Inside: Want to help children understand the hardships immigrants face? Besides hearing an immigrant’s story in person, reading picture books on immigration and refugees is the next best way to help children develop empathy – and incredible respect – for the challenges immigrants overcome in order to build a better life for their families.
I’ve already gone on forever about why reading aloud should be the core of your homeschool. Reading aloud is a power-packed, multi-subject-covering machine.
Even though my kids are getting older and we are mainly reading aloud from chapter books, I still prefer to tackle some concepts using picture books.
Especially when it comes to explaining difficult subjects, picture books do the job so well. There’s something almost magical about well-illustrated stories with just the right amount of perfectly chosen words that really help children empathize and understand even the hardest of topics.
One of those topics that’s been at the forefront of our mind over the past few years is immigration in all its forms, whether its intentional migration of families seeking a better life or the violence-induced flight of refugees.
When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence.Unknown
Tackling such a complex topic with news stories or chapter books can sometimes make your kids’ eyes glaze over, but picture books? Picture books allow children to connect and empathize with immigrants like nothing else except perhaps meeting an immigrant in person or seeing a refugee camp with your own eyes can.
Since the latter is not an option at the moment (unless you count spending time with my mother-in-law who immigrated from Canada decades ago), picture books is the next best thing.
So I’ve collected some of the best picture books on immigration for your next unit, an add-on to your current curriculum, or just as a jumping off point for thoughtful conversations.
Over half the books on this list were written by immigrants themselves, so there’s a very raw and realistic feel to many of them.
Because of that, I’d always suggest flipping through a book before reading it with your child, just like I would any book about death, war, or other difficult topics.
Children can surprise us though, and often can handle mature themes much better than the adults reading them can.
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Top 25 Picture Books on Immigration and Refugees
Here’s the list of the top 25 picture books about immigration, including picture books about refugees.
You can find the free printable book list with all 25 titles for easy library browsing at the end of the post.
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1. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey
Stepping Stones tells the story of Rama & her family and how they flee from the Syrian Civil War. What was once a peaceful existence is slowly splintered apart by the violence that creeps closer and closer to home.
Eventually, Rama and her parents, brother, and grandfather need to leave with only what they can carry on their backs. It doesn’t shy away from difficult realities, including little rock people perishing at sea.
In the end, Rama is overwhelmed, yet curious and hopeful as she’s welcomed into a village that will soon become her new home.
2. Wherever I Go
Wherever I Go follows little Abia around her daily life in a northern Ethiopian refugee camp. She’s been there longer than any of her friends, which equates to more than seven years of rice handouts and tent living.
An imaginative and sweet girl, Abia loves pretending she’s a queen as she goes about her routines and sharing her life with the reader.
Her father frequently talks about their unknown forever home, but Abia soon overcomes her trepidation and realizes she can still be the same queen in the United States.
Dreamers is written by Yuyi Morales, a Mexican immigrant who came to America with her infant son in 1994. The artwork is a beautiful collection of mixed media: there’s hand-drawn illustrations on lined paper, scanned images of embroidery, and other tokens from Morales’ own life.
This book describes all the intangible things she carried with her into her new life, including her resilience, her thirst for knowledge, and her dreams. Less narrative than poetry, it’s a beautiful story about starting again.
The final few pages are Morales’s own story and her book list of other titles to inspire you.
4. Tani’s New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope and Kindness in America
Tani’s New Home is written by Tanitoluwa (Tani) Adewumi and is the true story of his journey to and new life in America. He was just six when he and his family fled Boko Haram and Nigeria.
The book includes plenty of new, Nigerian words for children to learn as Tani tells his readers about his two homes: Nigeria and New York.
Once in America, Tani learns to play chess and studies for hours in the homeless shelter. Shortly after, he accepted the title of New York State Chess Champion at the precocious age of eight.
5. The Journey
The Journey follows an unnamed narrator and her family as they are splintered apart by war and death. They must travel away from their beautiful home by the sea and attempt a risky boat ride to safety.
The author refrains from naming specific places, times, or enemies. This gives the book a very ‘everyman’ feel, and can easily fit many different.
Though it’s dark and difficult, the end is filled with hope.
6. Refugees and Migrants (Children in Our World)
Of all the picture books on immigration, Refugees and Migrants stands slightly to the side. Instead of a narrative, this book (part of a series) is a work of non-fiction aimed at explaining current events to children.
It focuses on answering common questions in a childlike, yet correct way, like “Why do people move away from home?” Each answer includes a relatable anecdote that helps kids understand the emotions of and rationale behind immigrating.
