For this month’s booklist I’ve compiled a “Reading Roundup” of 10 recommended bilingual books that look at the subject of Latin America/US immigration through the eyes of children. The titles are generally for ages five and up, and all include both English and Spanish text in the same edition. We don’t propose that this is a definitive list of the best books on the topic, but we do highly recommend each of the books included here.
Although immigration is a dense and complicated topic, children’s books offer an accessible yet meaningful way to approach it – children can relate to the characters at eye-level. This can be powerfully authenticating for students who have experienced these issues themselves. It may also be traumatizing and emotional for them, so know your students and be prepared to provide a supportive environment when reading this book. As for students who have never been exposed to immigration except through the generalizations and stereotypes heard on the news, these intimate stories involving family, acceptance, and struggle offer a worthwhile alternative and provide the space for the development of empathy.
For those who want to go beyond our information, we encourage you to visit the thoughtful website De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children, where many of these titles have received rave reviews. In addition to the reviews, we also recommend their critical and reflective article on “Who Can Stay Here? Documentation and Citizenship in Children’s Books.” In it, writer Grace Cornell Gonzales emphasizes a number of important thoughts to keep in mind with young students while reading these books. Perhaps most relevant of all, however, she writes that “before adding titles to the classroom library for independent reading, read these books aloud and discuss them as a group. Treat these sensitive issues with care, give them the attention they deserve, and deal with them in a safe environment. If we want to develop students who think critically about their own lives and about the world around them, we, as teachers, must involve ourselves in guiding children as they discover, explore, and analyze. Thinking critically about the books ourselves is the first step in facilitating thoughtful dialogue among our students.”
When introducing the books in this list to students, I encourage you to think about creating Gonzales’ “safe space” and to focus on creating that process of critical inquiry. As much as these stories are personal narratives of immigration and cross-cultural experiences, they don’t shy away from difficult themes (i.e. borders, separation, documentation, deportation, detention centers).
Whether or not you have the time to dedicate to broader conversations about immigration, these books can support anti-stereotype and anti-racist education by offering positive depictions of diverse and complex immigrant families and communities. Insofar as this goes, any of these titles would be a wonderful addition to your classroom – now, during Hispanic Heritage Month, or at any point throughout the year.
Click on the Continue Reading link below for detailed information and my thoughts on each of the ten books. We hope that you all enjoy of them, and that they inspire meaningful discussions about immigration!
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation
Written by Edwidge Danticat
Illustrations by Leslie Staub
Published by Dial Books 2015
Age Level: 5-8 years
A touching tale of parent-child separation and immigration, from a National Book Award finalist.
After Saya’s mother is sent to an immigration detention center, Saya finds comfort in listening to her mother’s warm greeting on their answering machine. To ease the distance between them while she’s in jail, Mama begins sending Saya bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore on cassette tape. Moved by her mother’s tales and her father’s attempts to reunite their family, Saya writes a story of her own—one that just might bring her mother home for good.
With stirring illustrations, this tender tale shows the human side of immigration and imprisonment—and shows how every child has the power to make a difference.
This book confronts the difficult legal side of immigration head-on. It highlights the child’s point of view during a situation of separation, and motivates its readers to feel empowered during situations that are seemingly helpless. This is the only book on this list that has Haitian Creole words sprinkled into it, which might be a good starting point for talking about the different cultures and languages of Latin America. To read more about it, see the NYTimes review of this book and others like it. Also, we now have a detailed book review of Mama’s Nightingale and an Author’s Corner post about Edwidge Danticat by Alice that you should check out!
Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para soñar juntos
Written by Francisco X. Alarcón
Illustrations by Paula Barragán
Published by Lee & Low Books 2005
Age Level: Grades 2-3
A young boy dreams that “all humans / and all living / beings / come together / as one big family / of the Earth.” So begins this delightful bilingual collection of poems by Francisco X. Alarcón. As we travel through the boy’s colorful universe, we learn about his family and community working together and caring for each other and the world in which they live. Neighbors help repair adobe homes. The boy and his family share old photographs, tend their garden, and pamper Mamá who “works day and night.” Tribute is paid to those who toil in the fields, and to César Chávez. Most of all, we see how dreams can take many forms, from the fantastic imaginary ones that occur while we sleep to the realistic ones that guide our lives and give us inspiration for the endless possibilities of the future.
Partly based on Alarcón’s own dreams and family memories of growing up in Mexico and California, and vibrantly illustrated by Paula Barragán, these joyous, universal poems will inspire all readers to dream their own dreams for a better, compassionate, and loving world.
“Close your eyes / and now get ready / to hop on a dream.”
This book could serve as inspiration for students struggling with any type of issue, especially if paired with creative exercises. The encouragement of expressiveness at a young age is so beneficial for students! The theme of dreams and aspirations in Alarcón’s book furthers the feelings of confidence, optimism and courage that children can feel through expression. Lee & Low Books has a teacher’s guide on its website for this book. It is a great resource.
