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A New Land, A New Life

Mighty Girl Books About the Immigrant Experience

A Mighty Girl's top picks of books about Mighty Girl immigrants historically and in modern times.

immigration-blog-webIt takes courage, determination, and hope to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and start a new life in an unfamiliar country, and yet for generations, people have immigrated into new lands and cultures in search of a better life. While many things have changed about the immigrant experience over time, some things remain the same: new immigrants face unfamiliar customs and sometimes new languages, and a challenging balance between blending in to their new home and maintaining the traditions they loved from their old one.

A great way to help new immigrants realize that they're not alone in their struggles — and to build empathy among the people in their neighborhoods — is to share stories about the lives and experiences of immigrants both past and present. With that in mind, we're sharing a selection of Mighty Girl stories about coming to a new country, and all the excitement, anxiety, and adjustment that entails. By reading these stories, young readers — whether they were born in their countries or came from another one — will come to understand why people will leave behind everything they know to come to a new country and how we all benefit from the diversity that immigrants bring to our communities.

For girl-empowering books specifically focused on refugees, check out our blog post, Seeking Safety in a New Land: Books About Mighty Girl Refugees.

Across the sea: immigration in the past

For hundreds of years, people have sought new opportunities — often at tremendous cost — by traveling to new lands, through long and perilous journeys. These works of historical fiction about immigration will remind modern readers that it's a rare family that doesn't have immigration as part of its story.

The Keeping Quilt

When Anna's family comes to America to escape the persecution facing Russian Jews, they had only the clothing on their backs to connect them with the country they loved but had to flee. So when Anna outgrows her beloved dress and scarf, her mother decides to create a very special quilt: "It will be like having the family in back home Russia dance around us at night." From that day forward, the Keeping Quilt appears at each important family event, always with stories about the family members that each scrap of cloth represents. Based on a true story from beloved author Patricia Polacco's family, this book captures the connection immigrants still feel to their countries of origin, even as they weave themselves into their new home. Fans of this book will also want to check out the companion about another priceless piece of family history, The Blessing Cup.

Fiona's Lace

With times becoming increasingly tough in Ireland, Fiona's family decides to travel to Chicago, where they take jobs as domestic workers to pay back the cost of their passage. Despite the difficult work, Fiona still spends nights practicing her family's traditional lacemaking, while her parents work second jobs that allow the family to survive. But on the night of Chicago's Great Fire, Fiona and her younger sister Ailish have to flee the house — without their parents. How will they ever bring the family back together? Fortunately, Fiona remembers the story of how her parents met — thanks to a trail of lace — and soon, the family is reunited. Another story from Patricia Polacco's rich family history, this one from her father's side, this book ends with a note about how pieces of Fiona's lace are still passed down as treasured family keepsakes.

The Matchbox Diary

A little girl's great-grandfather has a home full of fascinating treasures from his long life, but when invited to ask him for the story of any item that catches her eye, she picks an old cigar box. To her amazement, inside is a collection of matchboxes that represents her great-grandfather's life, each one holding a tiny remembrance of a significant event in his journey from Italy to America and his descendants' lives there. From the olive pit he sucked when there wasn't any food at the family's home in Italy, to ticket stubs from his first baseball game, each seemingly unimportant item is a special memory of a transition to his new life. This charming story of the immigrant experience also celebrates a special relationship between a Mighty Girl and her ancestor.

Molly's Pilgrim

It's the turn of the 20th century, and Molly's Russian Jewish family is the only one of its kind in her new home in Winter Hill. So when her third-grade teacher decides the class will build a Thanksgiving diorama and assigns Molly to design a Pilgrim figure, she just wants to fit in. To Molly's mother, though, the description of a Pilgrim — someone seeking freedom from persecution — sounds all too familiar, and she uses Molly's description to create a doll that looks more like a Russian peasant girl than the figures in black dresses her classmates provide. Fortunately, Molly's teacher steps in to point out that Thanksgiving was based on a Jewish holiday, and that Molly is the only person in the class who could be considered a true Pilgrim. This heartfelt story provides a new perspective on an American holiday, as well as a reminder that people still come to America in search of the freedom to be themselves.

