Seeing Migration Experiences in Recent Picture Books

For most of humanity’s existence on Earth, people have migrated from one place to another as individuals, as family groups, and as entire cultures. Today’s humans can find themselves migrating out of need—escaping war, poverty, and danger to seek a place to call home–or moving in search of better jobs, or to help care for ill or aging family members. Sometimes we don’t recognize our own moves as kinds of migration. However, there is one reason for human migrations that is the same as that of our long-ago ancestors: Humans want to survive and, if possible, thrive.

interior image from Migrants

A powerful way to spark informative, critical conversations and learning about migration for children of all ages is through story. We invite you to explore this collection of powerful migration stories that invite young people—and the adults who guide them—to see through the eyes of others, and in this, nurture their own empathy and perhaps understanding of their own family’s history.

First in our list is Migrants, written and illustrated by Issa Watanabe, and published by Gecko Press. Don’t let the array of creatures on the cover, nor the lack of words, fool you. This elegant, visually stunning, and wordless book tells a timeless tale of migration—leaving the place you knew to head out into the unknown, determined to find a new place to call home. Readers of all ages will be drawn into this journey.

Next comes a title from Lantana Publishing, Rajiv’s Starry Feelings, written by Niall Moorjani and illustrated by Nanette Regan. Young Rajiv doesn’t understand why he has so many feelings, or why some of them are so strong. Then his dad takes Rajiv outside into the night, and together they climb to the top of a tall tree. There his dad guides him to visualize his emotions in the dot-to-dot constellations of stars—and shares the roots of his own anger over people being forced from their homes by war—just like his grandparents in India. Rajiv’s dad’s gentle guidance gives this tale real-world power to help young people embrace their own emotions, and the small and large reasons behind them.

Also from Lantana Publishing, Escape: One Day We Had to Run is written by Ming and Wah Chen and illustrated by Carmen Vela. Part dictionary of vital migration vocabulary, part compendium of migration stories, Escape invites readers to learn the painful and scary truths behind many people’s migration experiences. Poetic word definitions are paired with escape stories from around the world, concluding with an informative excerpt of Articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Vivid and artistically varied illustrations add depth and detail to each migration story.

Written by Hannah Carmona, illustrated by Anna Cunha, and again published by Lantana Publishing, Anita and the Dragons tells the story of Princesa Anita who watches the dragons fly repeatedly above her home in the Dominican Republic. While she may not be a real princess, Anita is determined to be as brave as one and refuses to let the huge winged beasts scare her. But one day she finds out that she and her family will have to leave their home, and actually travel inside one of the dragons to a new home far, far away. Dreamy illustrations in muted colors add a softness to this story of one young girl’s bravery in the face of having to leave her home for a new and unknown country.

Barefoot Books brings us the lovely story of Zahra’s Blessing, written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Manal Mirza. Amid her family’s Ramadan preparations, Zahra has two wishes: to have a sister, and to find her beloved but lost teddy bear. Zahra’s head is filled with her wishes, all through her family’s delicious iftar meal, and even on the way to the shelter where she and her mother volunteer to help the shelter residents celebrate their own iftar. There she meets Haleema, a young girl missing the country and home she and her family had to flee. When Zahra’s parents decide to invite Haleema and her family live with them, Zahra finds both of her wishes fulfilled. This brightly illustrated tale opens up discussion about migration that is forced upon people, with backmatter giving deeper information about refugees and asylum-seekers. It is also available in a Spanish edition as La bendición de Zahra.

Visual details including color can make great conversation starters when reading picture books about migration experiences. From Floris Books, Mina Belongs Here by Sandra Niebuhr-Siebert and illustrated by Lars Baus, shows a parallel between feeling lost in a new place with an unfamiliar language and a black and white classroom. As Mina becomes familiar with the language of her new place in the world, that world gains color, culminating in a bright page spread on which Mina is ready to welcome another new student into what has become her school.

For older readers who appreciate the rich storytelling images can provide, and who want to consider how color can be an important storytelling element, pick up Cicada Books’ graphic novel Alte Zachen: Old Things by Ziggy Hanaor with art by Benjamin Phillips. Here a young boy and his grandmother collect their shopping as they walk around their New York neighborhood, in the present day, and he learns about her migration story. As Mina’s world gained color as she became more comfortable with her present place, this grandmother’s memories are tinted and hued while her current world is a simpler black and white.

Where can a picture book take you? Along the road with someone on the move from one home to another, from one language to another, from memory to new insight.

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