A Sixth Good Book

Earlier, in “Five Good Books,” I wrote about a few books for kids and adults talking about refugees, immigration, and asylum. Today I’ve got a sixth to add, in the adult-and-teen category: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Less than 150 pages long, this book is lean enough to fit in the pocket of my rain jacket and powerful enough to halt a rhinoceros mid-charge. The author was born in Mexico and now lives in New York, where she interprets for juvenile asylum-seekers and migrants; her essay includes a brief, frank discussion of the legal distinction between those two categories and who benefits from it (heads up: it’s certainly not the kids). These young people, ranging in age from small children to older teenagers, made the exceptionally dangerous journey from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border, where almost all of them immediately took the terrifying step of turning themselves over to American immigration authorities. Detention and a hearing are often their only way to demonstrate that they have legitimate reasons to be afraid for their lives in the countries they came from, and thus legitimate reasons to be in the United States.

It’s not enough that they’re kids, and that they would never have made the frequently fatal trip without a very good reason, and that many of them are sponsored by relatives here.* No, they still have to put together a case for why they shouldn’t be forcibly returned to the places they fled from. And, thanks to the decision to fast-track juvenile immigration cases, they only have 21 days to do it.

That’s where Luiselli and her colleagues come in. The massive overload of juvenile immigration cases has been seriously exacerbated by the fast-track policy, and someone has to get these kids’ stories on paper so that they can be assigned the appropriate lawyers who handle the appropriate kinds of cases. (These cases, by the way, are civil, not criminal. That’s one of the reasons that the term “illegal immigrant” isn’t very useful; it’s generally much more accurate to describe someone as “undocumented,” which just means they haven’t been granted papers that prove their right to stay in the country. Many people, like some of the kids Luiselli interviews, arrive in the U.S. without documents but have perfectly legitimate claims to asylum or cases to make for long-term residency.)

Luiselli writes with straightforward candor about her experiences interpreting for these kids: the alarming bureaucracy they’re navigating, the hell they went through to get here, what they find and don’t find in their new communities. She also weaves in strands about her own family’s wait for their green cards and about a group of students she teaches in a Spanish Conversation class. Through it all runs the thread of her five-year-old daughter’s repeated requests when Luiselli talks about her work: “Tell me how it ends.”

Look, I don’t know how much of this book will be new to you. You might already be familiar with the reasons that people migrate from Central America, including gang warfare and state violence, and with the detention centers called hieleras, iceboxes/ICEboxes, where kids are warehoused without adequate food or clothing. You might already know the ins and outs of where public school fits into the immigration equation–no public school, if you’re wondering, can legally turn a student away simply because they lack a particular immigration document, though many do–and what it means for a relative to sponsor a child.

If you don’t already know this system inside and out, though–and for all that I’ve read about it, I definitely don’t know it that well–or if you’re looking for a lucid, concise, and evenhanded walk through this complex arrangement of organizations and regulations that is an intrinsic part of our country, I highly, highly recommend Tell Me How It Ends. There’s no grandstanding or political opining here. There are questions, and there are answers, and there’s the frank understanding that the answers that we want aren’t often the answers we’re going to get.

My coworkers and I are evenly divided on whether this book is a depressing one. Many of them found it depressing; I’m one of the ones who found it hopeful. “Tell me how it ends” is a child’s request to their mother, an impossible one to fulfill, but it’s also a request we all have for each other: please, please, tell me we have a way forward here. Luiselli doesn’t have an answer for that, but she does provide options and resources, and the essay is of course a resource of its own. Clear, well-considered accounts like this one are vital to building better systems for the future. Only by saying what is can we say what we need to do next, even if we never do get to see all the way to the ending.


*For more on the subject of the migrant journey through Mexico, see The Beast by Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. That one’s definitely for adults and older teens specifically, while Tell Me How It Ends is something that, though written for an adult audience, I can recommend for thirteen and up.

Five Good Books


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.