The Hundred Dresses

When communities aren't welcoming, it's much harder for immigrants to find their place. In Maddie's class, kids mock Wanda, a Polish immigrant, for her "strange" last name, her parents' hesitant English, and especially for Wanda wearing the same faded dress every day. Wanda tries to defend herself by insisting that she has a hundred beautiful dresses at home, but her obvious lie only earns more derision, and while Maddie never joins in, she never intervenes to stop the bullying, either. Then Wanda's father sends a letter to her teacher, saying that the family is leaving town, going to a bigger city where there are "plenty of funny names." With Wanda gone, Maddie realizes that she can never apologize for what people said to her, and resolves that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.” Eleanor Estes' Newbery Medal-winning book is a poignant reminder of how discrimination can shut out newly arrived immigrants and the importance of standing up for what's right no matter your age.

When Jessie Came Across The Sea

13-year-old orphan Jessie has a remarkable opportunity: the rabbi of her Eastern European shtetl has a single ticket for a ship to America. If Jessie goes, she'll have a chance for a better life... but she'll have to leave everything behind, including her beloved grandmother. The two say a tearful goodbye as Jessie sets out across the sea, where a shipboard friendship with Lou, a young shoemaker, provides some company. Once in the city, the lacemaking Jessie learned from her grandmother helps her get a good job, and she starts saving money for a second ticket. Three years pass; a second encounter with Lou turns friendship into love; and finally, Jessie saves enough money and is reunited with her grandmother in the city that has become Jessie's home — just in time for a wedding. Kids will be astounded to realize that many immigrants traveling alone were as young as Jessie, providing an excellent jumping off point for talking about the refugee children of today.

Her Right Foot

This unique look at one of the world's most iconic statues, the Statue of Liberty, explores an often-overlooked detail of the statue with powerful symbolic meaning. After a playful discussion of Liberty's history, author Dave Eggers makes an observation: her right foot is coming off the podium as if she is in mid-stride. Why? Because, he suggests, Liberty is stepping out into the harbor to welcome immigrants to her shores -- after all, Liberty is an immigrant too! Her right foot reminds us that “Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around. These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest." At turns funny and profound — and filled with ink-and–construction-paper collages that lend playfulness and vibrancy to the story — this thoughtful examination of the symbolism of Lady Liberty celebrates the diversity that makes American great.

Katerina's Wish

A year after Katerina's family left Bohemia for America in 1900, they still haven't achieved their dream of buying a farm; instead, her father works in a dangerous coal mine, while she helps her mother and sisters do laundry for the other miners. Then one day, after a neighbor tells them a folk tale about a carp who grants three wishes, Katerina is astounded when her sisters' silly wishes come true — and starts to wonder if she could wish for a farm. A farm might be too big to wish for... but with a wish backed up by hard work and determination, maybe Katerina can finally make their real wish into reality. This remarkable novel beautifully captures life in an early-1900s coal mining camp, including the division between workers from different backgrounds, the dangers posed by mining, and the difficulty of breaking out of the coal mine's grasp to achieve their American dream.

Our Only May Amelia

12-year-old May Amelia is the only girl in a family of Finnish immigrants, making themselves a place in the state of Washington in 1899, and she finds herself caught between two worlds: on the one hand, her love of adventure and her place as the only girl in the whole settlement incline her to living a rough-and-tumble life, but on the other hand, her mother and the rest of the family desperately want her to learn to be a Proper Young Lady. Perhaps, she thinks, it will be easier to be a Proper Young Lady if her mother's new baby turns out to be a girl... but perhaps, in a new country and a new territory where so many things are different, a Proper Young Lady isn't what May Amelia needs to be. Author Jennifer L. Holm doesn't pull any punches when describing the danger and heartbreak that faced people in this time period, and beautifully captures the struggle of adjusting to a new way of life through the eyes of one girl.

Esperanza Rising

Esperanza grew up in privilege in Mexico, but when her father is killed by bandits shortly before her thirteenth birthday, she and her mother flee to America. In Depression-era California, no one cares about the elegant life Esperanza remembers: she’s just a farm worker, good for nothing but hard labor. But as Esperanza struggles with poverty, racism, and grief, a multi-ethnic spirit of labor organization is blossoming around her. Hope is coming both for Esperanza and for the workers around her struggling to get by; perhaps there is a place for her in this new country after all. This Pura Belpre Award-winning novel is both heartfelt and thought-provoking as it describes Esperanza's reinvention of herself as a Mexican-American girl.

