As the November midterm election approaches, the President of the United States has repeatedly denigrated (bad-mouthed) immigrant communities and encouraged his followers to use violent language and outright falsehoods to stoke rage and fear about refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many immigrant narratives written recently discuss the policy measures in the present and the past that have made it more difficult for families to move together to America or live here with security. These stories, like Stepping Stones by Margaret Ruurs, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, or The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, are important. In an age when, bizarrely, refugees—people fleeing conflict or famine or disaster— are targeted as villains, literature promoting empathy and understanding of the catastrophic conditions prompting people to leave home, and understanding what they face when they leave, is as vital as water is for life.
At the same time, I like the following two books, which reflect another need in literature for children about immigrants: quieter stories of confident immigrant children who have a strong positive sense of their family’s history and the place they come from, who are not primarily depicted as victims, who have a lot to share with people in their adopted country, and who are sensitive, intelligent, and funny. The characters’ unique perspective on life reflects their experiences moving from one culture to another .
House, Silas and Vaswani Neela (2011). Same Sun Here. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Meena and River live far away from one another, and don’t appear to have much in common. Meena is an artistic, observant girl whose father works far away at a restaurant in New Jersey. She lives in an illegal sublet in Chinatown, Manhattan, with her parents after moving from Mussoorie, India. Serious, River lives in Kentucky, near the coal mine his father works at, and likes biking, okra, and learning about plants with his grandma. But the two twelve-year-olds have a great deal in common—as they discover when they become pen pals. Both children have fathers who are rarely present, grandmothers with a deep connection to the natural world, and an interest in politics, human emotion, and art which brings them together as the months draw on. As River becomes interested in activism after a technology used for mining pollutes the water near his home, Meena helps her immigrant parents navigate their citizenship exam and anticipates the 2008 presidential election with her brother, a teenager deeply invested in the Obama campaign.
I like that this book presents a picture of a friendship formed through old-fashioned letters. Full of pictures, postcards, book references, and lists, this epistolary novel (a novel in the form of letters sent back and forth) maps the growing friendship between two intelligent, hardworking children in a prose style that feels true to the characters’ time and place while also introducing audiences to lots of beautiful new words and phrases (as both characters love language). Readers will learn about both coal mining communities in Kentucky and the diverse neighborhoods of Manhattan (with some asides about India) and appreciate the poems, honesty, and humorous exchanges between the two sensitive, curious protagonists. While the pace of the book is slow, it is comforting and heartwarming to follow, and invites readers to meditate about their own relationships and how they might broaden their perspective on the world.
Nye, Naomi Shihab (2014). The Turtle of Oman. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.
“What makes a place your own? What makes a home a home? It wasn’t something simple, like a familiar bench, or a fisherman’s yellow sweater vest with a hole in it, or the nut-man’s fat red turban. It was more mysterious, like a village with tiny stacked houses, so many windows, and doors with soft flickers shining out in to the night. You weren’t sure who lived in any of them, but you felt you could knock on any door and the people inside might know some of the same things you knew or welcome you in—just because you all belonged there.”
Aref’s parents are moving from Muscat, Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan—and Aref does not want to go. He will miss the dunes in the desert, the stacks of apricots at the Souk, storm petrels (a kind of bird), his cat Mish-Mash, his friends, crispy fish, his grandfather, and the turtles that populate the ocean near his town. He is afraid of being backwards, moving in the wrong direction like a reader switching between reading English and Arabic. As he packs and prepares for the journey to America, Aref worries about the myriad of things that he won’t be able to do in America—and the things that people might expect of him. His family, including his grandfather, try their best to help him feel comfortable and prepare him for the change, reminding him that the world will continue turning, even when he is on the other side of it.
Naomi Shihab Nye always writes deep fiction rather than fast fiction, and this book is no exception. Nye’s wordplay, and Aref’s appreciation for beautiful sights, words, and moments, makes this book a wonderful book for young old souls and poets alike. It introduces the reader to a picture of Oman, a country they may have never heard of and might only get vague pictures of from the news. The way that people express affection, the sense of community, history and belonging, and the relationship that Aref has with his friends and family will prompt readers to consider the things in their own lives that they would regret leaving, and how they might adjust to big changes in the future while keeping a sense of themselves intact.