Where Fireflies Dance/Ahí, donde bailan las luciérnagas
Written by Lucha Corpi
Illustrations by Mira Reisberg
Published by Children’s Book Press 1997
Age Level: Grades K-2
In her first book for children, award-winning author Lucha Corpi remembers her childhood growing up in Jáltipan, Mexico, where the moon hung low and the fireflies flickered in the night air.
In vivid and poetic detail, she recalls exploring with her brother the old haunted house of the legendary revolutionary Juan Sebastián, discovering the music that came from the jukebox at the local cantina, and getting caught by their mother for their mischievous adventures.
Most of all, she remembers the ballads her father sang and the stories her grandmother told. In her stories, her grandmother passes on an important message about growing up—each person, like the revolutionary Juan Sebastián, has a destiny to follow.
As this work is largely autobiographical, Corpi does a good job of painting a picture of her childhood memories on the coast of the state of Veracruz. She blends memory and history with the present, and tells an adventure story that children will love. This book is very relatable for children, and is valuable for talking about the importance of personal history and family roots.
A Gift from Papá Diego/Un regalo de Papá Diego
Written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Illustrations by Geronimo Garcia
Translated by Pilar Herrera
Published by Cinco Puntos Press 1998
Age Level: 5+
Little Diego loves his grandfather, but they don’t see each other often because Papá Diego lives in Mexico and Little Diego lives in Texas across the border. One day Little Diego’s father gives him a pile of comic books that his father had when he was growing up. In those comic books Little Diego discovers Superman. Maybe if he was like Superman, then he could fly off to see his grandfather in Mexico! So Little Diego tells his mother that he wants a Superman outfit for his birthday. His parents buy him one, but, of course, Little Diego cannot fly. He’s heart-broken. Still, because he has had the daring to imagine, a wonderful event occurs and he enjoys one of his happiest birthdays ever!
Each illustration in Papa Diego was built out of terra cotta clay and painted with acrylic paints. This gives the illustrations a 3 dimensional quality which kids will love!
Garcia’s terra cotta clay illustrations bring this book to life, and they work very well because of how human Dieguito’s feelings are. This book focuses on family and sympathy, rather than politics. It’s great for giving children an understanding of the feelings that go along with separation. For children who are in this situation of family separation due to borders, students may find Sáenz’s book quite comforting. I also found a lesson plan idea to go along with the book.
My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aquí hasta allá
Written by Armada Irma Pérez
Illustrations by Maya Christina Gonzalez
Translations by Consuelo Hernández
Published by Children’s Book Press 2013
Age Level: Grades 2-5
One night, young Amada overhears her parents whisper of moving from Mexico to the other side of the border—to Los Angeles, where greater opportunity awaits. As she and her family make their journey north, Amada records her fears, hopes, and dreams for their lives in the United States in her diary. How can she leave her best friend behind? What if she can’t learn English? What if her family never returns to Mexico?
From Juárez to Mexicali to Tijuana to Los Angeles, Amada learns that with her family’s love and her belief in herself, she can make any journey and weather any change—here, there, anywhere.
This book does a good job of introducing the obstacles of moving from Mexico to the US. It touches on the difficulties of split citizenship in families, and also of those regarding obtaining the necessary green cards. While it doesn’t dig deep into the complexity of immigration, it does a great job of illustrating Amada’s feelings and reservations about leaving her home and all that she knows. It is worth taking at look at the lesson plans and comprehension questions that go along with the book on the Lee & Low Books website. In addition, De Colores writes a good review of this book suggesting that further discussion of the themes introduced would be necessary alongside the reading.
Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash/Marisol McDonald y la fiesta sin igual
Written by Monica Brown
Illustrations by Sara Palacios
Published by Lee & Low Books 2013
Age Level: Grades K-3
Marisol is turning eight, and it’s time to plan a birthday party that will be fabulous, marvelous, and divine. She also hopes that Abuelita, who lives far away in Peru, will be able to come to the celebration.
At the party store, Marisol can’t decide what kind of party to have. There are so many choices, but everything in the store matches! Nothing seems right for soccer, pirate, princess, unicorn-loving Marisol. Finally she comes up with just the right idea, and when her friends arrive for her Clash Bash birthday, a big surprise awaits. But in a heartwarming turn of events, Marisol gets the biggest surprise of all—a visit from Abuelita via computer.
In this delightful story told in English and Spanish, author Monica Brown and illustrator Sara Palacios once again bring the irrepressible Marisol McDonald to life. With her bright red hair, golden brown skin, mismatched outfits, and endearing individuality, this free-spirited Peruvian-Scottish-American girl is headed straight into the hearts of young readers everywhere.
This book does a great job at explaining the realities of the difficult process of obtaining a visa to the United States, which separates families all over. Furthermore, it is realistic in that nowadays technology is able to keep us close to the ones we love who are far away. The English-Spanish fluidity and translations are eloquently done. If you love this book, you should also check out Brown’s Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina, and Lorraine’s review.
