My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

Young Sami and his family escape from the bombing of his Syrian neighborhood and go to live in a refugee camp, but Sami had to leave his pigeons behind. As others in his family and in the camp begin to make a new life for themselves, Sami cannot think of anything other than his beautiful birds.

The artwork in this lovely picture book uses “plasticine, polymer clay and other mixed media” to create a sense of beauty in the midst of war and desolation. Even young children can sympathize with Sami and his loneliness and depression as he tries to adjust to a new home without any of the things or people he had to leave behind in Syria, and especially without his pet birds. And I can picture young readers being inspired to use clay and painting and other mixed media to create their own pictures and art that perhaps speak to the losses that they have experienced themselves.

The book would even be a good art therapy book for older children and young adults. The use of literature, art and nature in helping people to cope with loss and with trauma is well-established by now, and this book would be a window for those who don’t understand much about the sadness and grief that refugees experience and a mirror for those who have experienced war or disaster firsthand.

“In 2015, looking for resources to explain the Syrian Civil War to her own children, Suzanne (Del Rizzo) came across the article of a boy who took solace in a connection with the wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp.” She wrote My Beautiful Birds in response to that article.

More Refugee and Immigrant Books–Just in Time for Thanksgiving

For preschool and primary age children:
Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. The third grade girls in Molly’s small town school make fun of Molly, a refugee from religious persecution in Russia, but Molly’s mother helps her to see how they are just like the Pilgrims who came to America in 1620, escaping from persecution to find hope and peace in a new land.

How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story by Eve Bunting and Beth Peck. A family from an unnamed island in the Caribbean travel in a boat to reach America, and land on Thanksgiving Day. In spite of the hardships of the journey, the family is thankful to be in America.

Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams. Two refugee children in a camp in Pakistan share one pair of shoes, until one of the children leaves to go to America.

For middle graders:
Escape from Warsaw/The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailler. One of my favorite books of all time. Four Polish refugee children travel across Europe after World War 2, trying to reunite with their father who has been in a prisoner of war camp.

Diamonds in the Shadow by Caroline B. Cooney. A family in the U.S. sponsor a refugee family from Africa, only to find out that the refugee family is hiding some dangerous secrets.

Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. Kek, a refugee from Sudan, comes to Minnesota with his aunt and his cousin, Ganwar. Kek’s family all died in the wars in Sudan, except for his mother who is missing and may also be dead. Kek needs a great deal of bravery to make himself a home in this new place of America. Slowly Kek makes friends with a girl named Hannah who lives in his apartment complex, with some of the other immigrants who are in his ESL class at school, and, best of all, with a cow to whom he gives the name, Gol, family.

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep. In 1903, Moon Shadow, an eight-year- old Chinese boy, sails to America to meet his father, Windrider, for the first time. Moon Shadow knows only stories of America, the land of the Golden Mountain and its inhabitants, the demons. He eventually comes to love and admire his father, the small community of Chinese workers in America, and his new country.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. 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 then he is adopted by a family in the U.S.

The Red Umbrella by Christian Diaz Gonzalez. Lucia and Francisco Alvarez are Cuban children whose parents send them to the United States to escape from Castro’s revolucion.

Escaping the Tiger by Laura Manivong. A Laotian family is trapped in a refugee camp in Thailand after escaping from the Communist Pathet Lao regime in their native country. The story is based on the true story of the author’s husband and his family.

Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai was a good book about an Afghan family emigrating to the U.S. just after 9/11, and the sequel, Saving Kabul Corner, takes the same Afghan immigrant community into the next decade as they learn to combine American culture with the traditions brought over from Afghanistan to make a new place for themselves in San Francisco.

Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix. The story of three girls: Bella, an immigrant from Southern Italy, Yetta, a Russian Jewish immigrant worker, and Jane, a poor little rich girl who becomes involved in the lives of the shirtwaist factory workers in spite of her rarified existence as a society girl.

What excellent books about refugees and immigrants can you suggest?

Adrift at Sea by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho

Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines.

This nonfiction picture book opens with a bang: our narrator, Tuan Ho, comes from school to his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to find preparations being made for a journey. His first reaction is to ask his mother, “Are you leaving me now, too?” A year before Tuan Ho’s father had left Vietnam with his older sister, but then-five year old Tuan and his other three sisters were too young to make the journey as “boat people” refugees from Vietnam. Now, Tuan’s mother tells him that he and two of his sisters will be leaving with “Ma” in the dark of the early morning. It’s a secret; no one must know that they are going. And they must leave Tuan’s four year old sister, Van, behind with family members. “She’s too young to travel.”

The family ride in a truck to the beach. There they are chased and shot at by soldiers as they run to board the boat. On the boat, they face even more hardships: a shortage of food and water, engine trouble, too many passengers, a leaky boat. But the book finally ends with a rescue and a tall glass of milk for the relieved and smiling Tuan Ho.

The illustrations in this book, full color paintings, are absolutely stunning. Canadian illustrator, Brian Deines, has outdone himself in two-page spreads that bring this refugee story to life.

The story itself, a slice of life, begins abruptly without any explanation as to why the family must leave Vietnam. Nor does the main part of the text explain what happens to Tuan Ho and family after they are rescued at sea. However, there are some explanatory pages with both photographs and text at the end of the book that tell readers about the history of the Vietnam War and about the entire history of Tuan Ho’s family and their emigration from Vietnam and eventual reunification in Canada. It’s a good introduction to the subject of the Vietnamese boat people for both older students and middle grade readers. Even primary age children could appreciate Tuan Ho’s story with a little bit of explanation from a parent or teacher about the war and the Communist persecution that they were fleeing.

Another good 2016 entry for my impromptu Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon.

Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer

Yesterday I read this 2016 middle grade fiction novel about a twelve year old French Jewish boy named Gustave and his experience of immigrating to the United States during World War II. Because of this book, and yesterday’s review of It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, and some other upcoming reviews, it seems to have turned into Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon. It was an unplanned emphasis, but one that is quite apropos considering the news and the times we live in.

In Skating With the Statue of Liberty, Gustave and his extended family come to the United States from war-torn France, after having hidden and then escaped from the Nazis. The family faces many challenges. They are not allowed to bring adequate funds with them to start a new life, and so they are forced to smuggle in what little money they have. No one in the family speaks English, except for Gustave who has learned a little bit of English in school. Gustave’s father can only get a low-paying job as a janitor. Gustave doesn’t understand many things about American culture and customs, and even in America, he faces instances of anti-Semitism and racism as he becomes friends with a “Negro” girl, September Rose.

I read in the book cover blurb that this novel is a companion to the author’s debut novel, Black Radishes. Now I want to go back and read that one because Skating With the Statue of Liberty was a great story. It feels historically accurate, and yet the themes and scenes are quite applicable to the issues of racism and anti-Semitism that we see in the news today. Gustave struggles with whether he should think of himself as French or American or something else, perhaps Jewish. He discusses with a rabbi his lack of faith in a God who would allow the horror and persecution of Jews in German-occupied France. September Rose’s family struggles with how to support their country and the war effort and also stand against the injustice and discrimination that they face as black Americans.

I found this book, by a Jewish author and based partly on her father’s stories of his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied France, to be well-written, historically informative, and absorbing. The plot doesn’t sugarcoat the issues of prejudice, anti-immigrant persecution, discrimination, and even racial and anti-Semitic violence, but the ending and the growing friendship between Gustave and September Rose are hopeful and encouraging.

I just think kids (and adults) need books like this one and like It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel to help them begin to make sense of what is happening politically and socially in our nation. It may have been a coincidence that I read these two books almost back to back, but it gave me an idea to showcase the many really good books about refugees and immigrants that I have read and loved. So that’s what I’ll be doing this week.

It AIn’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yusefzadeh is living in California with her Iranian family before and during the Iran hostage crisis. No wonder she wants to change her name to Cindy! Not to mention that no one can pronounce her real name, and people always ask, when they find out where she’s from, if they ride camels. Zomorod/Cindy has only even seen a camel once—in a zoo!

These are the adventures and misadventures of an Iranian girl with an immigrant family that sticks out like a sore thumb, in the community, in Zomorod’s middle school, especially after the shah leaves Iran and the political radicals take Americans hostage in the embassy in Iran. Zomorod tries to fit in, by changing her name to Cindy, by celebrating American holidays, and by making friends, but it’s hard to reconcile the two cultures she is living in, Persian and American. The book reminded me of one of my favorite movies, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, as Zomorod/Cindy sees the world from inside her Iranian family and from the American point of view that she is learning. However, no weddings here, as Zomorod/Cindy is only 10-12 years old as the story progresses.

The story is kind of sad at times. Cindy’s dad loses his job as a result of the hostage crisis, and Cindy’s mom is having a lot trouble adjusting to life in the United States. However, lots of humor, and good attitude (most of the time) from Cindy, and some persistently friendly and hospitable people give the book an upbeat and hopeful feel and ending. This book would be an excellent book to give to current middle schoolers who are hearing all of the anti-immigrant talk and being influenced or discouraged by it. It Ain’t so Awful, Falafel gives a different perspective on the immigrant experience and shows how important it is to try to understand how others think and feel.