“For most immigrants, moving to the new country is an act of faith. Even if you've heard stories of safety, opportunity, and prosperity, it's still a leap to remove yourself from your own language, people, and country. Your own history. What if the stories weren't true? What if you couldn't adapt? What if you weren't wanted in the new country?”—Nicola Yoon
Amidst the recent news headlines surrounding immigration and border laws, it’s easy to forget that many of these immigrants are children. As migrant children adjust to a new home, a new language and a new set of customs, they need books that authentically reflect and affirm their experiences and feelings. Equally important is the need for children born in the United States to gain small insights into life as an immigrant. These five stories of struggle and triumph, loneliness and connection, and isolation and belonging will spark classroom conversation, affirm migrant children’s feelings, and build empathy for those who are making a home in a new world.
Mustafa by Marie-Louise Gay
“Mustafa and his family traveled a very, very long way to get to their new county.” He dreams of his old country “full of smoke and fire and loud noises” and wakes up to find himself in a new country but, as him mom reminds him, “under the very same moon.” Mustafa ventures down into a neighborhood park and takes great joy in the green trees, bugs that remind him of jewels, and flowers that look like his grandmother’s teacups. He crosses paths with a girl and her cat but is intimidated when he can’t understand her words. As the weeks pass, Mustafa continues to visit the park taking delight in the changing seasons. One day he waves to a group of playing children, but they don’t notice prompting him to ask his mother, “am I invisible?” At last, the young girl with the cat succeeds in communicating with Mustafa and a new friendship is born. A gentle and honest story, Mustafa is accessible for children of all ages and a valuable read aloud for all classrooms.
• Creative Writing—Invite students to examine the title and dedication pages. They show Mustafa’s family with their belongings on their heads and backs as they board a ship that carries them to their new country. Ask to children to imagine moving to a new country and only being able to take a few possessions. After a brief class discussion let them journal about the items they would bring if they had to flee to a new country.
• Nature Walk—Mustafa loves to explore the park next to this apartment building. He takes great delight in things Americans take for granted—green grass and red birds hiding in trees. With their journals in hand, take your students outside for a nature walk and encourage them to look anew at the world around them. After 5-10 minutes of walking, stop and let children draw or write about the things they noticed “with their new eyes”. Mustafa sees flowers shaped like his grandmother’s pink teacups and others that look like dragon tongues. Encourage children to create metaphors for the things they find on the nature walk.
Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin Kheiriyeh
Rashin can’t wait for her first trip to an American beach. As she and her family make the trip from Brooklyn to Coney Island, Rashin reminisces about her trips to the Caspian Sea beach in Iran. Through her memories, readers will the understand that the differences between the two beaches are significant. In Iran, after a breakfast of halim, the family drives five hours to the beach where “big, long curtains divided the sea into two sections—one side for men to swim in and the other side for women.” On the subway headed to Coney Island, Rahsin misses her friend Azadeh and wonders if the sea in America will be as endless, blue, and beautiful as it is in Iran. When they arrive, Rashin’s homesickness reaches its peak and when she discovers the ice cream truck doesn’t carry saffron flavored ice cream, she begins to cry. A young girl behind her in line encourages Rashin to try chocolate crunch ice cream. The two girls become fast friends and Rashin has no problem following the Coney Island beach rule: To have fun, fun, fun. By focusing on a single experience, Saffron Ice Cream shows how very different daily experiences can be in a new country. The colorful illustrations and lighthearted prose make for an upbeat and relatable immigrant story.
• Venn Diagram—Saffron Ice Cream begs for a venn diagram. As a class, create a venn diagram comparing the Coney Island and Caspian Sea beaches. Be sure to leave enough room in the overlapping portion to list the ways the beaches are similar. Use this diagram to spark a conversation about similarities and differences between cultures. If you have migrant children in your class, let them talk about experiences and traditions they remember from their home country and how they are similar and different to those in the United States.
• Geography—Using a world map and Google Earth, locate Coney Island and the Caspian Sea. Let the children make observations comparing the two beaches. Show them Coney Island’s Stillwell train station as well. For many students in rural and suburban classrooms, riding a subway is a foreign experience.
• Different, but essentially the same—Young Rashin is homesick for Iran and her Caspian beach, but at the end of the book she understands that though the two beaches are different, the most important aspects (family, friendship) transcend cultures. In the past few years, I have discovered several strong picture books highlighting the differences and (more importantly) the similarities between cultures. Make these pictures books a part of your classroom for the entire year. Culture awareness and acceptance is a gift that will stay with children for the rest of their lives. My favorites include This Is How We Do It (Lamothe) Same, Same, But Different (Kostecki-Shaw), This is the Way We Go to School (Bauer), The Sandwich Swap (Al-Abdullah), Everybody Cooks Rice (Dooley), Mirror (Baker) and Around the World in a Bathtub: Bathing All Over the Globe (Bradford).
