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Books to Help Kids Understand What It’s Like to Be a Refugee

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

We see the news stories about refugees almost every day. We hear the true but almost unimaginable accounts of families forced to flee their homes, their homelands, their entire lives. While we may wish that our children didn’t have to know about such trauma, the facts are that it’s real and very present — and there are countless children actually living it. Stories can facilitate dialogue and promote healthy communication on this difficult topic, help to foster empathy and understanding, and even inspire young readers to take action to ensure safe and welcoming environments in their own communities. Here are a few titles that can help:

  • Picture Books

  • Teacup

    by Rebecca Young, illustrated by Matt Ottley

    Readers of all ages will find much to connect with in this simple and lovely tale of a boy who must leave his home and find another. He sets off alone in a rowboat, with only a book, a blanket, and some earth from his homeland in a teacup. Young’s story doesn’t shy away from the loneliness and uncertainty the boy experiences, but the story ends on a hopeful note when he finds land and a much-needed friend.

  • Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation

    by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub

    Danticat’s celebration of storytelling and the bond between mother and child is an empowering one. Saya, whose mother is being detained, writes a story inspired by her mother’s experience. When her father sends Saya’s story to a newspaper, she learns firsthand that one voice, one story, can make a difference.

  • Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey

    by Margriet Ruurs, illustrated by Nizar Ali Badr, translated by Falah Raheem

    Nizar Ali Badr’s striking stone art inspired Ruurs to create a narrative about a family in Syria who attempts to walk to safety and freedom in Europe with only what they can carry on their backs. Booklist called this free-verse tale “a unique offering that will open eyes and soften hearts.”

  • The Journey

    by Francesca Sanna

    Sanna writes that The Journey began when she met two young girls at an Italian refugee center, then “began collecting more stories of migration and interviewing many people from many different countries.” The striking result, in a setting that is not specified, is a simple yet powerful illustration of the anxiety, exhaustion, and heartbreak a family faces when displaced by war and conflict, as well as the courage and hope of their journey.

  • Oskar and the Eight Blessings

    by Richard Simon and Tanya Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel

    In this award-winning book, Oskar escapes the Kristallnacht pogrom, or “Night of Broken Glass,” in Nazi Germany and arrives in Manhattan on the seventh day of Hanukkah (and Christmas Eve) with only a photograph and the address of an aunt he doesn’t know. “The city was terribly big, Oskar was terribly small, and Broadway stretched before him like a river.” As he makes a solitary walk from downtown to uptown, he experiences the excitement of bustling New York City and small acts of kindness from strangers along the way, pointing toward a new life of hope.

  • Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush's Incredible Journey

    by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes, illustrated by Sue Cornelison

    Lost and Found Cat follows an Iraqi family’s escape from Mosul — by car, by foot, and by boat — all with their beloved pet, Kunkush, in tow ... until Kunkush escapes his carrier. The family is heartbroken, but Kunkush fortunately ends up in the hands of Amy, a woman volunteering with refugees in Greece, who grows determined to reunite the cat with his original family. This moving true story will inspire discussions with young readers about what it means to be a refugee, the unexpected consequences of being displaced, and the importance of kindness.

  • Middle Grade

  • Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom

    by Dia Cha, illustrated by Chue Cha and Nhia Thao Cha

    Since the war in Vietnam, Hmong people have created exquisitely embroidered “story cloths” that tell stories of their history and culture. Gorgeous embroidered cloth scenes, stitched by Dia Cha’s aunt and uncle, illustrate this story that’s based on the author’s real-life journey with her family from China to four years in a refugee camp in Thailand, then to the United States. A teacher’s guide and lesson plan provide some context for readers unfamiliar with Hmong history and culture.

  • Inside Out and Back Again

    by Thanhha Lai

    Lai’s bestselling Newbery Honor book, written in short free verse, powerfully captures the alienation felt by a child forced into a new and often unwelcoming world. As 10-year-old Ha tries to adjust to life in Alabama, where she is bullied by her peers and befriended by a teacher who has some understanding of her experiences back in Vietnam, readers can empathize with Ha and all of those who are considered “foreigners” in this story of strength and resilience.

  • The Red Pencil

    by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

    Children’s literature powerhouse Andrea Davis Pinkney uses verse to tell Amira’s tale of loss, hardship, and ultimately hope. Pinkney notably offers a detailed picture of Amira’s rich home life and environment in Sudan before it is destroyed by war, and readers will celebrate when a silent Amira is offered the gift of literacy that reminds her that her voice matters and has enormous power.

