Edit: I’ve added a sixth book to this list, Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli.
It’s not Tuesday, not even close, but in light of the fear and uncertainty surrounding American immigration and refugee policy, I don’t really want to wait on this.
The following are a few books that deal with immigration and emigration. Two White Rabbits and Mama’s Nightingale are picture books that I commonly recommend for ages five or six and up, though the caveat always applies that every kid is different and age ranges are malleable. The Circuit is a novel in short stories; I read it in sixth grade. Human Cargo and Syrian Dust are adult nonfiction. I wouldn’t mind seeing them taught in high schools, but I’m also including them here because I think the list would be incomplete without them. It’s far from complete anyway.
Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng / A little girl and her father wend their way north, headed for the United States border, though the girl doesn’t know their destination for sure. There are elements of a numbers book as dad and daughter make a game out of counting things they see, but most of the story follows their journey. The standout beauty of Two White Rabbits is in the way the illustrations show the care with which the little girl’s father looks after her. The family is still on the move at the end of the book. The title of the Spanish-language version is Dos conejos blancos.
Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub / Saya’s mother is confined to an immigration detention center, awaiting a hearing, while Saya and her father wait for her. The story revolves around the cassette tapes Saya’s mother sends to her daughter, on which she has recorded herself telling stories, and around Saya’s decision to tell her own story to help her mother. I’m going to go ahead and tell you that Saya’s mom’s case isn’t resolved by the end of the book, but she does get to come home to her family.
The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez / As Panchito’s family migrates from labor camp to labor camp, picking grapes and cotton and strawberries and whatever else is available, Panchito goes to school, draws pictures, collects the oldest pennies he can find, looks after his siblings, and starts to learn the trumpet, all with frequent interruptions to work in the fields. Larger interruptions are tied to changes in the agricultural seasons, when the family packs their belongings into cardboard boxes and moves on to the next place, and the next, and the next. As in both Two White Rabbits and Mama’s Nightingale, the heart of The Circuit is Panchito’s family.
A note on the ending—and THIS IS A SPOILER—YOU CAN SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT, just go right on to the next one, but some of you may want the warning. The Circuit is partially autobiographical. Like Francisco Jiménez himself as a child, the fictional Panchito doesn’t have documents, and he’s deported along with his family at the end of the book. An immigration officer picks him up from his school classroom. The scene is brief and there’s no physical violence, but there’s of course the violence of dislocating a kid from the life he’s known since he was almost too young to remember, and Panchito is understandably terrified. In real life, Francisco Jiménez and his family were able to return to the United States with papers when a farmer they had worked for agreed to sponsor them, and The Circuit has a sequel (which I haven’t had a chance to read yet), Breaking Through, that follows that story and beyond. Still, the deportation at the end of the book came as a punch to the gut even when I was a sixth grader who didn’t think I knew anyone who could be deported. I don’t put warnings on books very often, but if you or someone you love lives in fear of the ongoing ICE raids around the country, I don’t want to give you the impression that my love for this book means it has a happy ending.
Okay. The adult books.
Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead / First published in 2005 and later updated with a new epilogue, Human Cargo is one of the most wide-ranging and readable books I’ve yet found that deals with people’s experiences seeking asylum around the world. From Guinean and Palestinian refugee camps, to Australian detention centers, to the far edge of the U.S.-Mexico border, to the wreck of a boat carrying 150 Liberian migrants on the Sicilian coast, the book details some of the myriad factors driving people to leave their homes—war, torture, and poverty so profound it is a kind of violence in itself, among others—and recounts what happens after they leave, both for those who are eventually granted asylum and those who are turned away. The history and reality of modern refugee policy are interwoven with the individual stories, and the text grapples directly with the difficulty and importance of putting such complex human experiences in narrative form.
Syrian Dust by Francesca Borri / Francesca Borri began covering the war in Syria as a journalist in February of 2012. Syrian Dust, translated from the original Italian by Anne Milano Appel, is subtitled either “Reporting from the Heart of the Battle for Aleppo” or “Reporting from the Heart of the War,” depending on which edition you have, and it’s exactly that, an account of the chaotic civil war and humanitarian crisis that international newspapers cover intermittently while hundreds of thousands of people live them without respite. The author writes with frank skepticism for anyone who claims to have a simple explanation for what’s happening in Syria and what should happen next, even as she works to understand what she’s seeing: the bombings she lives through, medical students who do what they can in place of murdered doctors, families living in a graveyard, and her own ability to move with relative freedom in and out of the country, in and out of danger, when so many people cannot.
Okay. Two tiny final things.
Five books don’t make an all-encompassing or representative list,
Books by themselves can’t fix things that are wrong in the world. They’re only a place to start.
I’d normally say happy reading, but with those last two…just remember to drink some water now and then.