Please welcome my guest blogger, Natalie Dias Lorenzi.
Natalie Dias Lorenzi is a librarian in Fairfax County, Virginia. Her debut middle grade novel, Flying the Dragon, was published last year by Charlesbridge. Follow her on Twitter (@NatalieLorenzi) or visit her website at www.nataliediaslorenzi.com.
As a school librarian, I often see kids get excited when they connect with characters and settings and problems in stories. “She’s just like me!” they’ll say, or, “I know exactly how he felt.” A major part of my job as a librarian is to help kids find books they can connect with, books that speak to them. If a student has lost a pet, I’ve got several books for that. Problems with bullies? I could recommend a slew of titles. Ditto for the new kid at school, the one moving away, the new big brother or sister, or the kid who worships soccer.
But there are some topics that are largely ignored in children’s literature. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were an estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2011, one million of whom are children, and 4.5 million born in the U.S. to undocumented parents. Like other kids, these children also read books on pets, bullies, new baby siblings, and soccer. But the life of an undocumented child brings special challenges not found in books on their library shelves: feelings of isolation from neighbors, the burden of secrecy, and constant fear of deportation.
As a librarian, these books are difficult to match with the kids who need them, because a child obviously isn’t going to come up to me and say, “I’m in this country illegally. Do you have any books with characters like me?” If you pay attention, you will sometimes see the signs. Some are obvious—a reluctance to talk about their country of birth, vague answers to questions about when they came to the U.S., or how they traveled here. Some signs are subtle; kids staying home from school to care for younger siblings who are sick—their parents will lose their jobs if they miss a day of work. Or kids who bounce from school to school—sometimes several schools in the same year.
One way to bring these books to the kids who need them is to simply talk them up—display them with books about all kinds of immigrant children, or children from other cultures.
I’d love to add more titles to this list, so if you have other recommendations for books with characters who are undocumented, I’d love to hear about them!
Undocumented Immigrants in Children’s Books
Tomás and the Library Lady by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colon
Tomás is a son of migrant workers. Every summer he and his family follow the crops north from Texas to Iowa, spending long, arduous days in the fields. At night they gather around to hear Grandfather’s wonderful stories. But before long, Tomás knows all the stories by heart. “There are more stories in the library,” Papa Grande tells him. The very next day, Tomás meets the library lady and a whole new world opens up for him. Based on the true story of the Mexican-American author and educator Tomás Rivera, a child of migrant workers who went on to become the first minority Chancellor in the University of California system, this inspirational story suggests what libraries—and education—can make possible. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh
Duncan Tonatiuh brings to light the hardship and struggles faced by thousands of families who seek to make better lives for themselves and their children by illegally crossing the border.
In this allegorical picture book, a young rabbit named Pancho eagerly awaits his papa’s return. Papa Rabbit traveled north two years ago to find work in the great carrot and lettuce fields to earn money for his family. When Papa does not return, Pancho sets out to find him. He packs Papa’s favorite meal—mole, rice and beans, a heap of warm tortillas, and a jug of aguamiel—and heads north. He meets a coyote, who offers to help Pancho in exchange for some of Papa’s food. They travel together until the food is gone and the coyote decides he is still hungry . . . for Pancho! [picture book, ages 6 and up]
La Mariposa by Francisco Jiménez, illustrated by Simón Silva
An autobiographical story that reflects the author’s experiences as an undocumented child migrant worker in California. In his first year of school, Francisco understands little of what his teacher says. But he is drawn to the silent, slow-moving caterpillar in the jar next to his desk. He knows caterpillars turn into butterflies, but just how do they do it? To find out, he studies the words in a butterfly book so many times that he can close his eyes and see the black letters, but he still can’t understand their meaning. Illustrated with paintings as deep and rich as the wings of a butterfly, this honest, unsentimental account of a schoolchild’s struggle to learn language reveals that our imaginations powerfully sustain us. La Mariposa makes a subtle plea for tolerance in our homes, our communities, and in our schools. [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
My Shoes and I by Rene Colato Lainez, illustrated by Fabricio
A timely and inspiring story. Mario is leaving his home in El Salvador. With his father by his side, he is going north to join his mother, who lives in the UnitedStates. She has sent Mario a new pair of shoes. He will need good shoes because the journey north will be long and hard. He and his father will cross the borders of three countries. They will walk for miles, ride buses, climb mountains, and cross a river. Mario has faith in his shoes. He believes they will take him anywhere. On this day, they will take him to the United States, where his family will be reunited. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
Star in the Forest by Laura Resau
This lovely story is on our state reading list this year, the Virginia Readers Choice. Zitlally’s family is undocumented, and her father has just been arrested for speeding and deported back to Mexico. As her family waits for him to return— they’ve paid a coyote to guide him back across the border—they receive news that he and the coyote’s other charges have been kidnapped and are being held for ransom. Meanwhile, Zitlally and a new friend find a dog in the forest near their trailer park. They name it Star for the star-shaped patch over its eye. As time goes on, Zitlally starts to realize that Star is her father’s “spirit animal,” and that as long as Star is safe, her father will be also. But what will happen to Zitlally’s dad when Star disappears? [chapter book, ages 7 and up]
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Esperanza lived the life of a princess with her family in Mexico, thinking of the future only when she dreamed about her big Quinceañeras party to be held in two years when she would turn 15. But when tragedy entered their lives, Esperanza and her mother flee from Mexico to California and become farmworkers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard work, the financial struggle, or the lack of acceptance she must face, but perhaps the biggest challenge is something Esperanza has never had to face before: an uncertain future. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Crossing the Wire by Will Hobbs
The end was coming, but I didn’t see it coming. In the mountains of central Mexico, fifteen-year-old Victor Flores has been scratching out a living for his family by farming ever since his father died. Days after Victor’s best friend, Rico, runs away from home to seek a better life in the U.S., Victor learns that he may not be able to sell his corn this year. As his family teeters on the brink of disaster, Victor heads north in an attempt to “cross the wire” into the States, find work, and send money home.
Unlike Rico, Victor has no experienced men to travel with and no coyote money to pay the smugglers who sneak illegal workers across the border. He resorts to jumping trains. For a while Victor travels with Julio from Honduras, then the mysterious Miguel, and finally with his childhood friend, Rico. Victor’s journey is fraught with danger as he faces the freezing cold, the scorching heat of the Arizona desert, hunger, and dead ends. It’s a gauntlet run by millions attempting to cross the border. Through Victor’s often desperate struggle, Will Hobbs brings to life one of the great human dramas of our time. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Illegal by Bettina Restrepo
Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—in wait of her father’s return and a better day. When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her quinceañera. This gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl’s unique, yet universal immigrant experience. [young adult, ages 13 and up]
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
I recently read this title for adults and was thrilled to learn that a young adult version is being released next month. Based upon the author’s highly-praised adult work, Enrique’s Journey is the amazing and heartbreaking true story of Enrique, a teenager from Honduras who sets out on a journey, braving hardship and peril, to find his mother, who had no other choice but to leave him and migrate to the United States in search of work. The accessible text for young people will capture hearts and resonate among readers. It brings to light the daily struggles of migrants, legal and otherwise, and the complicated choices they face, not necessarily for a better life, but rather to simply survive and provide for the basic needs of their families. An epilogue will update what has happened since the adult edition was first published. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
Until I Find Julian by Patricia Reilly Giff
Mateo knows that life in his Mexican town can be tough, but he has a supportive family. His brother Julian has gone to the US to find work so he can help out by sending money home, but eventually, there is no word from him. Mateo decides that he has to go and find his brother, and his Abuelita knows this isn’t the best idea but understands that Mateo feels compelled to do this. Crossing into the US is dangerous, and Mateo makes it with the help of a girl, Angel, who befriends him and seems to know a lot about making this journey. When they finally make it to the town where Julian was living, they find that the house where he is living is empty and that there are many issues with immigrants going on at the place of employment where Julian was working. Was Julian killed in a fall, or did he take off because of these issues? Angel and Julian are able to figure things out and report back to the family in Mexico. Review from Ms. YingLing Reads. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
A Journey Toward Hope by Victor Hinojosa & Coert Voorhees, illustrated by Susan Guevara
Review from Randomly Reading:
“This is an excellent picture book for older readers for introducing them to what is going on in the world today, particularly at the border between American and Mexico and generating some informative discussions. Each child’s story is simply told in accessible language. The illustrations are bright, done in a palette of soft pastels. Readers will also notice that each child has a lightly drawn animal by him or her. Be sure to read the Illustrator’ Note to discover the meaning behind these animals. There is also more information in the back matter about the reality of life for migrant children as well as ways to get involved and help. Though I have reviewed the English edition of this book, there is a Spanish language edition available as well: Una jornada hacia la esperanza.” [advanced picture book, ages 8 and up]
Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros
Review from Latinos in KidLit:
“We recommend everyone read Efrén Divided. With Efrén, Cisneros has created a sensitive and caring young boy—of which we need more and more representations. Efrén is an intelligent 12-year-old, but what helps him understand his family’s circumstances and the political climate around him is his kindness. While the story focuses on immigration, it’s also about finding self-empowerment while living in a system determined to disenfranchise people. We also particularly liked the focus on the emotional toll that children with citizenship in mixed-status families experience. Cisneros makes clear that the emotional burden is due to a broken immigration system and not, in this case, because of any decisions made by the parents. Throughout the novel, it’s also evident that ICE is terrorizing communities and, ultimately, traumatizing people. And one of the ways this happens is by not allowing parents to parent their children by forcefully removing the parent from the picture because of citizenship status. With everything impacting his mental health, Efrén still lets hope guide him to fight for a more just system for all. Efrén Divided is a powerful and heartwarming read about a young boy’s desire to bring his family together after being separated by ICE and learning that he has more power than he realized. Cisneros reminds readers that at the end “somos semillitas.” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz
The thought-provoking and timely new novel from Melissa de la Cruz, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Alex & Eliza: A Love Story, will have you crying with Jasmine as she finds out she’s undocumented – then cheering her on as she fights to stay in the country she loves. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
Reader Recommendations for Undocumented Immigrant Books for Kids
Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
Thank you to Valarie from Jump Into a Book for her two great recommendations!