  • A Long Walk to Water

    by Linda Sue Park

    Salva Dut led a group of over 100 boys on a harrowing journey through danger, sickness, and starvation from war-torn South Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya. He was then relocated to the United States, where he got a college degree and went on to found Water for South Sudan, an organization that provides deep water wells in South Sudan. The bestselling A Long Walk to Water, based on Mr. Dut’s experience, has inspired children around the world to make a difference in their communities and beyond. Both Salva Dut and Linda Sue Park have delivered TED talks detailing their work, the power of diverse stories, and the ability of young people to create change in our world: Salva Dut, “I Kept Walking”; and Linda Sue Park, “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?”.

  • How I Became a Ghost

    by Tim Tingle

    The first in a trilogy, Tingle’s novel tells the story of Isaac, a 10-year-old member of the Choctaw Nation who is forced from his home in what is now Mississippi and travels through the tragedies of the “Trail of Tears” with his family in 1830. In a review of this “ghost story,” American Indians in Children’s Literature notes that “Scary things do happen — this is a story about the forced relocation of a people, but it is more about the humanity of the people on that trail than it is about that forced relocation.” Tingle offers a full-bodied portrait of an important piece of American history whose legacy lives on.

  • Bamboo People

    by Mitali Perkins

    Tu Reh, a Karenni boy, has witnessed the destruction of his family’s home and bamboo fields by Burmese soldiers. Chiko is a Burmese boy who loves books and has no interest in combat. The boys’ lives intersect when Chiko, forced to become a soldier, is injured and Tu Reh discovers him. Perkins’s delicately told story of the enduring power of compassion is thoughtful and satisfying. A helpful Discussion and Activity Guide and Book Club Guide are available from the publisher.

  • Young Adult

  • Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town

    by Warren St. John

    When boys from different countries — including Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq — are brought to a small Atlanta town by the UNHCR for resettlement, they have three months of official support before they are left to fend for themselves in a struggling and suspicious community. They bond through a shared love of football (soccer), and the efforts of their Jordanian-born coach, Luma Mufleh (an exile herself of sorts), and overcome the trauma and pain of the past and present. They compete successfully against better-funded, well-established teams, and, in the process, learn and teach lessons about community, resilience, and what it means to be a winner.

  • Once They Had a Country: Two Teenage Refugees in the Second World War

    by Muriel R. Gillick

    Gillick uses historical documents such as letters, telegrams, and police records to weave a compelling narrative of two teen refugees — her own parents — during World War II. Once They Had a Country also offers readers context for the development of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1951.

  • Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina

    by Michaela DePrince and Elaine DePrince

    Teens may have seen Michaela DePrince in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” and young dance fans might know her as the youngest principal dancer ever to be a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Taking Flight takes readers from her birth in conflict-ridden Sierra Leone, to her life with vitiligo at an orphanage and refugee camp, then to her being adopted by an American family and fulfilling her long-held dreams of being a ballerina. DePrince’s story of overcoming challenges throughout her life, from war and displacement to discrimination in the dance world, is sure to inspire.

  • A Time of Miracles

    by Anne-Laure Bondoux, translated by Y. Maudet

    In what Kirkus called “a beautifully cadenced tribute to maternal love and the power of stories amid contemporary political chaos,” Bondoux tells Blaise Fortune’s story of survival and his five-year journey escaping the civil unrest in the Republic of Georgia and traveling through numerous refugee camps to France with Gloria, who has cared for Blaise since he was a baby. A mystery surrounding Blaise’s identity provides additional tension in this story of sacrifice and hope.

As the refugee situations worldwide grow increasingly urgent and complex, be proactive about engaging your children in conversations about what it means to be a refugee, and how citizens of all ages can work to make newcomers feel welcome and safe. Remember that children respond to trauma and challenges in different ways, and there is no “typical” refugee or “single story” that represents the myriad experiences children have in these situations.

For additional suggestions, check out the Teaching Tolerance’s “Immigrant and Refugee Children: A Guide for Educators and School Support Staff.” The British Red Cross also has a helpful fact sheet on the refugee crisis around the world, with definitions, that can be found here. And Amnesty International provides links to a number of resources for children of all ages, including an online educational game called Against All Odds, which you can find here.

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