The Immigrant Experience in Children’s/Adolescent Literature

Janelle B. Mathis, University of North Texas, Denton, TX

Stories of immigration to the United States are not new in children’s and adolescent literature. Earlier stories often depict immigration in a joyful, nostalgic way as people journeyed to America, most frequently from Europe, in search of a better way of life. However, recent titles explore immigration through a more critical lens as authenticity issues and the current focus on social justice impact the portrayal of social issues in literature. Such social issues include the ongoing debates in the U.S. that focus on immigration laws and potential reform. These debates present perspectives that are seated in ideologies representing a spectrum of beliefs as to whether immigration, both legal and illegal, should be prohibited in this country or acknowledged as necessary to maintain the current work force. Of course, there are additional issues as a result of immigration that involve the personal identity of immigrants, their involvement in their newly found communities, reaching immigrant children in classrooms where they may not speak the dominant language, and other complexities that are often not addressed when entering new cultures. It is not surprising, then, that we now meet characters in books whose lives are forever changed in a variety of ways as they immigrate to the U.S. So, who are these characters? What are their stories? What languages and cultures do they bring with them? Does literature represent the immigrant experience in all its complexity? Are critical topics missing in the stories read by both immigrants and those who have never been outside of the U.S.? Are we as readers and teachers aware of these complexities—enough to be able to seek out particular books and to use them effectively with students to establish insight into the people who make up their fellow community members? What is the potential curricular role of children’s literature about immigration. Should immigrant literature be “core” literature in social studies and other multicultural studies? By that we mean, with few exceptions, aren’t we all the descendants of immigrants and/or reflect the immigrant experience or a blend of cultural traits in some way?

Current literature may focus on the actual event or journey of immigration; it may tell the story of an event or character whose situation in the US is the result of being an immigrant; or it may focus on a particular event for which immigration is an outcome—a Holocaust story that concludes with the individuals immigrating to another country. These books range across genre and format as well as across reading levels. From the simple story of Immigrant Girl (Harvey, 1987) to Russell Freedman’s (1995) highly praised Immigrant Kids to the complex graphic portrayal of immigration in Shaun Tan’s (1997) The Arrival and the recent multigenre depiction in At Ellis Island: A History in Many Voices (Peacock, 1997), we have diverse stories—and these are only four of very many that are in print. During the following weeks members of a doctoral seminar on contemporary issues and trends in children’s and adolescent literature hope to engage you in a discussion of immigration as reflected in the books you have read, your insights to these books, the strategies you have used to engage young readers in considering immigration and immigrants, and your perceptions on how these books can be significant in the classroom in bringing a global perspective through the countries and experiences within each title. We hope to stretch your thinking about what literature represents the complexity of the immigration experience—goes beyond the more traditional ways of sharing immigrants’ stories. Of course, we are also especially interested in what is missing from this literature? What representations are not accurate or are stereotypical? We have loosely created the following focus for each week’s blog, realizing that there will be overlap and that one discussion may naturally lead into an upcoming topic:

October 5: As we open this discussion, what are some titles that focus on immigration that you find especially informative and useful both as a reader and as a teacher? Do you use these books in your classroom currently and if so, how? How have your students responded? What do you think about the notion of immigration as “core” to the curriculum, including all students as immigrants or the descendents of immigrants—might this be a way to explore some aspects of personal and community culture? What are your burning questions regarding immigration and the current literature on this topic?

October 12: The actual act or process of immigration. Who are the immigrant characters in children’s and adolescent literature? Where do they come from and what does children’s and adolescent literature share as the reasons for immigration? Does literature reflect both the voluntary and involuntary immigrants, such as slaves who were brought to America? What differences are shared in the immigrant experience of people whose country of origin is Mexico, Europe, Asia, the Mid-east? What does the refugee experience in children’s literature share about citizens of the global community? Do books tend to maintain the stereotype of presenting the U.S. as a place more desired and much better than the homelands they leave behind? Are there other misrepresentations in light of the actual “act” and purposes for immigration? Are the dangers represented in the literature? Are government policies, such as post 9-11 situations discussed? Do we have books that show immigration between other countries of the globe?