She says, “Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. Some of the main characters in the story are immigrants waiting for final papers. The Chinese neighbor lady doesn’t have any paperwork and must endure the landlord’s abuses and threats. She ends up having to move quickly. I did a post on this book some time back:
This is a tender story about an unlikely friendship between a boy from Kentucky and a girl from India who has recently immigrated to the United States. Through their letters and emails via a pen pal exchange, Meena and River realize they have more in common than not …
Meena lives in New York City in Chinatown, and River lives in Kentucky coalmining country. With honesty and humor, Meena and River bridge the miles between them and their worldviews, to create a friendship that inspires and defeats any cultural misconceptions.
There are two other books I thought of Lupita Mañana: Life at the Academy and America is her Name by Luis Rodriguez. Hope that helps.”
Lupita Mañana by Patricia Beatty
America is not the land of opportunity they had hoped. A new language, hard labor, and the constant threat of la migra — the immigration police–make every day a difficult challenge. But for feisty Lupita, there is always hope for a better manana — tomorrow.
America is her Name by Luis Rodriguez
Set in the Pilsen barrio of Chicago, this children’s picture book gives a heartwarming message of hope. The heroine, América, is a primary school student who is unhappy in school until a poet visits the class and inspires the students to express themselves creatively in Spanish or English. América Is Her Name emphasizes the power of individual creativity in overcoming a difficult environment and establishing self-worth and identity through the young girl América’s desire and determination to be a writer. This story deals realistically with the problems in urban neighborhoods and has an upbeat theme: you can succeed in spite of the odds against you. Carlos Vázquez’s inspired four-color illustrations give a vivid sense of the barrio, as well as the beauty and strength of the young girl América.
Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi
You’d think with a title that includes “zombie” and “beatdown” that this is meant for the boys who enjoy potty humor. You’d be right. But then, this is National Book Award Finalist author Paolo Bacigalupi we are talking about. He’s managed to weave in a few serious elements into this action-packed farce with lots of boy appeal: bullying, undocumented workers, and the unsafe meat processing conditions here in the United States.
When Rabi takes on the local meatpacking plant whose toxic cattle feed is turning cows into flesh-craving monsters, he doesn’t realize that the plant managers use deportation of their undocumented workers as a means to keep them from speaking out. His friend Miguel loses both his parents and his guardians to an immigration raid tipped off by the factory foreman. Rabi has a plan to figure out what is going on to help Miguel get his family back and it involves a zombie baseball beatdown. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino
Thank you to children’s book author Barbara Mojica who says, “I would add Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino for ages eleven and up. Available on Amazon.” She posts a review of Journey of Dreams here.
The book provides a glimpse into the horror of warfare and human enslavement. The interweaving of native culture in dreams and storytelling is vivid and engaging, The author provides a glossary of Spanish and native terms as well as a map to mark the journey. Teachers will find much to discuss with their students and adults will learn more about a tragedy that resulted in making a native people stronger and more resilient.
The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez
Thank you to @JudyOLoughlin on Twitter who tweeted, “The Circuit is one of my favorite of these books about undocumented immigrants.”
“‘La frontera’…I heard it for the first time back in the late 1940s when Papa and Mama told me and Roberto, my older brother, that someday we would take a long trip north, cross la frontera, enter California, and leave our poverty behind.” So begins this honest and powerful account of a family’s journey to the fields of California — to a life of constant moving, from strawberry fields to cotton fields, from tent cities to one-room shacks, from picking grapes to topping carrots and thinning lettuce. Seen through the eyes of a boy who longs for an education and the right to call one place home, this is a story of survival, faith, and hope. It is a journey that will open readers’ hearts and minds.
