If it’s true that reading fiction can enhance empathy, it seems worth the effort to seek out the most heartfelt, bold and imaginative selections related to the American immigrant experience. We elevate ourselves for our children, wanting their world to remain most beautiful, most kind. And without the complicated rationalizations of adulthood, children’s literature has a way of striking at what is universal. Italian, Jewish, Korean, Japanese, and Syrian immigrants in these stories embrace the same Hero’s Journey of departure from an old land, journey to a new land, and the hope and promise of a new life mixed with the inevitable nostalgia for one’s homeland.
Here are 10 children’s books with themes of immigration that struck us as powerful, insightful and tenderhearted.
1. All The Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel by Dan Yaccarino (Ages 4+)
We love this book like our own grandmother’s tomato sauce. Supremely touching and heartfelt in its innocence, the story starts four generations back with Great Grandpa Michele, working on his family’s tiny farm in Sorrento, Italy. His father gives him a tiny shovel to help tend the garden.
Bound for New York as a young man and the promise of a better life, father sends him off with his little shovel and some timeless advice: Work hard, enjoy life, and never forget your family.
Michele arrives to New York, takes the name Michael, and works as a baker, using his childhood shovel to measure flour and sugar. For generations, he hands down the same advice from his father, along with the little shovel. This American dream story moves next to his son, his grandson, and finally his great grandson, Dan, the author himself. Dan moves back to New York City, the home of Michele. His own children play in their terrace garden with the shovel from their great-great grandfather Michele, instilling the same timeless advice: work hard, enjoy life, and love your family.
2. Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say (Ages 4+)
There’s a reason this won a Caldecott. Like many genius inspirations, the idea for this work came to author Allen Say in a sudden burst in 1986, and was drafted in a single afternoon. Yet Say took his time—nearly a decade—to bring this stunning tribute to his grandfather fully to fruition.
This tale of Say’s Japanese grandfather, who longs for America when in Japan, and longs for Japan when in America, is familiar to anyone caught between two worlds.
Say’s Grandfather, like most, leaves home in search of a better life in America. Unlike most, he doesn’t simply land in New York and stay. He travels. Seeing the evocative scenery of the country’s treasures from a foreigner’s eyes—red rock deserts, plains, rivers and mountains—renders a sacredness of place and pastoral pride in our heartland.
Say’s grandfather settles in California, and builds a life for himself. Unlike most other immigrant tales, he longs to visit the country of his youth, and migrates back to Japan with his children. When he longs to return to California, WWII prevents him from ever going back. Author Say is born in Japan.
Upon hearing stories of his grandfather’s life in America, and tales of California, he decides to see for himself. This classic story deals with the brilliant and often overlooked aspect of being in one home and missing the other.
3. We Came to America by Faith Ringgold (Ages 2+)
This melting pot celebration is simple enough for a two-year-old, yet accurately traces our history of immigration, and celebrates the joys found in a diverse culture. Beginning with the first Native Americans, the book explains that some of us started here, while some of us travelled here, and some of us were brought in chains, losing our freedom and our names.
As more immigrants travel by boat, and plane, escaping persecution, they bring their unique songs, dance, rituals and celebrations with them. This is what makes America a joyful place.
As the book explains, in spite of where we came from, at our core we are all the same.
4. The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi (Ages 6+)
What happens when you swim against the current? Seek freedom elsewhere? Written by legendary activist Samad Behrangi, Little Black Fish was banned for more than 20 years in pre-Revolutionary Iran for being seen as a political allegory.
There aren’t enough children’s books from other languages and cultures translated into English. Fortunately, thanks to Tiny Owl Press (UK) we have this one. This classic Persian tale embraces freedom, rugged individualism and breaking from the confinement of the pack.
It has been brought back to life with a new English translation, with the original stunning illustrations by Iranian American Illustrator Farshid Mesghali. The book earned him a Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1974.
The story is told through the voice of an old fish speaking to her 12,000 children and grandchildren. She tells them the tale of the little black fish, who wanted to venture beyond the confines of his own culture, his own stream.
The underlying message is to be open, curious, travel, and to traverse the ocean to find a place where one can perhaps be free of opression. “Perhaps,” says the little black fish, “there is more to life, and perhaps the world is more than our stream!” A wise message for us all.
5. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (Ages 4+)
One of the most challenging aspects of leaving home for a new life can be holding on to the traditions and spirit of what was left behind. This classic tale of generational change and family ties begins with “Great Grandma Anna” who outgrows her only possessions from home—a dress and a babushka. Determined to not leave everything of their homeland behind, Anna’s family decides to make a quilt using Anna’s babushka and dress as part of the patchwork.
The family hands down the quilt from generation to generation. The quilt is used to celebrate weddings, shroud the elderly, embrace new births, play childhood games, proving that we can hold on to a single thread of tradition, hold our families together, even in times of change and growth.
6. The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline (Ages 6-9)
How do you keep a journal if you can’t write? Well, if you’re a romantic, you can put little items into matchboxes, keep them all in a cigar box, and someday win the award for most adorable great-grandfather ever. This powerful and romantic American dream story revolves around just such a narrative. A young girl is allowed to pick up any item in her great grandfather’s study. She chooses a box. “You smoke cigars?” he jokes. But the box isn’t full of cigars, it’s full of matchboxes.
As they explore the little boxes, the grandfather shares keepsakes alongside memories from his life with his granddaughter. A box with an olive pit reminds him of life as a child in Italy. A bottle-cap he found on the boat to America reminds his of the first time he had seen a bottle. His first baseball ticket, a clump of grass, a quarter. These keepsakes, opened one by one, become the basis for his story of life in America. Perhaps most poignant, a piece of coal that he used to write letters learning to read and write. This story is an unforgettable celebration of our human need to keep our stories alive.
7. Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser and Claire A. Nivola (Ages 4+)
If you ever wondered about the origin of the classic poetic lines Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, you will find a delightful and historically-accurate recounting here. This book tells the story of the composition of the classic poem by Emma Lazarus. Beginning with Emma’s childhood as a privileged girl born into a wealthy Jewish family, she grows up to become a celebrated writer.
Never having known poverty herself, Emma is criticized for her involvement with New York’s poorest immigrants. When asked to write a poem to raise funds to build the pedestal to hold the Statue of Liberty, she transforms a political symbol between France and the US into a maternal cloak of protection for the downtrodden. Rich imagery and historical facts combine to make this classic a favorite.
8. The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Ages 3+)
Told from the perspective of a child leaving a war-torn home, The Journey chronicles a mother and her two children as they set out for a safe place, a country far away with high mountains. “We’ll go there and not be frightened anymore” says her mother. They leave for the “great adventure” at night.
Through forests and over land, past border guards and across the sea, The Journey for a safe place continues. How do they survive the journey? By telling stories. Mixing the real darkness found in upheaval with hope of a better life ahead, the child realizes that the birds are following them. The birds migrate, too.
9. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (Ages 5+)
When Unhei leaves Korea with her family, her grandmother gives her a red pouch with a wooden block inside. “Your name is inside,” her grandmother tells her. This wooden stamp with her name in Korean characters travels all the way to America with Unhei.
Everyone who has ever worried about fitting in can relate to this beautifully-told tale of a Korean girl arriving to an American school with a name the other kids find funny. Unhei resents her name, wanting a more American sounding name to fit in. The other kids help her, offering suggestions in a “name jar.”
As the suggestions pile up, Unhei must face her classroom with her final decision. The voice of her grandmother returns as she gives the final verdict to the class. Her name? Unhei. A lesson for all of us on the beauty of being one’s self.
10. My Diary From Here / Me Diario desde Aqui a Alla by Amanda Irma Perez (Ages 6-10)
This beautifully-illustrated tale was born out of author Amanda Irma Perez’s own childhood emotions as her family departed Mexico for the US. While her brothers are eager for change and adventure, Amanda is full of anxieties about leaving the beauty of her surroundings in Mexico, leaving her best friend and all that is familiar to her.
So intimate to any of us who have had to make an adolescent change—whether to a new town, a new school, or a new country—we can remind ourselves that these gut-wrenching moments in life overwrought with vulnerability are overcome with inner strength, curiosity for the new, and the bonds of family love.