October 19: Personal issues resulting from immigration. What issues that speak to the complexity of this experience for the individuals are revealed in literature regarding the immigrant experience—issues that go beyond the immigration event itself? These complexities include effects on families, identity issues, loyalty to two countries or cultures or other personal challenges. What books might help our students, as well as ourselves, realize these various issues as we work to understand the immigrant experiences from authentic perspectives?

October 26: Learning about the world through immigration literature. Do immigrants bring an “insider” perspective of world events to our communities? How does this teach about the world and world events? Do we build on the international knowledge that children, both immigrants themselves of children and grandchildren of immigrants, bring to our classrooms? How does international literature help teachers use/bridge to the life experiences of immigrants to enrich and inform the classroom community?

We plan to suggest ideas and share many titles we have discovered, but we hope also that those involved in this discussion will offer many books that either directly or indirectly share the immigrant experience and ideas for their use as well.

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6 thoughts on “The Immigrant Experience in Children’s/Adolescent Literature

  1. Janine Schall says:

    I just finished reading La Linea by Ann Jaramillo with my graduate students. When they complained about having to read a novel in a week I told them that this book would grab them by the throat and not let go until they finished. They ended up loving the book–many connected strongly to the immigration plotline since most are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. We held literature circles where intense debates took place on the ambiguous ending. Also, we constructed a story ray for the novel.

  2. Jennifer M. Graff says:

    The sociocultural, sociopolitical and literary contexts of immigrants and their experiences are near to my heart, soul, and professional focus. I offer a graduate level course on the construction of immigrants in children’s literature and have been conducting research on this topic. Feel free to contact me if you would you like to have a conversation about these topics and perhaps initiate some collaborative work.

  3. Janelle Mathis says:

    I was intrigued by this book when I read it and I was so glad you shared your students’ responses. I wondered if immigrants or those who know of similar stories would feel that it was well told and realistic. I wondered about what they considered ambigous, since he did make it across. What was the ending that was important for them to see/hear? I love the lines, “I didn’t understand that there are thousands of lineas to cross in a life. Sometimes you see the border and you walk right across, eyes wide open. . . Other times , you don’t know you’ve crossed a border until you reach the other side.”

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Ragina Shearer says:

    As teachers, I believe we should not focus on our personal beliefs or perceptions of immigration laws, but our focus should be completely on the children. I am not taking a stance on being for or against immigration legal or illegal. I am taking a stance on respecting the children that are here, respecting their heritage and the wealth of experiences and knowledge they bring with them and most of all helping them to feel good about themselves. Think about it there is not a child here that woke up one morning and said, I want to leave home, all my familiar surroundings, all the friends and family, the only way of life I have ever known, and go to a place where I know no one, I don’t speak the same language, and I will have to learn new every day ways of life and customs. No, the children here, whether legal or illegal, are here because their families sought a better life for them, they are virtually victims of circumstance.

    However, the wonderful opportunity we as teachers have today is to use all the valuable literature with our classes and open doors for these students. Through literature immigrant students can see their selves, and their own experiences which will open the doors for discussion and follow up literacy activities which encourage and build self esteem. I read The Crossing to my own class of immigrant students, as I read the parts about the “Coyotes” who helped people cross the borders I heard story after story about their own experiences and/or that of relatives. These students were proud of the hardship and danger undertaken by their relatives and often themselves to forge their way to a new home, a better way of life, and very often a safer place to live. Over the years, my own immigrant students have shared remarkable stories that merged from the reading and sharing of a piece of literature.

    When I read Number the Stars to my students it led into several great discussions based on why people treat others in a certain way simply because of their race and/or beliefs. They discussed the fact that after the Jews crossed over to Sweden they would face being in a new land and have to start life all over, learning a new language, and new customs. In one sixth grade class the students made their own lists of ways they could help a new student, or any student, that was feeling left out. Many of these students could remember arriving themselves, some were born in the United States, yet all could empathize with the complexities of entering a new and foreign world and a new school.

    These are just two examples, but there are pieces of literature used in schools daily that can lend to such discussions. We as teachers simply need to be aware of the diverse classrooms we have today and be able to begin discussions and provide or guide students into further extensions. We are all immigrants, in one way or another, if not ourselves, our forefathers. We all want to be accepted and appreciated for the part we play in our communities; we must guide our students in developing their self confidence and skills.

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