by Marsha Rakestraw
As war, climate change, persecution, and hunger challenges escalate, the number of refugees worldwide, and the challenges facing them and their host countries, continue to grow.
And while we adults struggle with what to do and how (or whether) to help, many children 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 16 children’s picture books that can help start the conversation about refugees.
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. My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo
2017. Grades 1-3.
Sami is heartbroken at having to leave his beloved pigeons behind when his family flees Syria to escape the bombs. He tries to adjust to life in a refugee camp, but he can only think of his birds. It is only when a canary, a dove, and a finch fly into the camp and find Sami, that he begins to heal.
3. Joseph’s Big Ride by Terry Farish
2016. Grades K-2.
Joseph wants only one thing: to ride a bike. In the refugee camp, he helps an older boy fix his bike, but Joseph is too small to ride it. Then one day, after his family has begun their new and strange life in the US, Joseph sees a red bike that looks just his size! It belongs to a girl with a whoosh of curly hair. When Whoosh crashes her bike, Joseph offers to fix it, and he gets his chance to try riding a bike for the very first time.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. The Roses in My Carpets by Rukhsana Khan
2004. Grades 2-5.
A young Afghani refugee’s dreams are often filled with the horrors of bombs, war, and death. And his waking hours are spent in the refugee camp where he lives with his mother and sister. The young boy takes solace in weaving carpets, a skill he plans to hone, so that he can ensure his family “will never go hungry.” His carpets are filled with color and beauty — especially roses. After a near tragedy with his sister, he dreams the same dreams as before, but this time is family finds a space “the size of a carpet,” full of roses, where no bombs can reach them.
8. My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald
2014. Grades PreK-2.
When “Cartwheel” and her family have to move to a new country to be safe, she finds it strange and isolating. “I felt like I wasn’t me anymore.” She spends a lot of time wrapped “in a blanket of my own words and sounds. I called it my old blanket” — wondering if she would always feel sad and ever feel like herself again. When she meets a friendly girl in the park, who begins to teach her words in her new country’s language, she begins to weave a new blanket out of her new words and experiences. “And now, no matter which blanket I use, I will always be me.”
9. Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Schrodes
2017. Grades K-4.
When a family in Iraq must flee their home, they’re determined to bring their beloved cat, Kunkush, with them. The secret passenger makes it all the way from Iraq to Greece, but on the boat ride to Greece, Kunkush’s carrier is broken, and when they land, he flees out of fright. Separated from the family he loves, Kunkush is eventually rescued by someone determined to reunite him with his family … wherever they have gone.
10. 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.
11. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs (Arabic/English); Falah Raheem, trans.
2016. Grades PreK-3.
In simple text (in English and Arabic), an unnamed girl tells the story of her family’s happy life before war came to their country and village. And then she shares their arduous and dangerous journey to safety, eventually arriving in another country that has become their home.
12. The Journey by Francesca Sanna
2016. Grades 1-4.
The Journey is the story of a family’s journey to flee their war-torn country to find safety in another land. As war breaks out, and the father is killed, the surviving members of the family make the difficult decision to flee for a better life somewhere else. What follows is a perilous trek to find safety and the hope of a better tomorrow: “the farther we go … the more we leave behind.”
13. 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….
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home by Youme Landowne
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.
For more suggested resources check out our online Resource Center.
Our curated Pinterest board has several additional resources about immigration and refugee issues.
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