by Marsha Rakestraw
The headlines are full of news about refugees – from war, climate, and other factors. And while we adults struggle with what to do and how to help, many children and young adults may also be seeking understanding and wanting some answers.
Talking with children about global issues can be challenging; but it’s necessary and important that we do so (in age-appropriate ways), so that they can feel safe, educated, and empowered.
Here are 14 books for children and young adults that can help start the conversation.
1. “Gleam and Glow” by Eve Bunting
2001. Grades 2-5.
The war is coming closer to where Viktor and his family live. His father has gone off to fight with the underground, and most days refugees stop at their house to share food and stories. One refugee brings a pair of fish and begs Viktor’s family to care of them until they leave. “An extra day or two of life is as important to a fish as it is to us.” Eventually Viktor’s family must walk to the refugee camp many miles away, so Viktor puts the fish in a tiny pond by their house. After many months Viktor and his family return to their burned-out home. Nearly everything is destroyed – but in the pond are the fish and their offspring who survived despite the odds.
2. “The Long Road” by Luis Garay
1997. Grades 3-6.
When Jose and his mother return from visiting his grandmother, they discover that their beloved village is nearly empty, having been invaded by soldiers. Jose and his mother flee, taking a long, frightening journey by foot, bus, and plane, until they safely reach a new country. There they find a shelter that helps them find a place to live and a job for Jose’s mother. And eventually this new place starts to become a home.
3. “The Lotus Seed” by Sherry Garland
1993. Grades 1-4.
Spare, beautiful text tells the story of how one girl’s grandmother fled civil war in Vietnam, with only a lotus seed she took from the emperor’s garden, to struggle to build a new life in the U.S. Throughout her life the lotus seed is a symbol of hope and life and a reminder of her country. When a grandson steals the seed and plants it (and then forgets where), the grandmother is inconsolable … until the seed blooms the next spring.
4. “The Color of Home” by Mary Hoffman
2002. Grades K-3.
Having fled the civil war in Somalia, Hassan finds it difficult to adjust to his new school in the U.S. Although Hassan can’t yet speak English, he finds a way to communicate about his home country – both the happy and the horrifying – when the teacher gives the class art supplies. Then Hassan can share his story.
5. “A Song for Cambodia” by Michelle Lord
2008. Grades 3-6.
When the Khmer Rouge invades Arn’s village, he is separated from his family and sent to a children’s work camp. His love of music saves him from death and maintains his sanity and hope in the midst of violence, oppression, and war. When Arn and the other children are sent to be soldiers, Arn escapes and finds himself eventually adopted by an American family. While Arn has safety and security, his heart is still broken, and he turns to music to heal. Eventually Arn vows to help his home country. Based on a true story.
6. “My Name is Sangoel” by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed
2009. Grades 1-4.
After Sangoel’s father is murdered, he leaves Sudan for America, bringing with him his name. As his grandfather says, “Remember, you will always be a Dinka. You will be Sangoel. Even in America.” Not only is this new country and school new and frightening, but no one can properly pronounce Sangoel’s name. He begins to despair that he has lost his name and himself, but then he gets an idea….
7. “Four Feet, Two Sandals” by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed
2007. Grades 1-5.
When relief workers bring donated clothing to the refugee camp in Peshawar, Lina discovers a sandal just her size. But another girl, Feroza, has claimed the other. Eventually the girls work out a way to share the sandals, each wearing the sandals on alternate days, and their friendship grows. When Lina’s family is finally sent to America, Feroza gives her one of the sandals to keep — to always remember their friendship.
8. “Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan” by Mary Williams
2005. Grades 3-6.
Garang is 8 when his parents are killed and his village is destroyed. He bands together with other “lost boys” who travel nearly 1,000 miles, with only each other to rely on, to try to find their way to a new home. Based on a true story.
9. “Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home” by Youme
2010. Grades 1-4.
Mali’s life was full of wonderful things – friends, community, flowers and trees — until the wars across the border forced her family to flee to a different country. But after the long and frightening trek, Mali’s whole family is thrown in jail. It is Mali’s stories of home that lift the spirits of all those imprisoned with her and help them all to endure until they can realize their new homes. Based on a true story.
10. “Secrets in the Fire” by Henning Menkel
2003. Grades 5-9.
Sofia and her family are getting by, but when bandits sneak into the village and murder nearly everyone (including Sofia’s father), she, her mother and two siblings must flee and try to find a new home. When they finally alight in a village of other refugees, it seems their hopes have been fulfilled. And then Sofia accidentally steps on a land mine, killing her beloved sister and taking both her legs. Sofia has already been through so much. Can she find the courage and determination to persevere and perhaps one day thrive, despite all the obstacles in her path? Based on a true story.
11. “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park
2009. Grades 5-9.
When Salva’s school is attacked, he must flee, seeking refuge in another country. His long trek is harrowing, but eventually he makes it to Kenya and is eventually adopted by a family in the U.S. After many years, Salva returns home to help his people, including a young girl named Nya, whose story alternates with Salva’s. Based on a true story.
12. “Bamboo People” by Mitali Perkins
2010. Grades 5-9.
Book-smart Chiko, who is Burmese, longs to be a teacher, but is forced into the army where he struggles to survive training. When Chiko is sent on a mission as the mine clearer, he finds himself injured in the jungle, face-to-face with a Karenni boy named Tu Reh. Tu Reh and his people are determined to fight against the Burmese regime for freedom. When Tu Reh decides to save Chiko’s life, his loyalties are called into question. Tu Reh quickly realizes that Chiko does not represent the image of the Burmese Army that he is fighting against, and when others call for Chiko to be killed, Tu Reh takes a stand.
13. “The Red Pencil” by Andrea Davis Pinkney
2014. Grades 4-8.
Amira Bright is a young girl living in South Darfur with her family. One day the Janjaweed arrive in their village. Amira witnesses her father’s murder, their village is destroyed, and the survivors must gather what’s left of their things and head for a refugee camp with thousands of other displaced people. Since the attack, Amira has been unable to speak, her words stuck in her throat. When an aid worker gives Amira a yellow pad and a red pencil, a whole new world opens up to her. Her voice eventually returns and so does her desire to learn to read and write. Will she get the education she craves?
14. “The Milk of Birds” by Sylvia Whitman
2013. Grades 8-12.
K.C. is a young American girl struggling to find her place and to deal with her learning disability. Nawra is a pregnant 14-year-old rape victim who lives in a refugee camp after her home village was attacked. These two girls become part of each other’s lives when K.C.’s mother signs her up for a letter writing exchange called Save the Girls.