animals and plants were strange. Even the wind felt strange,” so she invents an imaginary blanket of her old words and familiar things. This metaphor gives readers a sensory object — a warm, soft blanket that can cover Cartwheel with the things she loves and misses.
Similarly, The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart describes how new immigrant Isabel prefers to hang out in a special place she made from discarded cardboard boxes. Here, she merges her love of and longing for her old language with the delight of learning new words and piecing them together.
For another positive outlook, try Jamie Lee Curtis’s new picture book, This is Me: A Story of Who We Are and Where We Came From. The rhyming text is perfect for younger children, and it may lead to an insightful activity where children try to decide what they would take with them if they had just one small suitcase to fill.
In furthering the topic of immigration, the TALK programs this February, March and April will invite interesting discussions of the adult novels Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, Harbor by Lorraine Adams, and Typical American by Gish Jen. Extra copies of these titles are available at the library.