The Dress and the Girl by Camille Andros, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Beginning in Greece, “back when time seemed slower and life simpler, there was a dress. A dress much like many others, made for a girl by her mother.” The girl and the dress enjoy their life in Greece, but long for something “singular, stunning, or sensational.” They don’t wait long because one day their story changes and they board a ship headed for a new life in America. The dress is put in a trunk—a trunk that gets lost during the journey. The dress is separated from the girl for many years and travels the world searching for the girl. At long last, it comes to rest in a thrift store where the girl, now a mother herself, finds it and passes it along to her daughter. Showing the importance of family history, The Dress and the Girl is a simple story with magnificent illustrations recounting the journey to Ellis Island that was common for so many immigrants at the turn of the century.
• Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty—Peek under the book’s jacket at the cover. You will be greeted by a magnificent illustration of the Statue of Liberty as seen by immigrants as they disembark the ship. Take a virtual field trip to the Statue of Liberty National Park and let students view the statue from across the water. Zoom in closer and read the inscription at the base of the statue. Write it on the board or a piece of chart paper. After a class discussion, keep it hanging in your classroom to remind students that the United States is open to all people. My students also loved the live cam view located in the torch of the statue.
• Oral family history—The dress holds significance for the girl because it is a family heirloom and traveled with her from her home country of Greece. Use the story to launch an oral family history project. With the help and input of students, develop a short family history questionnaire for them to use with their parents, grandparents, or other relatives. One of the questions can be about treasured family heirlooms. Use this opportunity to teach and develop students’ interviewing and conversational skills. Let them practice interviewing each other before conducting a family interview.
• Book pairing—Read aloud one of my all-time favorite picture books, My Grandfather’s Coat by James Alyesworth and compare the two stories.
Ella and Monkey at Sea by Emilie Boon
Told through the eyes of a young girl and her stuffed monkey, Ella and Monkey at Sea is perfectly pitched for young children. The story opens with Ella hugging her grandmother, Oma, before boarding a ship bound for America. During the long journey across the ocean, Ella’s emotions are transferred to monkey. Monkey “wants his own bed at home,” he “misses Oma and dinners at home,” and “says no” when the other children ask him to play. Eventually, Ella moves through feelings of homesickness to feelings of hope and excitement for their new country. I read this simple yet effective story aloud to a group of kindergarten students and the empathy stirred by Ella’s honesty was evident on their young faces.
• Creative Writing—Ella’s emotions are transferred to her beloved stuffed monkey. Allow children time to share a special recent experience. Afterward, tell them to retell/write the story from the perspective of their most beloved stuffed friend.
• Art Therapy—When Ella is sad she colors a picture with “angry black,” “scared gray” and “cold blue.” At the end of the book, she colors a picture of a cheerful yellow sun. Discuss how colors reflect emotions. Put some soft music on and let children create their own feelings pictures. For more color and emotion books, be sure to read Niko Draws a Feeling (Chris Rackza) and My Blue Is Happy (Jessica Young).
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Ten-year-old Mia Tang works the front desk at her parents' Calivista Motel. Life isn’t easy for Mia’s family, Chinese immigrants who have been in the United States for two years. Living in a room behind the motel’s office, they work around the clock serving the customers of the motel and ensuring that the customers are happy. The American dream seems anything but dreamy as the family battles several unfortunate events including an abusive robber, a broken washing machine and a stolen car. Equally hard are the cultural challenges and racism Mia faces at school. Raw and believable, Mia’s voice is strong making her struggles relatable for students who share her migrant experience and opens a window for students who have never felt the isolation and confusion that accompanies navigating a life in a new country.
• Struggles and Triumphs—Reflecting the story of most immigrants, Mia experiences many challenges as she adjusts to life in America. Because of her hard work and grit and the kindness of others she also experiences several triumphs. Before reading Front Desk, make a “Struggles & Triumphs” chart. Keep it easily accessible so that it can be updated at the conclusion of each read-aloud time.
• If I owned a motel—Mia dreams of being a writer, and toward the end of the story she enters an essay contest with an essay titled, “If I Owned a Motel.” Encourage children to design and plan their own motel or restaurant. Visit the websites of several family-owned businesses and discuss components of a small business including marketing, theme and customer service. Invite children to write their own essays and share their small business plans with the rest of the class.