Ten Middle Grade Books that Reflect the US Immigration Experience by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

Like any school librarian, I’m always looking for books that will connect with my students. There’s nothing like reading a new book and thinking, “Yes! I know just the child who will love this book…”

But at the elementary 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, 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, which is partly why I chose to write about a boy who emigrates from Japan to the US in my middle grade novel Flying the Dragon.

Below is a list of ten books whose characters are recent 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.

New arrivals will identify with these characters who wade their way through American culture and the English language. But these titles aren’t just for our newest Americans; the following ten books provide all of us a glimpse into the immigration experience, which has played an integral role in defining who we are as a nation.

Ten Middle Grade Books that Reflect the Immigration Experience

1.Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson—(contemporary fiction) Meli Lleshispends her eleventh birthday fleeing her home when Serbian soldiers sweep through Kosovo, killing Albanians and burning homes. After spending more than a year in a refugee camp in Macedonia, Meli’s family is granted asylum in Vermont. Just as Meli feels like she’s adjusting to American life, the events of 9/11 make things difficult for her Muslim family. In the end, however, Meli and her family accept, and are accepted by, their new home and neighbors.

Common immigrant issue: Children learning English faster than their parents, and the shift of power in the household when parents have to rely on their children to communicate with others outside of the family. Meli is relieved when her Baba drops out of English classes, because she did not want him to feel ashamed as her English progressed and his did not.

2. Drita My Home Girl by Jenny Lombard—(contemporary fiction) This dual point-of-view tale alternates between ten-year-old Drita, whose family has escaped from Kosovo to New York City, and Maxie, Drita’s African American classmate, part of the “in” group who keeps Drita out. When the girls’ teacher pairs them together for a class project, a reluctant partnership blossoms into true friendship.

Common immigrant issue: Parents experiencing signs of depression. When Drita’s mother slips into depression, Drita must take up the slack with duties at home.

3. Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan—(historical fiction) Esperanza is living the good life on her family’s ranch in Mexico. But when she and her mother must escape from Mexico and settle in a camp of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression, she finds poverty, hard work and discrimination. Esperanza becomes involved in California migrant workers’ rights, and saves her mother in the process.

Common immigrant issue: As with many immigrants, Esperanza must transition from a comfortable life back home to a life of poverty in the US—a land that many immigrants see as wealthy and prosperous.

4. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai—(historical fiction) Ten-year-old Hà flees beloved Vietnam with her family as Saigon falls. After a long and difficult trip across the ocean, the family ends up in 1970s Alabama. With humor and heart, Hà tells her story of sadness, bewilderment, and, eventually, acceptance of her new life in America. Since this story is written in gorgeous prose, the text is much more accessible to English language learners than other middle grade novels.

Common immigrant issue: Hà goes from feeling smart back in Vietnam to feeling inadequate as she struggles to learn English. Many of my students feel this way—going from the top of their class back home to the bottom of the class in the US is daunting

5. Katerina’s Wish by Jeannie Mobley—(historical fiction) When Trina and her family move to Colorado in the early 1900s, her only wish is to return home to their farm in Bohemia. But her father wishes for a farm in America, so he gets a job working in the dangerous coal mines to save money for his dream. Through hard work and ingenuity, Trina finds that wishes change, and she comes up with her own way to make them come true.

Common immigrant issue: Trina and her family only associate with others from Bohemia; the camp where they live is divided into groups by language and ethnicity. Trina reaches out to other groups in order to realize her family’s dream. Children who are used to associating only with their ethnic groups back home often have a hard time adjusting to our multicultural school environment.

6. Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata—(historical fiction) WhenKatie Takeshima’s family moves form a Japanese community in Iowa to Georgia in the 1950s, Katie rarely sees her parents, who work long hours in a poultry plant. Katie’s older sister, Lynn, has a kira-kira view of the world—always seeing the light, positive side, even when she is diagnosed with lymphoma. With her parents working extra hours to pay Lynn’s medical bills, Katie is the one who shoulders the bulk of Lynn’s care. It is only after Lynn’s death that her parents agree to join the group of workers who want to unionize and improve conditions at the plant.

Common immigrant issue: Like Katie’s mother and father, many immigrant parents work two or three jobs, and their children need to take on adult responsibilities at home.

7. Lowji Discovers America by Candace Fleming—(contemporary fiction) When Lowji moves to America, he has high hopes of finally getting a pet. But Mrs. Crisp, the no-nonsense landlady of the apartment where Lowji’s family lives, doesn’t allow pets. As Lowji shuffles his way through the boredom of summer, he recounts his experiences in letters to his best friend Jamshed back in India. Lowji eventually convinces Mrs. Crisp that she needs a rat-catching cat, a friendly guard dog, and a grass-trimming goat. In the end, he has the pets he’d dreamed of, and a new friend to share them with.

Common immigrant issue: Many newly-arrived children are surprised when they move to the US and their religion is no longer mainstream. Although religion is not a dominant theme in this story, Lowji and his family are Zoroastrians, with which some students will identify.

8. Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai—(contemporary fiction) When Fadi’s family flees from the Taliban in Afghanistan, his 6-year-old sister, Mariam, is accidentally left behind. As Fadi and his family try to adjust to life in San Francisco, Mariam is never far from their thoughts. At school, Fadi enters a photography contest, hoping to win the grand prize—a National Geographic photography trip to India. If he wins, Fadi plans to slip over the border into Afghanistan to find his sister. But after the events of 9/11, Fadi’s Pashtun family is fearful in their new home, and fearful that they’ll never be able to get Mariam out of Afghanistan.

Common immigrant issue: The only job that Fadi’s educated father can get in the US is a taxi driver, and his older sister works at McDonalds as the family struggles day-to-day. Many of my students’ parents who were doctors or engineers in their home countries have to take jobs in the US where they aren’t able to utilize their training and talents.

9. Star in the Forest by Laura Resau—(contemporary fiction) When Zitlally’s father is deported back to Mexico, the family scrapes together enough money for a coyote guide to bring him back across the border. But when the coyote and the people he is with are kidnapped and held for ransom, Zitlally fears for her father’s life. She and a new friend find a dog with an abusive owner in the trailer park where they live and name the dog Star after the marking over its eye. Zitlally is convinced that Star is her father’s spirit animal, and her father will be safe as long as Star is, too. But when Star disappears, Zitlally fears she will never see her father again.   

Common immigrant issue: The fear of deportation that illegal immigrant families face is palpable in this story.

10.Sylvia & Aki by Winifred Conklin—(non-fiction) This story is based on the childhood lives of Sylvia Mendez, a Mexican American girl who is not allowed to attend the “white” school near her home in southern California, and Aki Munemitsu, a Japanese-American girl who is sent to live in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. When Aki leaves for Arizona, Sylvia’s family moves into their home. Sylvia finds a beautiful Japanese doll on the closet shelf in her room, which eventually leads to Aki and a lifelong friendship between the two girls.

Common immigrant issue: Aki leaves home with few possessions, a heartbreaking situation for many who must permanently leave their homes in a hurry.

Natalie Dias Lorenzi is a teacher, librarian, and the author of middle grade novel Flying the Dragon which was released July 1, 2012, from Charlesbridge.