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19 Books for Kids About the Immigrant Experience in America

by Laura Lambert

“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.

  • 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.