Like any school librarian, I’m always looking for books that will connect with my students. But at the school where I teach outside of Washington, DC, matching books with kids isn’t always easy. Eighty-eight percent of my students speak a language other than English at home, most read below grade level as they acquire English as a second or third language, and the vast majority are immigrants or children of immigrants. Finding books that reflect my students’ realities isn’t easy.
Back in August, the good folks at the Nerdy Book Club let me post a Top 10 list of middle grade titles that reflect the immigrant experience in the US. Now I’m back with a young adult version of the list featuring books with characters or subjects who are immigrants to the US. For each title, I’ve added one common immigrant issue featured in the book that I often see with my students and their families, and I’ve added a link for teachers whenever curriculum or discussion guides are available from the authors’ websites.
Ten Young Adult Books that Reflect the Immigration Expe
1.Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs
Facing starvation, fifteen-year-old Victor Flores leaves his family’s farm in Mexico and heads north, hoping to “cross the wire” into the United States in search of work and a paycheck that he can send back to his family. Without the money to pay coyote smugglers, he must make the dangerous journey on his own any way he can, by stowing away on trains and trucks, and enduring extreme heat and cold as he hikes across the Arizona desert.
Common immigrant issue: My students who their own harrowing tales of slipping across borders will relate to the danger, hope, and disappointment that comes with risking their lives to arrive in a country where life isn’t the dream they’d imagined.
Curriculum Resource: Click here for curriculum connections from the author’s website.
2. Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne and James Houston (non-fiction)
In 1942, seven-year-old Jeanne Wakatsuki and her Japanese-American family were forced to leave their home and live at the Manzanar internment camp along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. Farewell to Manzanar is the true story of how Jeanne and her family survived the indignity of life behind barbed wire in their own country, the United States of America.
Common immigrant issue: Immigrant children may feel a linguistic and cultural disconnect from their countries of birth, yet don’t feel that they quite fit into the US culture either. Although internment camps here in the US are thankfully a thing of the past, immigrant students will nonetheless relate to Jeanne’s conflicted feelings towards the United States as her family’s adopted home.
Curriculum Resource: The authors recommend visiting this National Park Service website for more information on the Manzanar Historical Site.
3. The Good Braider by Terry Farish (novel in verse)
Viola must leave her beloved grandmother behind when she flees war-torn South Sudan with her mother and young brother. After a dangerous journey that takes her from Sudan into a refugee camp in Cairo, Viola finally ends up in Portland, Maine, where her uncle lives. While she initially appreciates the support of the Southern Sudanese Community, she eventually feels stifled by their, and her mother’s, insistence on clinging to their native culture while Viola must navigate an American culture at school. Eventually, Viola learns to braid the two cultures to create a third—her own.
Common immigrant issue: The violence, starvation, and tragedy that Viola endures before coming to the US set her apart from her more carefree high school peers. I often see this in students who haven’t had a childhood, and who feel separated from their American counterparts less by language and culture than by emotional scars. The fact that this novel is written in spare verse makes it more accessible to struggling readers. That said, don’t be fooled by the sparse prose—Viola’s story explores serious themes like rape, murder and the balance of power.
Visit the author’s site for resources that will provide students with background information on South Sudan.
Patti’s Korean parents have high expectations for their daughter—high SAT scores, an Ivy League future, and a path to becoming a violin virtuoso. But Patti discovers there’s more to life than good grades and scholarships, namely Cute Trumpet Guy.
Common immigrant issue: Many immigrant parents hang their hopes on the shoulders of their children, and Patti’s parents are no different. So many books about immigrant families are threaded with serious themes, but Good Enough adds a lightness and humor to which children of immigrants will likely relate.
5. Illegal by Bettina Restrepo
When her father leaves the family home in Mexico to search for work in the US, Nora and her mother cling to hope with every letter and paycheck that arrives from him from El Norte. But when the letters and money stop coming, Nora and her mother leave their home to search for him in Texas. Once they make the dangerous journey across the US-Mexico border, Nora and her mother must survive alone in a strange place.
Common immigrant issue: Many families are separated when one or both parents go ahead to the US to find a job and a place to live before sending for the family to join them. Sadly, some families are never reunited. Students will identify with Nora’s feelings of confusion and longing for her old life.
6. Life After by Sarah Darer Littman
Whenher pregnant aunt is killed, life in Argentina falls into rapid decline for Dani. When her family emigrates to the US, Dani has to adjust to life in a tiny apartment and a school where no one knows or seems to like her. As her father sinks into depression, Dani reaches out to a boy named Jon and a girl named Jessica, and begins the long path towards forgiveness.
Common immigrant issue: Students whose families leave their home countries for political reasons grapple with the hard reality that they most likely won’t be able to return home any time soon. Many go from relative financial security to living in poverty here in the US, and will identify with Dani’s struggles.
Click here for a teacher’s guide to Life After.
7. My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (historical fiction)
Luke and his brothers leave their Alaskan Arctic home when the state sends them to a boarding school hundreds of miles to the south. At Sacred Heart School, Luke struggles with English and the self-segregation of the white, Eskimo and Indian kids at school.
Common immigrant issue: Although this isn’t technically a story about immigration from outside the US, Luke and his I’nupiaq language and ways are as different from his Alaskan schoolmates than any other foreign immigrant would be. Students who fit into their close-knit communities, yet face cultural disparities at school, will relate to Luke and his plight.
Visit the author’s site for background on the history of Alaska.
8. The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez (historical fiction)
In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution in Cuba, soldiers come to Lucía Álvarez’s home and turn her world upside down. She can no longer trust anyone aside from her parents and brother. When her parents decide to send Lucía and her brother to the US to stay with a host family in Nebraska, Lucía grapples with learning English and trying to fit into a place where she doesn’t want to be.
Common immigrant issue: Children who are separated from family often feel guilty when they experience moments of happiness or important events when their family isn’t present. Lucía’s younger brother begins to forget what his parents look like, while Lucía tries to keep memories of her parents alive.
Click here for a curriculum guide. (Full disclosure: Author Christina Diaz Gonzales hired me to create this curriculum guide for The Red Umbrella.)
9. A Step from Heaven by An Na
At age four, Young Ju fnds out that her family is trading their small fishing village in Korea for life in Mi Gook. Young Ju is certain that her new home will be paradise. Young Ju eventually finds out that Mi Gook is America, and is about as far from heaven as one girl can get. A Step from Heaven follows Young Ju’s path from young child to early adulthood, as Young Ju takes steps to protect her family from her father, an abusive alcoholic.
Common immigrant issue: Immigrant children often bear the brunt of parents who are stressed trying to make ends meet, and will admire Young Ju’s courage in standing up to her father and making a better life for herself, her mother, and younger brother.
Visit the author’s website for lesson plan links.
10. Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
When Lupita’s mother is diagnosed with cancer, Lupita must take over the care of her seven younger siblings as her father tries to get health care for his wife. Lupita’s only peace is found beneath the mesquite tree, where she is able to draw strength from herself to face a future without her beloved Mami.
Common immigrant issue: Many families who immigrate to the US are overwhelmed, but when a family member is sick, health care is often an issue. Even without a sick relative, immigrant children often take on adult responsibilities, including raising their younger siblings.
Natalie Dias Lorenzi is a teacher, librarian, and the author of middle grade novel Flying the Dragon. You can find her on Twitter as @NatalieLorenzi.