Immigrants in modern times: Stories From 1950 and Later

While stories from a hundred years ago emphasize how much immigrants have contributed to our society, stories set since 1950 provide a good reminder to young readers that immigrants still come to their country every day — and that they still face many of the same challenges, from language barriers to cultural differences. These books talk about Mighty Girls living through modern immigration experiences.

Abuela

Rosalba and her Abuela are always going to new places, and after feeding the birds at the park, Rosalba sits on the bus and dreams about what it would be like if she could fly. Soon, she’s soaring through the sky, Abuela floating beside her, as they see the streets and buses, docks and buildings, and even her father’s office, all from high above. Each sight represents an important moment in Abuela's life and journey, revealing her story of finding a new home to Rosalba, who has known no home but this one. With its colorful illustrations and mix of Spanish and English, this book is a tribute to the love between a grandmother and granddaughter, a celebration of a diverse community, and a poignant tale of finding a new home.

This Is Me: A Story of Who We Are and Where We Came From

A great way to build empathy for the immigration experience is to help kids imagine what it would be like! In this story, a teacher talks about her great-grandmother's long journey to a new country, with only the things she could fit in one suitcase — and gives her class a challenge: what would you pack if it were you? What things say, "This is me"? Thought-provoking and lively, this book includes an interactive component: a pop-up suitcase on the back cover that kids can imagine filling with the things that would really matter if they were moving to a new country and a new life.

One Green Apple

If a student doesn't speak their new country's language when they start attending school in their new country, everything can seem foreign and frightening. Farah is a Muslim girl, recently immigrated to America, and her headscarf and minimal English make her feel like she’ll never belong. But when her class takes a field trip to an apple orchard, Farah discovers that many things are familiar in her new country, from the dogs looking for a bite to eat to the laughter of children playing together. And when Farah selects a green apple to go in the cider press, instead of red apples like all the other children choose, she teaches her classmates that there is great value in intermingling different things. With a powerful message of hope and acceptance, this story will remind both immigrant children and children born to their countries that kids are kids everywhere.

I Pledge Allegiance

It's a proud moment when someone becomes a citizen of their new country — particularly if they can share that moment with family! Libby's great aunt Lobo has passed her citizenship test; now all that remains is the ceremony, where she'll say the Pledge of Allegiance. Libby's class has also been practicing the Pledge — and on Friday, Libby is going to lead it! Together, Libby and Lobo practice the Pledge, talking about the historical and personal meaning of each line, until each of them gets to say it with hand on heart. This sweet story about celebrating becoming a citizen of your new country is also a great way to talk about the Pledge of Allegiance and all that it means.

The Name Jar

Unhei has just moved to America from Korea with little but clothes and a name stamp from her grandmother. She's already figured out that people in America struggle to pronounce her name and consider it strange, so rather than introducing herself on her first day at school, she announces that she's going to pick a new name and wants suggestions. Her classmates are fascinated, and start filling a big glass jar with "proper" American names like Suzy and Amanda. But when one of her classmates overhears her Korean name, the Name Jar mysteriously goes missing, allowing Unhei to embrace introducing herself by her real name (complete with a pronunciation lesson, Yoon-hey) — and helps her classmate choose a Korean nickname, Chinku: friend. This touching story is also an empowering reminder that no one should have to give up their name or identity to fit in.

Two White Rabbits

A young girl and her father are making a difficult but hopeful journey: they're traveling north, hoping to cross the border into America where, together, they can have a better life. They travel on foot, riding on top of a train, and even occasionally catch a ride with helpful stranger — although, she says, "the people who are taking us don't always take us where we are going." Sometimes, they have to stop so her father can earn more money for the journey, and sometimes, they have to stop because there are soldiers. But as long as she has her father and her two white rabbits, she feels happy and safe. This poignant book about the life of one migrant family helps kids imagine what it must be like to travel so far to find a new, safe home.

