Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Leaving Home: Children’s Books that Explore Immigration and Residential Boarding Schools

The drama, stories, conflicts, and issues related to and in response to immigration are significant. Often lost in the national "debate" are the human stories, especially those of children whose voices we need to hear. When I think of immigration (perhaps because I am an immigrant and the mother of an immigrant) I think about the several dimensions related to leaving home. In thinking about leaving home, I also think about the forced removal of Native children from their homes and relocation into residential schools, a government-sanctioned practice (in USA and Canada) that did not end until 1984. Children’s literature offers us the opportunity to come to understand some of the dynamics behind these histories, to share stories, to learn empathy, and to question policies, laws, practices, and beliefs. In this post, I recommend a few children’s books related to specific immigration issues and Native residential school practices. The list is not meant to be exhaustive and focuses specifically on contemporary (not historical) immigration issues. 

Mary Ann

I. Detained, Deported & Waiting for the Green Card

One of the most significant fears and difficulties children of immigrants in the United States face is the reality that their parent(s) may be detained or deported.  This uncertainty and the quick removal of a parent from home alters children’s lives.  In Juan Felipe Herrera’s bilingual (English & Spanish) story Esmeralda Sinfronteras worries when her mother is detained in Mexico (she went there to visit) because she does not have a green card. Herrera situates Esmeralda’s worries within a magical dream realm: Esmeralda becomes Super Cilantro Girl, a green giant who flies to the border to rescue her mother.  This dream sequence is powerful. The next morning, Esmeralda learns that her mother is home and safe. The young girl’s fears about the absent green card are manifested in her becoming a super green figure. The child’s fears associated with green cards are well shown and offer teachers an opportunity to discuss how one child attends to her fears, as well as the substance of that fear.

InJosé whose mother is sent back to Mexico for not having citizenship papers. The fears and uncertainty associated with family separation are well illustrated in this recent picture book in both the prose and the oil paintings done by Joe Cepeda. Missing from home now that Mamá is gone are her tortillas and her bedtime stories. José and his father visit Mamá at El Centro Madre Assunta, an actual center in Mexico for woman and children waiting to be reunited. Although José and his father must return to their home in San Diego without Mamá, they return with the hope to carry on and persevere. This is an important story to share with children who may be experiencing similar situations, as well as for children whose lives are untouched by US immigration policies.

In nine-year-old America Soliz, an illegal immigrant living in the violent Pilsen section of Chicago, wants to return to her native Oaxaca. Author Luis Rodriguez lets the reader know that feels unwelcomed in America. When a poet visits her ESL class, she is encouraged to be a poet of the world.

In Belle Yang’s Hannah is My Name, we see that Na-Li adjusts to her unfamiliar American name, Hannah after she and her family emigrate from Taiwan to Chinatown in San Francisco. In this story, we learn how important a green card is to an immigrant family, and the anxiety and worry associated with procuring a green card. The threat of deportation as the family waits for green cards and hides from officials allows the reader to imagine the level and duration of fear a child experiences.

For older readers (5th grad and older), Ann Bausum's Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration provides a longitudinal look an U.S. immigration practices and policies.
Bausum, Ann. 2009. Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration
5.     Yang, Belle. 2004. Hannah is My Name. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

II. Being New. Longing for Home

Young Danilito leaves his Caribbean island home to come to the United States in winter.  The first half of the book traces his journey and explicates his fears regarding language, customs, schools, and work. Danilito and his family settle for the first night and the reader learns that Danilito does not want to go to school.  The next morning, the world beyond the window has changed because it has snowed. Danilito describes the scene: “Outside, there were millions of white rose petals floating downwards.” The father and son play in the snow before Uncle Berto arrives to take Danilito to school and Pap to a factory. Playing in the snow and stepping in his father’s shoes as they walk up a snow-covered hill relieves much of Danilito’s anxiety.

Similar to Danilito, young Sumi, a Korean child, is lonely and scared as she starts school in the United States, because she does not speak or understand English. She experiences school as  “a scary place” and as “a mean place”.  After she connects with her teacher and then a new friend on the playground, Sumi rethinks her feelings.  Readers can easily connect with Sumi’s fears in Joung Un Kim’s Sumi’s First Day of School Ever.  Soyunk Pak’s use of oil crayons produces softened illustrations that extend the sense of relief Sumi feels as she connects to others.

In Kim Mak’s My Chinatown: One Year in Poems, the reader follows a young boy from Hong Kong after he moves to Chinatown in New York City.  Like Danilito and Sumi, this child also worries about speaking English. He tells the reader, "The English words taste like metal in my mouth." Told through four free verse poems based on the progression of the seasons, the reader comes to experience the relief the child feels as the unfamiliar becomes familiar.

Young Jangmi does not want to move to leave Korea and move to Brighton, Massachusetts in Good-Bye, 382 Shin Dang Dong. She does not want to leave all that is familiar: her friend, the tree in the yard, comforts of home, and specific food. It is only after she begins to “replace” these memories of home with new experiences that Jangmi begins to feel at home.  Similar to Jangmi and the young boy in My Chinatown, Angelina also longs for home, in this case--Jamaica. The setting for Jeanette Winter’s Angelina Island is Brooklyn, NY.  Like the characters mentioned above, Angelina is lonely and scared until she begins to make connections with people and customs in her new home. It is only after Angelina prepares and participates in the annual Carnival parade in Brooklyn, that she begins to redefine home.

In Allen Say's Grandfather's Journey, the boy and his grandfather long to be back in Japan.  Yet once there the boy says, "The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other."  In all of these stories, loss is no easy thing that can tucked away and forgotten. Making connections, reaching out to someone new, understanding that critical people and possessions may have been left behind when a child emigrates are all important aspects to share with children n an effort to develop each learner’s empathy and potential actions.