There’s also a glossary and index at the end for easy reference. Luckily, this book also includes plenty of hope and reassurance, plus ways children can help immigrants and refugees today.
7. Four Feet, Two Sandals
This book was inspired by a question a small girl from a refugee camp asked the two authors: “Why aren’t there books about people like me?” To answer her, Khadra Mohammed and Karen Lynn Williams wrote Four Feet, Two Sandals.
The book starts on clothing delivery day, when 10-year-old Lina is scrambling to find a fitting pair of shoes. In a Cinderella moment, she’s delighted to find a single one that fits perfectly… but another girl has the match.
Instead of fighting, the two become friends and decide to share the single pair.
Their friendship grows as they go about daily life in the refugee camp, wait for their assignment to a new home far away, and hope for a brighter future.
8. The Name Jar
The Name Jar begins with little Unhei (Yoon-hay) on her first day at school. She’s recently arrived in America from Korea, and no one else has a name like hers.
Initially, she’s teased for having something unpronounceable. So Soshe decides to tell people she has no name.
This prompts her classmates to come up with her new name, and they put all their suggestions in a jar for her to choose from.
In the end, she decides to go by her very own, beautiful name.
9. The Day War Came
There’s no named country in The Day War Came, nor a nationality given to the main character. Instead, there’s a universal story of grief and hope.
Side Note: The author has promised to donate all proceeds from this book to refugee organizations. How awesome is that?!
The picture book about refugees starts with descriptions of daily routines that will be familiar to most children: parental affection, classroom scenes, and simply homey touches. This reminder of all children’s shared experiences quickly becomes a nightmare however, in dark scenes of war and loneliness as the main character becomes a refugee, setting off alone for a new home.
Singular acts of kindness keep her afloat and help her adjust to her new normal.
10. A Different Pond
This picture book about immigration – an honoree of the 2018 Caldecott award – is a spectacular collaboration between graphic novelist Thi Bui and poet Bao Phi.
A Different Pond is based on a child from a Vietnamese family who immigrated to Minnesota. There, young Bao must go fishing early in the morning with his father.
But they aren’t fishing for fun like the other anglers, but to feed their family. As they wait for a bite, Bao’s father tells stories from a far away pond in their homeland.
11. Lubna and Pebble
Lubna and Pebble won a half dozen awards the year it was published, and is now printed in a half dozen different languages.
This particular story focuses on Lubna, a small girl living with her father in a refugee camp.
Her only possession is a small pebble from the beach where she and her Dad washed up. She drew a smiley face on pebble, and tells it all her secrets.
But one day, a new boy arrives in their camp, and she needs to decides whether he needs pebble more than she does.
12. Sea Prayer
I was shocked to find that acclaimed novelist, Khaled Hosseini, had written a picture book. You may have heard of his other famous works like The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns.
While Sea Prayer is certainly not a novel like those, it still might not technically count as a picture book on immigration. It clocks in at just under 50 pages, but most are at least 90% illustration, combined with some lyric prose.
The book is written in the form of a letter. In it, a father writes to his son about the dangerous sea voyage they’ll soon take. He also describes their hometown in Syria, before the war ripped it apart.
Unlike some of the other books on this list, this picture book doesn’t focus as much on describing the horrors of refugee life, but instead about the hope that flows through generations.
13. The Suitcase
Speaking of Khaled Hosseini, this book comes high on his list of recommended reading for children. The Suitcase is written by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, a UK born, France-living author.
This book contains no human characters, but focuses on adorable, colorful animals for a change of pace that may resonate in a different way than the other books on the list.
One day, a green animal (lizard? otter? anteater?) comes to town. The other animals don’t know what to make of him, and badger him with suspicious questions.
Gradually, they learn to trust each other and help someone in need.
14. My Beautiful Birds
Another book on the Syrian refugee crisis, My Beautiful Birds tells the story of Sami and his pet pigeons.
Sami is forced to flee his hometown, along with most of his neighbors, in a long line through rubble and deserts.
When they finally reach relative safety in the tent city, Sami just can’t play and enjoy school like other children seem to. He’s too worried about his birds.
In the end, he meets a canary, rose finch, and dove, and he begins to heal at last.
15. Sugar in Milk
In the beginning of Sugar in the Milk, we meet a young girl who recently arrived in America to join her Aunt and Uncle. But her heart is still back home with her family, cat Baklava, and all her friends.
To try and help her, Aunt tells a story within the story.
The folktale (from the author’s own upbringing in India) speaks of a King who tried to keep out all strangers before learning their value. Immigrants, like sugar in milk, make life sweeter for everyone.
Here’s another picture book from an acclaimed adult novelist, this time Junot Díaz.
Islandborn tells the story of a school where all the students are immigrants. One day, the teacher asks everyone to do a project about where they came from.
But little Lola doesn’t remember her home on the island far away.
By running around her neighborhood and talking to those who do remember, Lola learned more about the island where she was born and the culture she’s a part of now.
17. Watch Me: A Story of Immigration and Inspiration
Watch Me tells the story of Joe from Sierra Leone, who always dreamed of coming to America. Whenever anyone would dismiss his dreams, saying he’d never amount to anything, he’d always call back, “Watch me!”
“Watch me” became his promise to himself and others that he wouldn’t give up.
This is the story of the author’s father, how he immigrated, and all the wonderful things he did.
18. Home Is in Between
Home is In Between relays the story of immigrant Shanti, who moves from India to America during her childhood.
Shanti grew up in India where she loved the monsoon season, the food, and her village. But now that she’s living in America, only the small life inside her family’s apartment feels like that home.
Mama makes yuchi, but Americans eat something called mac and cheese. Her family watches Bollywood movies, but her classmates only watch ones from Hollywood.
As she grows up and learns to love her new country, Shanti must learn what home means to her.
Watercress is a 2021 new release from Andrea Wang. It describes a scene from her childhood as the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
She lives in Ohio, where watercress plants grow on the sides of the roads. When her parents saw them, they’d pull over and grab a rusty pair of scissors to forage.
Although initially ashamed, she learns to appreciate the food after her mother’s story about what it meant to her growing up in China.
20. I Dream of Popo
Drawn from the author’s own experiences of emigrating to the US from Taiwan, I Dream of Popo is the story of a child missing her grandmother.
As she adjusts to life in America away from her Popo, the narrator learns that their love will make her strong.
Any child with a strong emotional bond with their Nana/Grammy/Popo/whatever will be able to empathize deeply with the longing only a grandchild can have for their grandmother.
21. The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story
In The Arabic Quilt, Kanzi has just moved to America from Egypt, and the last thing she wants is to stick out.
But when her Mama comes to bring her lunch of Kofta while wearing her hijab, Kanzi knows those plans are out the window.
She endures the teasing and eventually learns to draw strength from her favorite token from home.
(As a bonus, there’s a cool glossary at the end with a bunch of Arabic words!)
22. Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist
Paper Son is the picture book biography of Tyrus Wong, the animator responsible for Disney’s Bambi movie. He was given the name Wong Geng Yeo at birth, and that was the name on his immigration papers as he left China as a young boy.
He and his father started a new life in America and Wong wasn’t planning on wasting a second. Wong jumped at every chance to make art, even if that meant working as a janitor.
Eventually, he got the opportunity of a lifetime and was given the role of background artist for Bambi.
23. Coquí in the City
Ok, so Coqui in the City isn’t really about immigration or refugees…but only because of a technicality.
The story follows young Miguel from his home in Puerto Rico (part of the United States) to New York City, but he must work through many of the same emotions and roadblocks as immigrants.
Their new home is overwhelming, much is unfamiliar, and he no longer has his beloved pet frog, Coquí.
But he and his Mamá get a chance to explore their new neighborhood, and he realizes New York might not be all that different from San Juan.
24. Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation
In Mama’s Nightingale, Saya’s mother has been sent to an immigration detention center.
To try and feel close to her, Saya listens to her mother’s voice on the answering machine over and over. Mama tries to love Saya from afar by sending little cassette tapes where Mama tells different Hatian folktales.
Eventually Saya decides to try to write her own tale, modeled after her mother’s stories, in an effort to reunite her family.
25. All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel
The author, Dan Yaccarino, had a great-great grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island with nothing but a little shovel.
He uses that shovel to build a life for himself and his family, and when the time comes, he passes the shovel on.
All the Way to America tells the story of the four generations of Yaccarinos who have owned the shovel, and the lives they’ve built because of one immigrant.
Use Picture Books about Refugees and Immigration to Develop Empathy
Immigration is challenging, no matter the reason.
Reading picture books is an excellent way to understand the challenges immigrants and refugees go through. Understanding the challenges they face develops compassion, and compassion/empathy is one of the most important traits you can have (at least, in my opinion).
It will affect how our children treat immigrants, how they perceive the laws made that affect them, whether or not they give to help refugees in crisis.
And those are the things that shape entire countries and future generations.
So grab these books at the library and read them before bed, at poetry teatime, or whenever suits your own unique homeschool schedule. Future immigrants will thank you.
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Don’t forget to grab your free printable list with all the titles and authors mentioned, for easy library browsing or purchasing! Click the image immediately below, and the PDF will download automatically.