The Quiet Place

Isabel misses many things about her old home in Mexico, including her aunt Lupita and the comfort of hearing Spanish spoken all around her. At the same time, there are wonderful new experiences in her American home, including a teacher with a wide, friendly smile and her very first snow storm! To help her adjust to all the changes, Papa and her brother Chavo use a big box to make Isabel a "quiet place," where she can keep her books and toys and write letters to her aunt. In fact, the place Isabel feels most at home might just be in her quiet place. Set in the 1950s, this contemplative book captures the slow process of adjusting to a new country and fitting in with new friends.

Mamá The Alien / Mamá la Extraterrestre

When Mamá's purse spills one day, Sofia sees a card that describes her mother as a Resident Alien. An alien?! But Mamá looks like a human mother! Sofia is still trying to figure out this mystery when she stumbles upon her mother one night looking like an actual alien... but it turn out that Mamá is just doing a beauty treatment, getting ready for a special day: her citizenship ceremony. That's when Sofia learns that, in English, alien can also mean someone born in a different country. How funny to think that her Mamá really is an alien! This lighthearted bilingual book celebrates the milestones of immigration and the importance of family — no matter where that family comes from.

Mama's Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation

Many children don't know that immigration policy decisions can easily separate families. Saya's mother has been sent to an immigration detention center. While her father writes letter after letter to judges, politicians, and reporters, Saya finds comfort from hearing her mother's voice on the answering machine and then on cassette tapes that her mother sends, full of bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore. Those tales become Saya's inspiration, and she decides to write a story of her own  — one that might be make her family whole again. This poignant story shows the human faces behind immigration debates and the power of every child to make a difference.

My Diary from Here to There / Mi diario de aquí hasta allá

Amada hears her parents whispers, debating whether to move to Los Angeles, where there should be better opportunities for the family. She wants to be hopeful, but secretly, she can't stop thinking about how she'll miss the best friend she's leaving behind, her worry that she'll struggle to learn English, and her fear that they'll never return to Mexico. In her diary, she writes about both her travels and her thoughts about the family's journey, until finally, in their new home, Amada realizes that with the love of her family, there's no change she can't weather. Thoughtful and poignant, this bilingual telling of one family's immigration is based on author Amada Irma Perez's own experiences.

Drita, My Homegirl

10-year-old Drita is a Muslim Albanian refugee, struggling with the transition from war-torn Kosovo to Brooklyn, New York; she doesn’t speak any English, and her mother is falling into depression. Maxie is an African-American girl who still wrestles with grief after her mother died in an accident, and as one of the “cool kids,” she doesn’t want anything to do with this strange new girl. But when their teacher assigns a project to Maxie, interviewing Drita about her life in Albania and her move to the US, the two girls slowly develop a friendship as they discover unexpected connections between their lives. This unique novel alternates between both girls’ perspectives, creating a poignant and powerful tale of bridging cultural divides.

Dancing Home

Although she was born there, Margie doesn't consider herself Mexican — and she's devoted years of work to ensuring her classmates don't see her that way, either. Then her cousin Lupe moves from Mexico, hoping to see her father, who went north to find work, and to Margie's horror, Lupe is assigned to her class. Now Lupe's frilly clothes and struggles with English are challenging Margie's carefully crafted identity, especially when she's told to translate the teacher's lessons despite not speaking much Spanish. Slowly, though, both Lupe and Margie fall into step with one another, and together they discover how to create new selves that acknowledge both Mexican heritage and American home. This beautiful novel, which was also published in a Spanish edition, Nacer bailando, tackles important issues about bullying, cultural identity, and family.

The Land of Forgotten Girls

In this empowering tale of sisterhood. Soledad and Ming' inherited a lively imagination from their mother, Mei-Mei, a consummate storyteller. After her death, the girls move with their father from the Philippines to the United States where he marries their "evil stepmother" Vea and promptly abandons the family. Now Sol is trying to use her mother's storytelling tricks to keep Ming's spirits up (and her own) by elaborating Mei-Mei's stories of a made-up adventurous Aunt Jove, who will surely swing through and rescue them both any day. But when Ming starts to believe Aunt Jove is real, Sol wonders if she's made the right decision. Perhaps what Sol and Ming really need to do is find a way to embrace their new country and new reality, evil stepmother and all. Erin Entrada Kelly tackles difficult issues about family in a touching, lyrical way in this heartfelt novel.

