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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 3-, 6-, or 12-year-old? Maybe they’ve heard about the wall that Donald Trump 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-smelling 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.

  • Ages 5 – 8

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

    by Dan Yaccarino

    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.”

  • Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale

    by Duncan Tonatiuh

    Just as Ellis Island looms large in a generation of immigrant tales, the Mexico-U.S. border is the setting for more modern version of immigration — the illegal border crossing. Told as a fable, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote depicts the lengths families will go to find a better life in America — and the author’s note can help our younger kids understand what some of their peers, or their families, may have endured to get here. Winner of numerous awards when it was first published, including Kirkus Best Books of 2013 and the Best Multicultural Children’s Book for 2013.

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

    by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub

    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.

  • Here I Am

    by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez

    This book with no words nevertheless captures what it’s like to be an immigrant in the big city — disorienting, unfamiliar, overwhelming, alienating, new. Though there’s little in the way of text in this story about a boy and his family from an unnamed Asian country, there’s plenty for readers to think and talk about. In the author’s note, Kim shares her own immigration from Korea to Washington D.C.

  • One Green Apple

    by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Ted Lewin

    Farah, a shy, young Muslim immigrant, doesn’t speak English — but she finally finds a way to connect with her fellow students on a field trip to an apple orchard. She’s from an unnamed country, but her story will be familiar to many immigrants — the slow but sure shift from feeling “other” to becoming a part of your new culture through the magic of friendship.

  • Ages 9 – 12

  • Grandfather’s Journey

    by Allen Say

    Winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal, Grandfather’s Journey is a landmark book that captures the emotional side of immigration. As the title suggests, this is the story of Allen Say’s grandfather, who left Japan for America — and Say’s story as well, having made that same trip. Grandfather’s Journey captures the sense of having two homes — and wishing you could be in two places at once.

  • Shooting Kabul

    by N.H. Senzai

    Shooting Kabul depicts the flight of one family from Afghanistan to America, just before 9/11. The “shooting” in the title refers to 12-year-old Fadi’s camera, not guns — although there is plenty to fear from the Taliban and the anti-terror fervor of the post-9/11 age. A powerful conversation-starter for mature middle-grade readers, and the 2010 Youth Literature Award winner from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.

  • A Long Walk to Water

    by Linda Sue Park

    A Long Walk to Water is the story of two Sudanese children — Salva, a boy, and Nya, a girl — told from alternating points of view. Salva’s story begins in 1985; Nya’s in 2009. They later intersect, but, first, Salva’s journey takes him to Rochester, New York, before returning to Sudan. A New York Times bestseller — and for good reason, as it captures the harrowing plight of Sudan's "Lost Boys." Based on a true story.

  • Inside Out and Back Again

    by Thanhha Lai

    Like many of the most engrossing stories of immigration, Inside Out and Back Again is based on Thanhha Lai’s personal history — her family’s flight from Vietnam, after the fall of Saigon, to the strange lands of the American South. Young readers may recognize the sting of bullying and rejection and the struggle to fit in. Told in compelling free verse, Inside Out and Back Again won a National Book Award and Newbery Honor and was a New York Times bestseller.

  • Lowji Discovers America

    by Candace Fleming

    Lowji Snajana is a 9-year-old boy from Bombay who finds himself in Hamlet, Illinois, at the beginning of summer. With no school yet and no friends to speak of, he befriends animals — and shares his adventures with friends back in India through letters.

What other books would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below. 

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