From North to South/Del Norte al Sur
Written by René Colato Laínez
Illustrations by Joe Cepeda
Published by Children’s Book Press 2013
Age Level: K-3
Near the border, the cars began to move very slowly. “Papá, go fast. I want to see Mamá,” I said.
José loves helping Mamá in the garden outside their home in California. But when Mamá is sent back to Mexico for not having proper papers, José and his Papá face an uncertain future. What will it be like to visit Mamá in Tijuana? When will Mamá be able to come home?
Award-winning children’s book author René Colato Laínez tackles the difficult and timely subject of family separation with exquisite tenderness. René is donating a portion of his royalties to El Centro Madre Assunta, a refuge for women and children who are waiting to be reunited with their families up north. Joe Cepeda’s bright and engaging illustrations bring this story of hope to vivid life.
In January Lorraine wrote a post about this book and paired it with My Shoes and I, also written by Laínez and illustrated by Fabricio Vanden Broeck — another book worth checking out. In her post Lorraine hyperlinks compilations of resources and activities made by the author that go along with both of the books.
América Is Her Name/La llaman América
Written by Luis J. Rodríguez
Illustrations by Carlos Vázquez
Published by Curbstone Books 1998
ISBN: 1880684403 (English), 1880684411 (Spanish)
Age Level: 6+
Set in the Pilsen barrio of Chicago, this children’s picture book gives a heartwarming message of hope. The heroine, América, is a primary school student who is unhappy in school until a poet visits the class and inspires the students to express themselves creatively-in Spanish or English. América Is Her Name emphasizes the power of individual creativity in overcoming a difficult environment and establishing self-worth and identity through the young girl América’s desire and determination to be a writer. This story deals realistically with the problems in urban neighborhoods and has an upbeat theme: you can succeed in spite of the odds against you. Carlos Vázquez’s inspired four-color illustrations give a vivid sense of the barrio, as well as the beauty and strength of the young girl América.
This book is available in English and in Spanish.
With this book Rodríguez tackles the difficult subjects of poverty, racism and violence in an eloquent and encouraging manner. His book shows children that expression can give us freedom while in difficult situations that we cannot necessarily control. Furthermore, it encourages children to use their voices, in no matter which language that may be. By writing about a Mixteca girl from Oaxaca living in an urban neighborhood, Rodríguez details the diversity of the people who migrate north to the United States. América’s depictions of Oaxaca through poetry are beautiful. Through poetry América gains agency that she is able to pass along to her mother and brother, which brings the important themes of family and unity into the book. This is definitely a book that should be approached with care due to the sensitive subjects that it brings up.
Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro
Written by Juan Felipe Herrera
Illustrations by Honorio Robleda Tapia
Published by Children’s Book Press 2003
Age Level: 6+
What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that’s what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status. Honorio Robledo Tapia has created brilliant images and landscapes that will delight all children.
This book is an exciting read for children that paints an idealistic picture of how the world should be: sin fronteras. With this children can get a sense that reality is not necessarily the right way that things should work. It touches on themes of immigration and border control, however it does not delve into them. The De Colores site has a great and thoughtful review of this book. They suggest expanding on the subjects that the book brings up. Check it out!
Juan Felipe Herrera is a poet who was born into a family of migrant farm workers. His works often tackle themes of identity and US-Mexico border relations, eye level with the people effected by these relations. In June of 2015 the Librarian of Congress appointed Juan Felipe Herrera as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2015-2016. NPR published an article about Herrera shortly after his appointment. It includes interviews with Herrera.
A Movie in My Pillow/Una película en mi almohada
Written by Jorge Argueta
Illustrations by Elizabeth Gómez
Published by Children’s Book Press
Age Level: Grade 2-6
Young Jorgito has come to live in the Mission District of San Francisco, but he hasn’t forgotten the unique beauty of El Salvador.
In his first collection of poems for children, poet Jorge Argueta evokes the wonder of his childhood in rural El Salvador, a touching relationship with a caring father, and his confusion and delight in his new urban home. We glimpse the richness of Jorgito’s inner world and dreams—the movie in his pillow.
Artist Elizabeth Gómez perfectly captures the indigenous beauty of El Salvador, the sadness of the war, and the joy of family reunion in San Francisco. Her paintings, with their brilliant colors and striking details, fill every page with authenticity and charm.
Jorge Argueta is a great author who celebrates indigenous identities, which are often forgotten during discussions about immigration. Many people from Latin America who resettle in North America are actually indigenous, although they are frequently generalized as Latinos. Apart from being English-Spanish bilingual, this book is sprinkled with Nahuatl words. It would be a great way begin a discussion about indigenous languages and cultures across the Americas. Another awesome book that touches on immigration by Jorge Argueta is Xochitl and the Flowers/Xótil, la Niña de las Flores. It is illustrated by Carl Angel. Also, Keira wrote a Mira Look post about Jorge Argueta that I encourage you to check out!