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19 Books for Kids About the Immigrant Experience in America

by Laura Lambert

immigrant experience

“This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action.”

—John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants


Just as true when JFK wrote it as it is today: We live in a nation of immigrants. But what does that mean to a 3-, 6-, or 12-year-old? Maybe they’ve heard about the wall that the president wants to build between the U.S. and Mexico. Or the proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. Maybe they know someone who recently immigrated to the U.S. — and who is struggling to fit in. Maybe immigration is part of their family’s story — or their own.

In my family, almost every single person on my mother’s side is a U.S. immigrant. They came in waves from Seoul, South Korea, the first one in 1951 and the rest following in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. More recently, my older great aunts, distant uncles, and second cousins are moving back to Korea — a boomerang-like twist on the age-old immigrant tale.

I asked my 9-year-old daughter what she knew about immigration. To her, it’s about different-sounding names, different-tasting food, different-looking clothes — and her life is the richer for it. Here are some books to inspire us all to think deeper about our fellow Americans, their stories, and experiences.

  • Picture Books

  • What Is a Refugee?

    by Elisa Gravel

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    For young readers just learning about the refugee experience, Elise Gravel offers an accessible and affirming introduction; she also addresses why refugees must leave home and how readers can make their community a more welcoming one. The book opens with perhaps the most important message of all, in response to the titular question: “A refugee is a person, just like you and me.”
    (Ages 3 - 7)

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  • Danbi Leads the School Parade

    by Anna Kim

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    On her first day at her new American school, Danbi has trouble understanding her teacher’s instructions and her classmates’ games. But over lunch, Danbi finds a way to meld her two cultures and create a new game, one everyone can play. An uplifting picture book about finding connection through, not despite, our differences.
    (Ages 3 - 7)

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  • The Name Jar

    by Yangsook Choi

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    The Name Jar is one of my daughter’s favorite books — even now that she’s moved on to middle grade reads. It’s a familiar immigrant tale of having an unfamiliar name and feeling like an outsider — that is, until someone kind or brave (or both) makes a gesture of inclusion.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

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  • Carmela Full of Wishes

    by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson

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    From the creators of The Last Stop on Market Street comes another must-read story on immigration and class. When Carmela finds a dandelion to blow, she ponders all the wishes she could make with it. Will she wish for a candy machine? For her mother to sleep in a bed as nice as the ones she makes every day? Or for her father’s papers to be fixed so he can finally come home?
    (Ages 4 - 8)

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  • The Wall in the Middle of the Book

    by Jon Agee

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    A knight thinks he is on the “safe” side of a wall that separates the two sides of the book, all the while oblivious to the dangers creeping up on his own side. When an ogre from the other side saves him, he learns that he was too quick to judge. A thoughtful lesson on not making assumptions about people and places you don’t know.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

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  • Dreamers

    by Yuyi Morales

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    In her poignant and intricate picture book memoir, Yuyi Morales, who immigrated to America with her infant son in 1994, captures the experience of starting over in a new land. As Morales writes, leaving everything behind doesn’t mean you bring nothing with you. Your history and family, your dreams and talents — they’re all a part of you, wherever you go.
    (Ages 4 - 8)

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

    by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub

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    Based on the author’s own experience as a child, a little Haitian girl longs for her mother. Held in a detention center for not having immigration papers, Mama records stories inspired by Haitian folklore for Saya to listen to at bedtime. A much-needed book that holds possibility and hope for families caught in these circumstances.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

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  • We Came to America

    by Faith Ringgold

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    We Came to America is a poetic ode to the inherent diversity of the U.S. and an exploration of the many reasons our ancestors immigrated here — willingly and unwillingly, toward hope or away from fear — and the cultural traditions and talents they brought to the melting pot. It’s an essential reminder that, with the exception of Native Americans, whose land we live on, we are all immigrants here.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

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  • All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel

    by Dan Yaccarino

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    In this Italian-American immigrant story, author Dan Yaccarino shares the story of his own great-grandfather, who arrived at Ellis Island with little more than a shovel and some sage advice — both of which were kept and handed down to four generations of the author’s family. The story is a testament to the bonds many immigrant families strive to keep with their country of origin. In the words of School Library Journal, “This immigration story is universal.”
    (Ages 5 - 9)

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  • Middle Grade

  • When Stars Are Scattered

    by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illustrated by Victoria Jamieson

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    Many of those who immigrate to America first spend years in refugee camps while they wait to be granted entry into a new country. Omar Mohamed and his younger brother, Hassan, Somali refugees separated from their parents, spent most of their boyhoods in one such camp. This remarkable graphic memoir unfolds over 15 years, as Omar and Hassan build a life and community in an overcrowded camp before finally resettling in America.
    (Ages 8 - 12)

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  • Kiki and Jacques

    by Susan Ross

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    Twelve-year-old Jacques is already experiencing a lot of change in his life, including the death of his mother, when several Somali refugees move to his small town in Maine. Suddenly, Jacques has competition on the soccer team, and there are other growing pains — for both the locals and refugees — as their community becomes a multicultural one. When Jacques strikes up a friendship with Kiki, one of the refugees, his world begins to expand.
    (Ages 8 - 12)

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  • One Good Thing About America

    by Ruth Freeman

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    Written in letters from 9-year-old Anaïs to her grandmother Oma, One Good Thing About America is a heartfelt and often amusing portrait of a young girl adjusting to life in “Crazy America,” where her classmates’ phrases and customs seem totally strange (and eventually charming). While she gets to know her new culture, Anaïs also misses the family members she had to leave behind.
    (Ages 8 - 12)

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  • Count Me In

    by Varsha Bajaj

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    Of course, immigrating to a new country is only the beginning of a long journey. Karina Chopra’s grandfather first moved to America in 1968, but even though the U.S. has long been his home, the color of Papa’s skin inspires a hate crime against him. Karina and her neighbor Chris launch an anti-hate campaign on social media, urging their community (with heartening success) to remember that each of us belongs.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration

    by Ann Bausum

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    In this meticulously researched history, Ann Bausum offers an important long view of how immigration has shaped America — economically, culturally, and more. Bausum also delves into some of our country’s shameful responses to immigrants, including turning away Jewish refugees and interning Japanese-Americans during WWII. While a difficult history, it’s also a critical one for reckoning with the cruelty at borders we’re seeing today.
    (Ages 10+)

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2020.