Stranger in a New Land: Six Books for Kids (and Teens) Based on the Refugee/Immigrant Experience

Refugees have been an on-going story in our world as long as there have been stories. A few years back when the Syrian refugee crisis was full-blown, it was hard for me to process. The numbers, the news reports, even the pictures, they all started to blend together. Those mediums have their place, but to read the personal story of one person can have a more profound effect than a million statistics or news reports.

Books and the stories they contain can be an amazing tool to help our kids (and ourselves) process what is going on in the world around us. As we read, learn and empathize, these stories can help us interact with our own world in a new way. We might not be able to have a direct impact on a Syrian refugee, but we can have an impact on the new kid (or their parent) who feels alone.

With that in mind, today’s list contains six books. A few of the books tell the refugee’s story as he/she flees their home country. Others are made up of characters who are living in America as immigrants. All of them give insight into what it would feel like to leave your home and start over in a strange new land. This list of books is special offering readers relatable characters they will easily root for and identify with. They also simply contain good stories that I hope your kids will enjoy as they read.

Book #1: Front Desk

“My parents told me America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers til we were red in the face. So far, the only part we’ve achieved is the hamburger part. I was still holding out hope.”

Front Desk is an excellent book for young readers based on many of the author’s real-life experiences as a child. It shares their immigrant experience as well as the stories of many other Chinese immigrants trying to make a life for themselves in America. There are a lot of injustices in this book, but Mia and her family pull together (often imperfectly) and never give up. This is an excellent book that would be a good read aloud or read together choice as it offers a host of themes and ideas that could lead to important conversations with your kids.

Readers 8 and up

Book #2: Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again is the story of a young girl and her family who flee wore-torn Vietnam. They leave on a boat and eventually make their way to America where a family in Arkansas takes them in. (This book is also based on the author’s personal experience.)

As the reader, you are allowed to step into Ha’s shoes and imagine what it might be like to be a refugee in this country.  I love books that engage my emotions and make me care about the characters. This one did that in a way that I can still feel months after I read it. I cheered when people showed simple kindnesses to Ha and her family and cried when they didn’t. Beautifully written, this book was a pleasure to read.

Readers 8 and up

Book #3: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel

“That seems to be my talent in America, doing things that other people think are weird.”

Another book based on the author’s experience as a child, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel follows an Iranian family living in America during the Iran Hostage crisis. The main character, an eleven-year-old named Zomorod (Cindy) shares about feeling first-day-of-school anxiety because of her hard-to-pronounce name, what it’s like to have to translate both language and culture for her parents, the stress of going through a job-loss with her father and the joy of finding a good friend.

Readers 10 and up

Book #4: A Long Walk to Water

Based on a true story, A Long Walk to Water goes back and forth between two eleven-year-olds. Nya is a girl living in Sudan in 2008 who has to walk 2 hours every day to get water. Salva is a boy who must flee his village eventually becoming one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. His story begins around 1985. The book follows his treacherous journey as he flees his home country to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. This journey includes so many hard things, including the death of friends. He goes through several refugee camps and eventually makes his way to America. 

The book is relatively short (just over 100 pages), but shares a powerful story.

Readers 10 and up

Book #5: Refugee

Refugee follows the story of 3 different child refugees from different places and different periods of time including a Syrian refugee, a Cuban refugee and a Jewish refugee. This book is hard to put down as each chapter ends in a cliff hanger. There are hard things contained within these stories, but there is much hope at the end as the three individuals’ stories intersect in a moving way. Refugee is absolutely worth the read.

Readers 10 and up

Book #6: The Girl from Aleppo

The Girl from Aleppo is the memoir of Nujeen Mustafa that tells of her and her sister’s escape from Syria. What makes this story especially heroic is that Nujeen has cerebral palsy and is unable to walk on her own. I read this book with my book club, but think it would be an excellent choice for teen readers. It gave me a new understanding of the war in Syria and the refugee crisis that resulted from that war. Nujeen is a feisty narrator and her story is an important one. I’m so glad she shared it.

Readers 13 and up

What books on the refugee/immigrant experience would you add to the list? Have you or your kids read any of these books? What did you think?

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