Thursday, February 22, 2007

New to America - Living the Immigrant Life

The September 30 enrollment stats for the state of Virginia include more than 86,000 students for whom English is a second language. This is approximately 8% of the state's total enrollment. My students are working in classrooms where they regularly encounter children who are new to our country. In these situations, they find that these children not only have difficulty learning the language and adjusting to cultural differences, but that their peers also pass through an adjustment period, as they try to negotiate friendships without the benefit of a shared language, and understand why families come from so far away to the United States.

It seems to me that this last issue is one where we can help all students come to some mutual understandings. For children who have experienced the move to a new home, neighborhood or school, they may recognize that it's not easy to start a new life in an unfamiliar place, but for others, there is just no comparison. Through children's literature we can study the challenges that face all new immigrants to the United States, particularly the children, and in doing so, provide some measure of comfort to those who are new.

The set of books outlined below will allow students to explore cultural and generational differences and develop empathy for their peers who are new Americans. The selection includes largely contemporary accounts of immigration, as I have tried to include books that only include immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries. Included in this list are books of poetry, nonfiction, picture books and novels.
  • La Mariposa by Francisco Jiménez - This semi-autobiographical story introduces a young boy named Francisco who is having difficulty adjusting to a school where he does not speak the language and becomes the target of a bully.
  • My Name is Jorge: On Both Sides of the River by Jane Medina - This book of 27 poems, written first in Spanish, then in English, are written from Jorge's point of view and describe his experiences adjusting to a new language and culture.
  • My Chinatown: One Year in Poems by Kam Mak - This collection of poems, written in a young boy's voice and organized chronologically, follow the boy from Hong Kong through his first year in the United States, where he attempts to deal with his new life.
  • The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi - When a young girl from Korea decides she would prefer a more American-sounding name than her own beautiful name, her classmates decide to help by putting suggestions in a name jar.
  • My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits - This lovely book describes the difficulties a young Korean girl has in adjusting to her new life in America.
  • Angel Child, Dragon Child by Michele Maria Surat - Ut has just come to the United States from Vietnam and she does not like her new American school. The children laugh when she speaks and one boy picks on her nearly every day. But most of all, she misses her mother who stayed behind in Vietnam.
  • I Hate English! by Ellen Levine - Mei Mei's family moves from Hong Kong to New York. In school, Mei Mei has difficulty adjusting to the new culture and language, particularly the alien sounds of English.
  • Coming to America: A Muslim Family's Story by Bernard Wolf - This photo-essay describes the arrival of the Mahmoud family in the United States from Egypt and shows how various family members spend their time.
  • The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman - When Hassan, a young Muslim boy from Somalia, immigrate to the United States, he finds school and adjusting to a new culture and language to be difficult.
  • In the Small, Small Night by Jane Kurtz - When Abena’s younger brother Kofi can't sleep, afraid that he will forget the grandmother and cousins he left in Ghana, she comforts him with two Ashanti tales. Later, when she worries about attending her new school, Kofi comforts her.
  • Marianthe's Story: Painted Words and Spoken Memories by Aliki - With two stories in one book, the first, Painted Words, is one where the story of Mari's immigration is told through pictures. Her teacher tells the class that "there is more than one way to tell a story. Someday Mari will be able to tell us with words." When you flip the book over you find Spoken Memories, where Mari is finally able to tell the story of her life in Greece and having to leave her native land.
  • A Picnic in October by Eve Bunting - A young Italian-American boy is embarrassed by his family's yearly trip to the Statue of Liberty. He does not understand why his grandparents celebrate the statue's birthday in this way. It is only when he watches a family of new Americans who have also come to pay their respects to Lady Liberty, that he gains insight into this symbol of freedom, and understands the gratitude of his grandparents.
There are many other wonderful books about immigration, including titles by Betsy Maestro, Russell Freedman, and others. Look for Part II of this post where I will explore a set of literature on immigration that is more historical in nature.


  1. Tricia,

    Wonderful list--and it even includes poetry!

    I really like THE NAME JAR and MY NAME IN YOON.

    Here are some of my favorite multicultural picture books:

    -THE LOTUS SEED by Sherry Garland (Vietnamese)
    -DEAR JUNO by Soyung Pak (Korean)
    -APPLE PIE 4TH OF JULY by Janet Wong (Chinese)
    -GOOD-BYE, 382 SHIN DANG DONG by Frances and Ginger Park. This book is based on an event in the life of the authors' older sister who moved with their parents from Korea to Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1954.

  2. I'm sure these titles will be in your Part II list. These are three great books about the immigrant experience I've used with my sixth grade lately:
    Dia's Story Cloth by Dia Cha (Hmong)
    A Step from Heaven by An Na (Korean)
    Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Somali)

  3. I planned to use many of the resources you have so kindly listed. Believe or not, I just read In the Year of the Boar, this year, and shared it with another fourth grade teacher. I am leaving for a trip to New York with area teachers. We received a book "97 Orchard Street, New York: Stories of Immigrant Life" and you may want to use it for yourself and your students. Great early image and web site: