Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
One of my favorite movies is John Crowley’s 2015 film, Brooklyn, adapted for film by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibin’s novel of the same name. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman played by Saoirse Ronan, who leaves her home in a small Irish village for a new life in New York City in the early 1950s. It’s tender, unassuming and deeply moving.
In the final lines of the film, Eilis gives some advice to another young woman who’s making the same journey that she did from Ireland to America:
"You'll feel so homesick that you'll want to die, and there's nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won't kill you. And one day the sun’ll come out. You might not even notice straight away, it'll be that faint. And then you'll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past, someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”
These lines, delivered in Ronan’s Irish brogue, kept running through my mind as I read these books aloud with my students.
Leaving home is hard and, as Eilis experienced, many immigrants feel caught between two places and struggle to define what home means. As they validate how challenging adjusting to a new home can be, these three picture books offer hope for children who have immigrated to a new country and light for all those still in the opening chapters of their life’s story.
Home Is in Between
By Mitali Perkins
Illustrated by Lavanya Naidu
“Goodbye, home!” Shanti shouts as she waves to her grandmother, Didu, and the familiar surroundings of her village in India. When her plane lands, she discovers that her new home is “a town with cold rain / And orange and yellow leaves.” Adjusting is challenging. Shanti celebrates Indian traditions and customs and learns new American ones, always “remembering the village. Learning the town. Again and again. In Between.” At first, Shanti skips buoyantly through new experiences, such as Hollywood movies and Halloween, but eventually Shanti becomes exhausted from traversing between two cultures. “Where was she from? Village? Town?” she wonders. Resting in this question restores Shanti’s spirit and reminds her that perhaps the best home is actually in between. Accessible and sincere, Shanti’s story shines a light on the challenges and joys of inhabiting, embracing and celebrating two cultures.
- Illustration conversations
Discuss the concept of a picture book’s gutter, the vertical seam between the left (or verso) and right (or recto) pages formed by the book’s binding. Share examples of books that effectively use the gutter to extend the narrative or to add meaning to the story. I used Chris Raschka’s Yo! Yes?, Matthew Cordell’s Hello! Hello!, Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book and Suzy Lee’s Wave.
Reread Home Is in Between and let students articulate how Naidu uses the gutter to differentiate between the two cultures depicted in the book. Naidu places Shanti’s apartment, full of keepsakes and reminders of her life in India, on the left side of the gutter, while on the right are Shanti’s experiences in her new American town. Ask students, “What do you notice about Shanti’s position on the pages? What does this tell us about Shanti’s thoughts about her two homes?”
- Classroom celebrations
Shanti calls her family in India on the day of the Holi festival. Read aloud an informational book about Holi and invite students to share ideas for how Holi could be celebrated in the classroom. Next, divide students into small groups and provide books or online resources that explain a variety of cultural celebrations and holidays. Each group will choose a celebration to present to the class. Presentations must include information about the history of the celebration and where and how it is celebrated. Each group will also plan two to three ways to acknowledge the celebration in the classroom and choose a date that the celebration will occur.
- Goodbye pictures
When Shanti leaves India, Shanti tells her grandmother goodbye, but she also waves goodbye to “warm monsoon rains. And the green palm trees of her village.” Before dismissing children for the day, gather them together and tell them that their homework is to notice what they especially love about their community, town or geographical region. Show them a few pictures of places that are significantly different from your area (I used pictures of the Arizona desert and the Australian coast). Ask them to draw on their five senses and brainstorm about what they know and love about their corner of the world. What are two things they would miss if they had to move away from this area? The next day, invite students to share their brainstorming and provide paper for them to write and illustrate their goodbyes on.
By Andrea Wang
Illustrated by Jason Chin
A young girl is annoyed when her parents pull their car over to the side of the road in the middle of an Ohio corn field to gather watercress. The uncomfortable, tedious process transforms the girl’s annoyance into disgust and embarrassment. When the watercress is served at dinner that night, she crosses her arms and refuses to eat. But when her mother shares the heartbreaking story of the famine that took her brother’s life during her childhood in China, the girl views the watercress on her family table with new understanding and deep appreciation. Using a single event to illustrate the misunderstandings that can happen between first-generation immigrants and their children, Watercress illuminates the importance of knowing, embracing and valuing cultural heritage.
- Food recollections
Watercress is much more than just a vegetable to the girl’s mother. It brings back memories and is a “delicate and slightly bitter” symbol of her childhood in China. Invite students to consider a food or dish that symbolizes a family tradition or holds strong memories. Give them time to free write, then guide them through turning their thoughts into a short essay rich with sensory language. This exercise is a good opportunity for teaching students how to incorporate figurative language into narrative writing.
- Word meanings
The girl’s mother praises watercress for being free, but to the girl, “Free is bad. Free is hand-me-down clothes and roadside trash-heap furniture and now, dinner from a ditch.” Lead students in a discussion about the word free. Based on the mother’s story and the history of China, what do they think free symbolizes for her? Write the word at the top of a piece of chart paper and make a T-chart. Making inferences from the book's text and illustrations, fill one column with the mother’s definition and thoughts about the word and the other column with the daughter’s ideas and connotations.
- At home with culture
Though the family lives in Ohio, the girl’s parents are intentional about honoring their Chinese heritage. Take a picture walk through the book and ask students to identify specific details in the illustrations that signify the family’s heritage. My classes found several examples in the dining room scenes. Encourage students to notice cultural elements present in their own homes or in the home of relatives. Invite older students to journal about the ways their home decor or family routines reflect their heritage or their family’s values. If time allows, read books that contain pictures of homes around the world and discuss similarities and differences.
Coquí in the City
By Nomar Perez
Miguel loves his life in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He loves flying kites by el Morro, the old fort; playing baseball with his friends at the park; buying quesitos, his favorite treat, from the bakery; and listening to his abuelo’s stories. Most of all, he loves his pet frog, Coquí, who accompanies him on all of these activities, because he is “part of the familia.” When Miguel’s parents tell him that they will be moving to the U.S. mainland, Miguel worries about missing all his favorite things, but most of all, he knows he will miss Coquí, who must stay behind. When Miguel and Mama venture into their New York City neighborhood for the first time, Miguel is overwhelmed by “the newness of everything.” His spirits lift when they find a park and he discovers familiar sights and sounds, including a pond with several frogs. On the journey home, they pass a bakery selling quesitos. Drifting off to sleep that night, Miguel realizes that San Juan will always be a part of him. Though some things are “definitely different in New York,” other things are “just the same.”
- Venn diagram
This book offers a wonderful opportunity to introduce young students to Venn diagrams. As a class, create a Venn diagram that compares Miguel’s life in San Juan and New York City. Be sure to leave enough room in the overlapping section in the center to list similarities. Use the diagram to spark a conversation about similarities and differences between cities around the world. If any of the students in your class are immigrants themselves, invite them to share experiences and traditions they remember from their home cities and to reflect on which experiences are different and which are “just the same” as their experiences in the United States.
- Further reading
There is an abundance of wonderful books about children who leave home and move to another place. Extend Miguel’s experience by sharing more immigration stories with students. My favorites include Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa’s Islandborn, Aliki’s Marianthe’s Story, Riki Levinson and Diane Goode’s Watch the Stars Come Out and Thrity Umrigar and Khoa Le’s Sugar in Milk. For older readers, I recommend Jasmine Warga’s Other Words for Home and Bette Bao Lord and Marc Simon’s In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson.