Since 2000, the United Nations has sponsored International Migrants Day, a day to raise awareness and action about the human rights of people who, for many reasons, leave the place where they live in search of a new home. According to the 2018 World Migration Report, there are 244 million migrants (which includes migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and more). That’s about 3.3% of the world’s population. In 2017, 36 million migrants were under age 18. And we’ve got one final statistic for you: 27% of the US population are immigrants and their US-born children. That last figure is why in 2017 the New-York Historical Society started the Citizenship Project, which includes free civics courses for green card holders, online features, as well as public and family programs aimed to educate the public about what it means to be, or become, American.. People are moving today at record rates. It’s important to look to history to learn how migrants have struggled or triumphed at different times and for different reasons. When we understand the past, we can build a more peaceful future that makes room for people who need new homelands.
Our Reading into History Family Book Club has read several books involving migrants and immigrants in the United States. As this program is now in its sixth year, we thought we’d look back at some of our favorites. We’ve listed these books in chronological order for the time period they focus on (from earliest to most recent), and we have chosen books where people either removed themselves from their homes or were forcibly removed. 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 other books do you love about the experience of being an immigrant in the United States that Reading into History should feature in the future?
How I Became a Ghost by Tim TingleOne of the most massive and tragic forced migrations in American history is the Trail of Tears, the journey that more than 16,000 Cherokee took from their homelands to Oklahoma territory in the late 1830s after their land was seized (in part by an unpopular treaty) under the Indian Removal Act. But there was also a Choctaw Trail of Tears several years earlier, and a Choctaw chief coined the term. The latter is the setting for this beautiful novel. Readers know from the beginning that their protagonist, 10-year-old Isaac, does not survive the Trail of Tears. After Isaac’s death, he must work with panther boy, Joseph, his Choctaw-speaking dog, Jumper, and ghost little sister Nita to protect others. Through Isaac’s trials, readers will gain an understanding of Choctaw experiences and community during this turbulent era. Tim Tingle’s mastery of Choctaw stories and storytelling is evident in this winner of the 2014 AIYLA American Indian Youth Literature, Middle School Division Award.
Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
It’s 1870, and though 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.
We Rode the Orphan Trains by Andrea Warren
In this non-fiction work, Warren tells the true stories of eight of the more than 200,000 homeless, abandoned, or orphaned city kids whom the Children’s Aid Society put on trains bound for new homes in the rural Midwest between 1854 and 1929. Be prepared to learn some happy real-life tales and some sad ones. We Rode the Orphan Trains has won many awards and is a “Recommended Book” by the PBS Teacher Source and Parent’s Choice Foundation. As the School Library Journal writes, “These remarkable stories have enormous human-interest appeal and will provoke serious discussion about just how much life has really changed for children from the last century until today.” Want a little more historical background before you pick up the book? Check out this blog post.
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 makes 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 which 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 10th 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, 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. In fact, we won’t even spoil for you if Gim Lew gets to live in America, as this book exposes the tremendous hurdles Chinese Americans, even citizens like Gim Lew’s father, had to go through in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
Echo beautifully weaves together the individual stories of a boy in Germany during the early 1930s, two orphans in Pennsylvania during the mid-1930s, and a Mexican-American girl in California in the early 1940s as the same harmonica lands in their lives, binding them by an invisible thread of destiny. All the children face daunting challenges—rescuing a father from the Nazis, keeping a brother out of an orphanage, and protecting the farm of a Japanese family during internment—until their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo. Readers will have a lot to discuss and push and pull factors that impact the protagonists leaving their homes and finding new ones, or making a new home actually feel like home for themselves and others.
90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis
In 1961, Cuban families with the aid of American Catholic agencies 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 of a certain type of migration; that of children who never asked to leave home but whose parents thought they were offering them a better life only 90 miles, and yet worlds, away.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
I’m sure we’re not the first to tell you about this National Book Award-winner and Newbery Honor Book. Ten-year-old Ha is forced to flee Saigon with her mother and three older brothers after her home city falls into a terrible war that has already claimed her father. After an arduous journey, Ha and her family finally land safely in Alabama. But the struggle doesn’t end there. Ha faces bullying as she tries to fit into her new American community, finding the most solace getting to know a teacher who lost a son in the same war that claimed Ha’s father. Eventually, readers will cheer for Ha as she learns the ropes of a new culture. Lai’s semi-autobiographical debut novel is “enlightening, poignant and unexpectedly funny” conjuring up “a distinct time and place and…a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
This hilarious and poignant novel based on the author’s life won our first-ever New Americans Children’s History Book Prize in 2017. Zomorod and her family find themselves moving back to California from Iran when her father gets a job in the oil industry there. And boy, does he like to talk about the oil industry! Cindy’s mom doesn’t like to, or for language reasons can’t, talk at all, at least not to her new English-speaking neighbors. Meanwhile Zomorod, who has renamed herself Cindy, just wants to fit in and make friends. Things seem to be going well until political upheaval in Iran changes Zomorod’s prospects of ever returning to Iran, but also challenges her and her family’s chances at making life work in the US. Readers will fall in love with the canny Zomorod/Cindy and her friends and family as they each find their paths
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, even though their cultures and hometowns are worlds apart, realize they have much to learn from each other. 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 also discusses the difficulties faced by those who are undocumented.
Finally, we can’t end a book list about migration without talking about the international and domestic slave trade. When people talk about the United States being “a nation of immigrants,” they leave out the millions of people from various African nations who were brought here by force. There are very few books written for a middle grade audience about the slave trade specifically. Though we have read many, many novels and non-fiction books about slavery and enslaved people in our book club, we have yet to cover this specific aspect of it: the experience of the middle passage. We’ll close our list with two books we love, but just haven’t yet scheduled for the book club.
Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger
Don’t let the short page count of this book fool you; there is a lot of important history in this brief fictionalized tale of one child’s experience ending up on the real slave ship Amistad. After a mutiny on board, the fate of Amistad’s human cargo is in jeopardy: will the kidnapped people on board be set free to return to their African homes, or will they be thrown into the jaws slavery? Based on a real person, the narrator of this book is nine year old Magulu, whose story we follow from her separation from her family, to her kidnapping, her journey on the Amistad, and her view of the court case that decides the fate of Magulu and her fellow passengers. This book earned starred reviews and is unique for its portrayal of the middle passage for a young audience.
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
First, it must be said that this book is definitely not middle grade. But this Coretta Scott King Award-winning YA novel is one of very few recent tales of the slave trade and we are thrilled to announce that legendary author Sharon Draper will be here to talk about it and her other CSK Award-winning books on January 19 as part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Awards . The book traces the journey of an Amiri, a girl leading a happy life in an African village who ends up toiling in slavery in New England. The horrors of the slave trade come to life vividly here, supported by the research that Draper did in her travels to Ghana and historic sites related to the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of people.
Hopefully you want to run out the door and find all these fascinating books. We also encourage you to visit the website for International Migrants Day and the companion site A Day Without Migrants to learn more about how you can observe this day. And if you are interested in checking out the Reading into History Family Book Club, learn about our current read here and email firstname.lastname@example.org to get on our email list and get a free pass to join your first meeting!
Written by Rachel Walman
Assistant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum