2021 Global Literature: Refugee and Immigrant Experiences in Children’s and YA Literature

by Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

The cover of In Search of Safety, depicting a black woman staring contemplatively to the right while sitting in a brown room.
The experiences of refugees dominate the national news, most recently images of Central American asylum seekers at the Mexico/U.S. border and refugees from Afghanistan trying to board planes and attempting border crossings into Pakistan. These experiences also dominate children’s and young adult books, especially in the last ten years with many books about Syrian refugees and refugees from Mexico and Central America. The experiences of immigrant families and children are also increasingly depicted in literature, but instead of focusing on trauma, these books focus on children who navigate multiple cultural identities and locations.

The new books on the 2021 global reading lists reflect the continuing trend of books on refugee experiences but with some interesting differences. Several nonfiction books provide readers with a broader global context for understanding that refugee experiences involve many groups of people in countries around the world, rather than being specific only to certain countries as depicted on the news. In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin (2021) is a YA book of interviews with five refugees who had to flee from war and violence and spend time in refugee camps before resettlement. These teens are from South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iraq, and Burundi. Escape: One Day We Had to Run by Ming Chen and Carmen Mela (2021) is a picturebook for older readers that uses 12 action verbs to share the stories of 12 ordinary people forced to leave their homes and families due to war, famine, intolerance, slavery, upheaval, or climate change. These brief snapshots go across time and place and are accompanied by dark-toned illustrations. Finding Home: The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees by Jen Sookfung Lee (2021) explores the story of human migration due to war, persecution, and opportunity. The sections in this middle grade book examine reasons why people migrate and the hardship and racism they often face in their new countries, using vignettes from immigrants to make the content personal and real for readers.

Cover of Santiago's Road Home, depicting a young boy, and little girl, and a young woman on a yellow road leading into the distance away from houses in the foreground.
Although novels for middle grade readers continue to highlight the often difficult and traumatic journeys of children who flee as refugees, there are shifts in these depictions. One difference is books that invite readers into the life of ordinary children not so different from themselves. Boy Everywhere by A. M. Dassu (2021) immerses readers into Sami’s life in Damascus as a thirteen-year-old who loves soccer and video games, paying little attention to the Syrian civil war and living a life of privilege. The disruption of his life by bombings in his city comes as a shock and leads his middle-class family to embark on a difficult journey to reach safety in England. This book challenges stereotypes about Syrian families, conveying the family’s anxiety and loss but also pride and hope for their culture. Another trend is the depiction of children held in detention at the Mexico/U.S. border. In Alexandra Diaz’s Santiago’s Road Home (2021), Santiago flees abuse and extreme poverty in Mexico, joining a young family to reach the border, only to face the great hardships as he is detained and imprisoned, unsure about what will happen.

In addition, some books focus on less well-known situations involving refugees, such as Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz (2021) in which a Rohingya Muslim refugee from Myanmar tries to figure out how to help her family survive in Bangladesh as well as prove to her conservative father that girls can contribute. Samira is initially interested in surfing to earn money for her family but comes to love what surfing adds to her life. The translated picturebook, Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War, by Maria Jose Ferrada and Ana Penyas (2020), is set in 1937 when 456 children from Spain were sent to Mexico during the Spanish Civil War on what was supposed to be short stay but stretched into many years, with some children never returning to their families. Wishes, a picturebook by Muon Van and Victo Ngai, is set in 1980s Vietnam as a family embarks on a dangerous journey by boat. This book is distinguished both by the stunning illustrations and by the text which is a series of wishes by inanimate objects related to each step of the family’s journey.


Stories of immigration are often assumed to be traumatic journeys of fleeing violence to a place of safety, but many people immigrate to pursue opportunities for their families related to education or career. Remy Lai says that when she first pitched her book about a family immigrating from Singapore to Australia, Pie in the Sky (2019), editors assumed it would be a story of trauma, instead of a tender story of a boy dealing with the grief and loneliness. Remaining connected to beloved relatives in a family’s country of origin and children trying to find a space between their family’s culture and the culture in which they reside are recent themes. I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne and Julia Kuo (2021) is a picturebook that reflects the deep love that a child in the U.S. and her grandmother in Taiwan hold for each other in their hearts. The title of a new picturebook by Mitali Perkins and Lavanya Naidu, Home is in Between (2021), reflects the tension that immigrant children often feel as they search for a space that reflects their hyphenated identities. In this case, a Bengali immigrant navigates between her family’s Bengali traditions and the culture of her classmates, wishing for a space where she would not need to choose between them. The 2021 Newbery, When You Trap a Tiger, by Tae Keller (2020), is another example as Lily navigates between her beloved Halmoni’s Korean traditions and stories and her sister’s acceptance of U.S. culture.


In the middle grade novel, Amina’s Song, by Hena Khan (2021), Amina feels pulled between two cultures when she returns from a family trip to Pakistan. Eager to share her experiences with U.S. classmates, she finds them uninterested and holding many negative stereotypes of Pakistan. Eddie, a biracial boy in What If a Fish by Anika Fajardo (2020), struggles with identity and bullying. In a realistic novel with a touch of magical realism, Eddie spends the summer with his half-brother in Colombia, connecting to family and to himself in moments that change his sense of possibility. This theme of children whose parents are immigrants returning for visits to their countries of origin and the tensions that arise as well as insights children gain into family and cultural loyalties is likely to become more frequent in children’s books, given our increasingly globally mobile world.

The final book defies categories as a visual narrative that is a fantasy journey for older readers, The Wanderer by Peter Van den Ende (2020). This 96-page wordless book follows a small paper boat on an intercontinental journey, navigating past wonders and terrifying sea monsters and storms. Originally published in the Netherlands by a Belgian artist, the black-and-white illustrations are stunning in their detail and imagery, totally engrossing to invite many repeated viewings and interpretations.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To view our complete offerings of WOW Currents, please visit its archival stream.

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