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel

Zomorod Yousefzadeh is the new kid — again. Her family's most recent home is California's Newport Beach, where she's going to start fresh and establish herself as something other than the brainy loner. She's even picked her perfect new, and very American, name, Cindy. But in the late 1970s, with Iran making headlines in the U.S. with protests, revolution, and finally the taking of American hostages, even mood rings and puka shell necklaces can't protect Cindy from anti-Iran sentiments that are way too close to home. The first middle grade novel by the author of the best-selling adult memoir Funny in Farsi, this story tackles the challenge of holding on to beloved traditions — even in the face of racism and fear — while also adopting new customs and friendships.

Inside Out And Back Again

Ha has grown up loving everything about Saigon, from its busy, bustling markets to the joy and beauty of her papaya tree. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home, and Ha's family are forced to flee, taking a long journey by ship to a new home in America. In Alabama, Ha finds the people cold and unfriendly, the food dull and tasteless, and the landscape alien and strange; she even admits that "at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama." At the same time, she discovers the incredible strength and resiliency of her family — and herself. This National Book Award winner captures one year in the grief and healing of a Vietnamese immigrant girl. Fans of this book should check out the follow-up, Listen, Slowly, in which a Californian descendant of a Vietnamese immigrant discovers that her grandmother's home and story still resonate in her own life.

The Thing About Luck

The year has been anything but lucky for Summer: an emergency has taken her parents back to Japan, leaving Summer and her brother Jaz — and the family farm's harvest — in the hands of her demanding grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. But old-fashioned Obaachan and Jiichan don’t understand her “intense” brother or Summer’s desperate desire to fit in with her American peers. Summer tries not to disappoint, but just when she thinks she's used up her train of bad luck, things get even worse, and Summer finds herself torn: please Obaachan or rescue the family fortunes. Summer's struggles between the expectations of her traditional grandparents and her peers in America will resonate with any tween or teen who has tried to meet two very different sets of standards.

The Distance Between Us: Young Readers Edition

Reyna's parents have made the dangerous (and illegal) trip across the US-Mexican border in hopes of a better life for the whole family. Meanwhile, she and her siblings are forced to live with their strict grandmother — until plans have to change and Reyna has to make the journey, alone, with a long-absent father she barely knows on the other side. Then, she struggles with identity and a desperate desire to succeed, as well as dealing with poverty, domestic violence, and life as an undocumented immigrant. Based on Grande's adult memoir of the same name, this story is gently funny and deeply touching, and captures a little-discussed element of immigration: the challenges facing children left behind.

Kira-Kira

No matter how difficult things get, Katie Takeshima's sister, Lynn, makes everything kira-kira, glittering or shining. Even when their 1950s Japanese-American family moves from a Japanese community in Iowa to a Georgia town where they're one of few families that are visibly different — distinctive enough that people stop and stare at them in the street — Lynn finds a way to help Katie see beauty and joy all around them. But when Lynn becomes severely ill with lymphoma, and their parents struggle to pay her medical bills, even while working so much at their poultry processing jobs that they barely see the children, Katie struggles to see the good in anything. Sometimes, she realizes, you have to find kira-kira even when things are so hard that it seems impossible.

Lucky Broken Girl

Ruthie is just beginning to regain some confidence after immigrating from Castro's Cuba to New York City: she's slowly learning English, and she's earned her place as the neighborhood's hopscotch queen. Then the unthinkable happens: a car accident leaves her in a body cast, restricted to bed for a year. Ruthie's world has shrunk, but the time gives her the opportunity to consider many things, from her feelings about the boys whose car hit her to the kindness of those around her to her own budding joy in writing and art. Inspired by her real-life experience in the 1960s — both immigrating and suffering injuries that required a long recovery — this book is inspiring, vulnerable, and real.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings

Margarita feels caught between two cultures and two countries: her mother's homeland, Cuba, which she visits every summer, and the bustling, busy world of Los Angeles, where words and images provide better companionship than her classmates. Slowly, though, she comes to love her own country as much as her old one, if in a different way. As tensions rise in the late 1950s and early 1960s, being caught between these two homes is not easy, and when the Cuban Missile Crisis breaks out, Margarita is afraid for her Cuban family and confused by how two places she loves can hate one another so much. This evocative and heartfelt memoir in verse depicts the sense of conflicting allegiances that immigrants can feel during conflicts between their old and new homes.

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