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez
After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure. Tyler isn’t sure what to make of these workers. Are they undocumented? And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected her American life. Her family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico. Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes
Thank you to author Angela Cervantes for the heads up on her debut middle grade novel Gaby, Lost and Found. She includes themes of undocumented workers in her book for ages 9 and up.
Wanted: One amazing forever home for one amazing sixth grader.
“My name is Gaby, and I’m looking for a home where I can invite my best friend over and have a warm breakfast a couple of times a week. Having the newest cell phone or fancy clothes isn’t important, but I’d like to have a cat that I can talk to when I’m home alone.”
Gaby Ramirez Howard loves volunteering at the local animal shelter. She plays with the kittens, helps to obedience train the dogs, and writes adoption advertisements so that the strays who live there can find their forever homes: places where they’ll be loved and cared for, no matter what.
Gaby has been feeling like a bit of a stray herself, lately. Her mother has recently been deported to Honduras and Gaby is stuck living with her inattentive dad. She’s confident that her mom will come home soon so that they can adopt Gaby’s favorite shelter cat together. When the cat’s original owners turn up at the shelter, however, Gaby worries that her plans for the perfect family are about to fall apart.
Another review from Latin@s in KidLit here.
Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos
Thank you to reader Heather who has a great book recommendation:
I highly recommend reading Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos. It is about two sisters in America who are undocumented but must act as if life is normal when their father is detained near the border and the mother stays with him to work to free their father. The strain on the family and how it spills into the community is palpable and heartbreaking.
“You forget. You forget you don’t really exist here, that this isn’t your home.”
Since emigrating from Bangladesh, fourteen-year-old Nadira and her family have been living in New York City on expired visas, hoping to realize their dream of becoming legal U.S. citizens. But after 9/11, everything changes. Suddenly being Muslim means you are dangerous — a suspected terrorist.
When Nadira’s father is arrested and detained at the U.S.-Canadian border, Nadira and her older sister, Aisha, are told to carry on as if everything is the same. The teachers at Flushing High don’t ask any questions, but Aisha falls apart. Nothing matters to her anymore — not even college.
It’s up to Nadira to be the strong one and bring her family back together again.
Independent Film Director Jennifer Fischer is making a film called Smuggled. She says, I am putting together [a resource guide] on immigration. Becky Morales shared resources and talked about the film on her blog. Facebook page for Smuggled here.
Thank you to Erica of What Do We Do All Day? for her great picture book recommendation, Hannah is My Name. She did a review at Storied Cities.
Hannah is My Name by Belle Yang
With Chinese-influenced paintings in jewel-like colors, Belle Yang tells an immigration tale that reflects one of the many facets of the American dream.Hannah is my name in this new country. It doesn’t sound at all like my Chinese name, Na-Li, which means beautiful.
It’s a long way from Taiwan to San Francisco, but Hannah’s family has made the journey because they want to make America their home. Here in America, Baba tells his daughter, people are free to say what they think, and children can grow up to be whatever they choose. And so Hannah takes a new name, begins a new school, learns a new language, and starts to adjust to a new way of life. Meanwhile, they all wait — and hope — for the arrival of the green cards that will assure they are finally home to stay.
Migrant by Maxine Trottier
I found one more through The New York Times via Reading Rockets
“What would it be like to stay in one place — to have your own bed, to ride your own bicycle?” a little girl named Anna wonders in Maxine Trottier’s 2011 picture book, “Migrant.” “Now that would be something.” Anna’s parents, who are migrant workers, move from one temporary home to another, and Anna imagines herself as a rabbit, living in abandoned burrows, or a bee, flitting from flower to flower. She is effectively homeless, and longs to live a settled life, “like a tree with roots sunk deeply into the earth.”
Anna is the child of the Low German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico, a unique group of migrants who moved from Canada to Mexico in the 1920s. They kept their Canadian citizenship hoping to farm in Mexico, withdraw from the modern world and find religious freedom. But as times became increasingly difficult, they return to Canada as migrant workers. With lyrical prose, Trottier tells the story through young Anna who imagines herself as part of a flock of geese, a jackrabbit in an abandoned burrow, or a bee. But most of all, she imagines what it would be like to stay in one place. [picture book, ages 4 to 7]
Red Glass by Laura Resau
While we certainly don’t want to frighten our students, Red Glass challenges traditional notions on immigration and begs us to understand the complexities of the process. Immigration is not about “illegals” jumping the border; it is a process that involves real-life people in often dangerous situations. Thus, this book challenges us to amend our perceptions of immigration. While this book is recommended for middle grade readers, it does talk about themes of death.