1.     Figueredo, D. H. 2003. When This World Was New. Illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez. NY: Lee & Low
2.     Figueredo, D. H. 2000. Un Mundo Nuevo. Illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez. Trans. Eida De La Vega NY: Lee & Low
3.     Kim, Joung Un. 2003. Sumi’s First Day of School Ever. Illustrated by Soyung Pak. NY: Viking Juvenile.
4.     Mak, Kim. 2001. My Chinatown: One Year in Poems. NY: HarperCollins.
5.     Parks, Frances. 2002. Good-Bye, 382 Shin Dang Dong. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Books.
6.     Say, Allen. 1993. Grandfather's Journey. Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin.
7.   Winter, Jeanette. 2007. Angelina’s Island. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

III. Leaving Home

imagecoverIn Luis Garay’s stunningly illustrated book, The Long Road, Jose and his mother must leave EL Salvador and make the long journey to the United State across deserts, mountains, and multiple borders.  Similarly, in Rene Colato Lainez’ My Shoes and I, Mario and his father walk from El Salvador to the United States and Mario is pleased when he is given a new pair of shoes for the journey.  In both picture books, the reader experiences the immense physical and emotional challenges each family faces in their journey North. At the center of each work is the understanding that journeying requires leaving behind family, friends, and familiarity of place and that the journey North requires the child to live with immense uncertainty. 

In learns of the journey from Juarez, Mexico,to Los Angeles through a diary kept by Amada. She, like other children, is nervous about learning English and how she and her family will live.

Without doubt Mary William's Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan presents a most harrowing journey. The reader learns of a young Sudanese boy, Garang Den, who walks nearly 1000 miles from Sudan to Ethiopia and then Kenya in in order to escape a genocide and learns also about an American, Tom, who helps Garang to come to the United States. This book alone could well be studied for weeks as it opens the potential for discussions about Sudan, genocide, who the lost boys are, the emigration of the Lost Boys to the United States, and the return of some of the Lost Boys to Sudan. R. Gregory Christie's illustrations are also significant and offer insight into the journey visually.

Helping students to understand the bravery and challenges that children who emigrate demonstrate and experience are important life lessons for all. 

  1. Garay, Luis. 1997. The Long Road. Toronto, Ontario: Tundra Books.
  2. Lainez, Rene Colato. 2010. My Shoes and I. Illustrated by Fabricio Vanden Broeck. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
  3. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. NY: Lee & Low.

IV. Forced Removal of Native Children from their Home: Indian Residential Schools in Canada and the United States

Larry Loyie’s first person account of his life with his family Cree family in Alberta, Canada before his removal in order to attend a residential school for native children provides a significant work for students to study. The contrast between the wisdom he learns via his elders and the immense fear he feels when he is taken by “strange white men” and forced to attend a boarding school is highly evocative. Readers will learn that the children were forced to attend these government boarding schools or their parents would be put in prison.

In gentler-told stories by Nicola Campbell, but no less heart wrenching, Shi-shi-etko and her brother prepare to be taken from their family at the tender ages of five and six and forced to live at church-run residential boarding school.  In Shi-shi-etko, the reader follows the child during her last four days with her family before she will be forced to attend a residential school. In the sequel, Shinchi’s Canoe, the reader learns of the influence of church-run Indian boarding schools as we follow 6-year-old Shinchi who is barred from speaking to his sister, must attend mass, and who nonetheless finds ways to hold on to his native beliefs.

In Chioro Santiago’s Home to Medicine Mountain, the author bases the fictional account of two brothers forced to attend a Native boarding school in California and their adventurous return home one summer on her father’s and uncle’s story. Like the previous stories mentioned in this post, the contrast between the harsh, unkind life inside residential schools and the spirited life beyond and at home is significant and worth discussing with children.

In Tim Tingle’s Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light, tells the story of his Mawmaw, who is blind and is undergoing surgery to restore her sight.  The reader learns that when Mawmaw was a child she was forced to attend a residential boarding school in the United States.

For older readers (middle school and high school), Shirley Sterling’s autobiographic and emotionally challenging book, My Name is Seepeetza, chronicles the harsh and violent treatment of Native children forced to reside in an Indian residential school in British Columbia. Seepeetza, who is given the Anglo name, Helen, is beaten for speaking her native language. A goal of residential schools was to make Native children more Anglo, by requiring them to learn English and the dominant culture’s ways.

What makes governments believe that stripping youth of their language and culture and forcing them to learn the language and ways of the dominant culture is ethical, moral or worthwhile? Parallels to contemporary language use policies at schools and in communities (i.e. Only English advocates) would make for important conversations.

1.     Campbell, Nicola I. (Interior Salish and Métis). 2008. Shin-chi’s Canoe. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood.
2.     --------------------. 2005. Shi-Shi-etko. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood.
3.     Toronto: Groundwood.
4.     Santiago, Chioro. 2002.  Home to Medicine Mountain. Illustrated by Judith Lowry. San Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press.
5.     Sterling, Shirley (Salish Nation). 1992/1998. My Name is Seepeetza. Toronto: Groundwood.
6.     Tingle, Tim (Chocktaw). 2010. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light. Illustrated by Karen Clarkson. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.


  1. Most interesting! I didn't know about the residential schools in US and Canada. Reminds me of the treatment of Aboriginals in Australia. Now with the Middle East crisis Italy will be having to cope with more and more displaced families, but hopefully times and methods have changed!

  2. yes. the residential schools were a most barbaric act.


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