Written by Rachel Walman
One of the most common questions kids ask authors at Reading into History book club meetings is why they make put their characters through so much change and struggle. Authors love to answer that a good story has conflict; you want your main character to face obstacles that they must overcome and have opportunities for sadness, joy, and all the feelings in between. Of course, American history is a great source material for conflict, making historical fiction and non-fiction about this country great reading.
US immigration history, in particular, is a topic that will never stop providing writers with amazing stories of triumph, grit, hardship, love, sacrifice, changing identities, and all the highs and lows of being human and find your place in the world. This month, New-York Historical is launching the Citizenship Project, which includes free civics courses for green card holders andonline features, as well as public and family programs aimed to educate about what it means to be, or become, American. As the Reading into History Family Book Club is approaching our fifth anniversary (whoa!), we thought we’d look back at our favorite books about immigration from our roster. We’ve listed these books in chronological order for the time period they focus on. One important note: This is just the tip of the iceberg of great books about this broad topic. We’d love to hear from you—what books about the immigrant experience in the United States do you love? Which ones should Reading into History feature in the future?
Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
It’s 1870 and although slavery has officially ended, life on River Road Plantation still isn’t free enough for ten-year-old Sugar, the only young person left among the plantation’s former slaves. For a time, Sugar’s only and forbidden friend is the plantation owner’s son, Billy. Then an unexpected new friend comes along—Beau, the youngest of a group of Chinese laborers brought to help with the sugarcane harvest. All around her, Sugar sees cultures collide, but that doesn’t stop her from learning about Chinese traditions and sharing her own with the newcomers. The history of Chinese laborers on southern plantations is very little-known, and Rhodes does an excellent job of highlighting the difficulties faced by these workers who were brought to this country but were encouraged to remain apart. Rhodes shows how cultural encounters can change lives and widen worldviews.
The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli
Dom is nine years old and does not speak a word of English. After his mother puts him on a ship bound for New York City, he realizes he has to learn fast in order to survive life on the streets. He has no money or food; his one possession is a brand new pair of shoes. Follow Dom through Manhattan’s Five Points, once the most dangerous neighborhood in New York, as he makes friends, makes trouble, and then learns to make ends meet. This book also deals with the horrific padrone system that forced many orphaned Italian boys into dangerous, endless servitude. Dom’s immigrant experience is made doubly difficult by his struggle to find both a community of friends and a community of fellow Jews. The historical detail in this novel will pull readers into this turbulent era.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy by Albert Marrin
Award-winning author Albert Marin earned multiple starred reviews for this gripping account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. Marrin takes readers through the conditions and events that led up to the fire, through the fire itself, and through the legacy the fire left us. This is more than a story of a tragedy—it is a story of what America was like on the eve of World War I and the historic actions of working class people, many of them immigrant women and girls, rising up and demanding rights that Americans still benefit from today. Marrin has also filled the book with excellent visual source material to bring the story and the period to life. This is an excellent overview of Southern Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century.
The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island by Lawrence Yep and Dr. Kathleen S. Yep
Laurence Yep and his niece, historian Kathleen Yep, weave a story about Gim Lew Yep, a ten-year-old boy who must immigrate to America with his father in 1922 through Angel Island in California, based on Mr. Yep’s father’s own story. To prepare for his experience at Angel Island, the anxious young Gim Lew must memorize every little detail about his home, his family, and his neighborhood. Readers will root for Gim Lew to make it through his experience and will confront issues of identity through the immigration process. In fact, the experience of immigrating is the heart of this novel as it ends before Gim Lew sets foot in America. Does he end up living in America or not? We won’t spoil it for you, as this book exposes the tremendous hurdles that Chinese Americans, even citizens like Gim Lew’s father, had to go through in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis
In 1961, Cuban families evacuated 14,000 children to Miami in Operation Pedro Pan, one of the largest mass migrations of children in history. This award-winning book follows Julian and his brothers as they experience this sudden move from Castro’s Cuba to a Miami orphanage, full of bullies and unfamiliar power dynamics that call to mind the struggles of Julian’s homeland. Will Julian and his brothers ever see their parents again? Readers will not be able to put this book down until they find out. This is a moving story about the struggles of children who never asked to leave home but whose parents thought they were offering them a better life away from home.
Same Sun Here by Neela Vaswani and Silas House
River and Meena seem like they would have nothing in common; River is the son of a Kentucky coal miner, and Meena is an Indian American girl living in New York City’s Chinatown in 2008 on the eve of Barack Obama’s election as the first black US president. The two kids begin a friendship as pen pals and realize they have much to learn from each other, even though their cultures and hometowns are worlds apart. Despite their differences, they live under the same sun. In Meena’s letters to River, she even details the citizenship process that her parents are navigating and discusses the difficulties faced by those who are undocumented.
Want to run out the door and find all these awesome books? Come and read them all in beautiful setting of the Barbara K. Lippman Children’s History Library on the lower level of the Museum! While you’re here, pick up the Quest for Citizenship gallery guide. If you come over April School Vacation Week, you can also contribute to our We the People Respond wall. See you in the galleries!