“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I had planned to share about a few picture book bios of Dr. King today. However, this past week held reports of the current president speaking hateful and derogatory words about immigrant populations in our country…again. This is an injustice. So, it seems right that on the day we honor the man who said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” we respond.
Words and stories are powerful. The president has had ample opportunity to have his words and perspectives on the topic of immigration heard. And kids are listening. Haitian kids in Flatbush and West African kids in Harlem. Kids in small towns who have never met anyone from another country. Kids in cities that have become havens for refugees and will be sitting side by side in class together tomorrow morning.
Kids all over the country have heard one perspective on immigration. Will this be all they hear?
In the hope that love truly can turn an enemy into a friend, and in the belief that knowing someone’s story is a first step toward being able to love them that way, here are several books that hand the mic to immigrant children, telling their stories in their voices. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, mentor, big sibling, auntie, librarian, babysitter, volunteer–whatever place you have in a child’s life–I hope you’ll consider sharing these stories with the children you care for as they try to figure out what to believe about all this, in the midst some very loud and angry voices.
Sofie has come from Senegal and isn’t sure about this cold city with its “hard gray sidewalks” and buildings that “stretch nearly to the sky.” She misses her grandmother and feels disconnected. Luckily a chance encounter with another little girl on her block (who wears her hair just like Sofie!) leads to an afternoon of coloring with sidewalk chalk–sharing their names, homes, likes and dislikes. Though she still misses Senegal, Sofie has begun to find a place in her new home with a new friend.
This story also focuses on the power of art to overcome language barriers and build connections. Hassan and his family have come from Somalia. Lonely and scared, Hassan paints his home and family. But when he adds a frightening scene of violence to the picture, his teacher is concerned. A new teaching assistant comes to translate for Hassan and he is helped to share his family’s experience of being attacked and having to flee their home to live in a refugee camp. Again, this experience of sharing seems to release something in Hassan. He makes another painting, this time representing the happiness and peace they also experienced at home.
(Ms. Danticat, a revered Haitian author of literary fiction novels in addition to children’s books, made a moving and articulate response to Trump’s reported comments, which you can read here.)
This book tells the story of Saya, a Haitian little girl whose mother has been detained for not having papers. Saya aches for her mother–listening to her voice again and again on the answering machine, wishing she could give her own papers to Mama. After months of trying to bring attention to his wife’s case, Saya’s father finally hears back from a news station. After featuring her mother’s story, Saya and her Mama are reunited.
This story also focuses on a Haitian child. Henri spends his days drumming on a red plastic bucket. He is not ready to speak and the drumming seems to be both his outlet and his connection to home. The book reveals that this bucket made the journey from Haiti with Henri. We learn that this journey also took his mother and father from him. They drowned and Henri was left by himself. After many silent months in this new land with his uncle, Henri’s drumming eventually helps him to open up to his cousin Karrine and begin to heal.
This story is written in the form of an email–from Roy, who has just arrived in Canada, to his friend Leroy back home in Jamaica. Roy shares about his first days at school and the connection he felt to home and to his dad through his prized Bob Marley pin. When Roy tries to share about the pin with his eager and welcoming classmates, he discovers it has gone missing. After a frantic search, the pin is found and Roy shares with pride about how “one of the world’s greatest and most caring musicians came from Jamaica and I am from Jamaica, too.”
Carmen, from Mexico, is starting school in the U.S. and she feels scared. But her desire to be a leader and role model for her little sister Lupita, who will be starting school next year, gives her the courage she needs to tackle both school and English. Over the course of the story, Carmen gains confidence–moving from silence and fear of being teased to speaking up, trying new words and sticking up for herself. Her teacher even helps her begin to teach her classmates Spanish. Carmen gets even more teaching experience when she goes home each day, sharing what she is learning with Lupita. The next year, thanks to Carmen’s help, Lupita enters kindergarten already equipped with some words to help her communicate and connect.
This book shares the perspectives of 3 different immigrant children–Maria from Guatemala, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia. They each face the challenges and loneliness of leaving home, where the language and culture were all second nature to them, to try and find their way in a place that at first makes no sense. They each persevere through the frustrations of learning a new language, the feelings of being an outsider and the fear of being rejected. Eventually, thought they will always miss their home countries, they realize that this new place can also be home.
The children in these books each have a different experience of coming to a new land to try and find their place and make a home. It takes courage, resilience and hard work and that deserves respect. We may not be able to shield kids from the hateful speech they are hearing right now, but at least we can share a different perspective–one that welcomes, values, seeks to understand, and loves.