Review from Vamos y Leer.
América is Her Name by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez
At the beginning of the story, the narrator makes clear that América is having a difficult time feeling like she belongs in her new home in the United States. Pilsen is not like her hometown in Oaxaca. She witnesses gun violence—a shooting between two youth groups—as she walks to school. Her white teachers marginalize her for not speaking English and she also overhears them calling her an “illegal.”
Review from Latin@s in KidLit
The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu
Told in M.T.’s darkly funny voice and full of nuanced characters, The Secret Side of Empty is a poignant but unsentimental look at what it’s like to live as an “illegal” immigrant, how we’re shaped by the secrets we keep, and how the human spirit ultimately always triumphs.
Review from Latin@s in KidLit
La Línea by Ann Jaramillo
From Vamos a Leer:
Miguel’s life is just beginning. Or so he thinks. Fifteen-year-old Miguel leaves his rancho deep in Mexico to migrate to California across la linea, the border, in a debut novel of life-changing, cliff-hanging moments.
But Miguel’s carefully laid plans change suddenly when his younger sister Elena stows away and follows him. Together, Miguel and Elena endure hardships and danger on their journey of desperation and desire, loyalty, and betrayal. An epilogue set ten years after the events of the story, shows that you can’t always count on dreams–even the ones that come true. [young adult, ages 10 and up]
Another review from Vamos a Leer.
Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of A Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother by Sonia Nazario
Enrique’s Journey recounts the unforgettable quest of a Honduran boy looking for his mother, eleven years after she is forced to leave her starving family to find work in the United States. Braving unimaginable peril, often clinging to the sides and tops of freight trains, Enrique travels through hostile worlds full of thugs, bandits, and corrupt cops. But he pushes forward, relying on his wit, courage, hope, and the kindness of strangers. [young adult, ages 14 and up]
From Latin@’s in KidLit:
The best creative non-fiction takes you straight down into the messy, contradictory, gut-wrenching heart of a subject, and awakens your appreciation for its complexity. By every measure, Enrique’s Journey is such a book. It’s the riveting epic of a Honduran teenager driven to escape intolerable conditions and fueled by the hope of crossing the border into the United States. The original version was published in 2007 as adult nonfiction. This edition, adapted for readers as young as the seventh grade, was released in 2013. It also updates the story.
Dream Things True by Marie Marqardt
Alma meets Evan when her father is mowing the yard at Evan’s palatial house, and Evan saves her (if not her coffee) when the truck in which she is sitting starts to roll down a hill. Alma had been at a high school in a larger town but had to return home for family reasons. Her brother, Raul, played soccer with Evan, and when Alma goes to the local high school, Evan pursues her. There are problems, however– Alma’s family are undocumented, and Evan’s uncle is a state senator who is campaigning on the platform of removing “illegal aliens” from the area. Many of Alma’s relatives are discovered working at a chicken processing plant and deported. Her own mother died attempting to get the children to the U.S. With the help of guidance counselor Mrs. King, Alma is trying to make sure she gets a good education, but her undocumented status is a big problem, especially when Raul and her father are arrested on traffic violations and must return to Mexico. Can Evan and Alma maintain their relationship, given the odds they face? [young adult, ages 14 and up]
Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Cloud by Jorge Argueta
Review from Latinos in KidLit:
An eloquent and moving account of the tragic migrations of thousands upon thousands of children who are leaving their homes in Central America, often alone, to seek refuge in the United States. Why are they going and how does it feel to be one of them? What is this terrible trip like? What do their hopes and dreams for safety, a new life, and a loving reception mean to them? [bilingual Spanish poetry picture book, ages 7 and up]
Sanctuary by Paola Medoza and Abby Sher
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“This is such an accurate reflection of the way the world is going right now that I hesitate to classify it as “speculative fiction”. The treatment of undocumented immigrants, the power of the Deportation Force, the horrible raids, the increasing walls– this seems like the news right now. Five years ago, this would have seemed unlikely (and similar to Weyn’s Barcode Tattoo, with updated technology), but as I’m reading this, unmarked forces are forcing Portland citizens into unmarked cars and detaining them. Vali’s efforts to save her brother and get them both to safety are timely, and the story is riveting. This is a Young Adult, high octane, Dystopian version of Ciscernos’ Efren Divided. [young adult, ages 12 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.