Talking to Kids About Immigration by Lisa Schroeder
In the second grade, I became friends with Matai. She was so fun and funny, I loved spending time with her. At some point during our friendship, we discovered Amy Grant and fell in love with her music. And her mom let us watch scary movies, even though I wasn’t sure I really liked scary movies. But because it seemed like something kids weren’t often allowed to do, it felt special. Just like Matai.
When I’d eat dinner at their house, they’d tell me I didn’t have to eat the seafood dishes they loved but that weren’t familiar to me. I could just have rice, they said. Since I mostly grew up on meat and potatoes, I was thankful for their kindness and understanding.
Matai’s family was from the Phillipines. I don’t remember if they every told me why her parents came to America or when. But you know what? I didn’t care. Matai was my friend. That’s all that mattered.
That’s the thing about kids. They don’t really care where someone else came from or what their parents do for a living or a hundred other things that adults are often curious about. If a child connects with someone over a hobby or a sport or an interest, that’s what’s important. Connection.
This fall, across this country, kids will return to school. Some of those kids will have stories they don’t dare tell anyone. Stories about their parents. Stories about where they came from. Stories about the fear they feel because their parents are undocumented. Some may even have stories of their parents being sent away.
My two sons are grown now, but I often wonder what I’d tell them if they were young and I needed to explain what’s happening around the issue of immigration. It’s complicated, although adults often love to simplify it.
As you all know very well, books are one of the best ways to open up conversations with kids. Topics they may hear being discussed by adults can be confusing, but in the context of a story it becomes something they are able to understand. REFUGEE by Alan Gratz, for example, is a wonderful title that shows children in different situations who are forced to flee their homes and can only hope for a better life somewhere else.
When I wrote WISH ON ALL THE STARS in 2018, I was angry that innocent children were being separated from their parents at the border. I was also angry that children who had only known the United States as their home were having to watch parents being sent away or live in fear that it might happen someday.
My main character, Juliet, makes a friend named Carmen and as I started to figure out Carmen’s story, it felt natural to make it one that would introduce children to the concept of deportation. Juliet, Carmen and their friend Emma are trying to figure out a way to make money to save the local bookmobile, so Carmen’s story isn’t the main plot point. But as I wrote, I realized how important it was for me to show the fear children like Carmen must live with every day. I also wanted to explore the concept of being an ally. Juliet makes mistakes, as humans often do, in trying to advocate for her friend. And when she’s called out by Carmen, she owns up to those mistakes, apologizes and promises to do better.
I think it’s going to take big, bold, creative thinking to find solutions to the myriad of problems we are seeing in relation to immigration. But until that happens, children, through no fault of their own, are being caught up in all of it and those of us who have contact with children through our work need to do everything in our power to show them that they matter. That we care. And to help their peers understand the human side of the issue as best we can.
I hope teachers and librarians find WISH ON ALL THE STARS useful as they build a collection of books that take on this important topic. Books help open up conversations and that’s always a good thing. But most of all, I hope children gain some understanding and empathy around the subject – two things we most certainly can never have enough of in classrooms or life.
Once upon a time, Lisa Schroeder wanted to join Encyclopedia Brown on his fun adventures. Since that didn’t work out, she decided to be an author instead. Lisa’s written over twenty books for kids and teens including the popular verse novels for teens I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME and CHASING BROOKLYN. She’s also the author of the middle grade novels IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES, MY SECRET GUIDE TO PARIS, SEE YOU ON A STARRY NIGHT and WISH ON ALL THE STARS. Her books have been translated into foreign languages and have been selected for state reading lists. Lisa is a native Oregonian and lives with her family outside of Portland.