Immigration Stories (Ages 9-12)

We come from all around the globe. Our generation may immigrate or our grandparents may have immigrated. We leave our homes for new lands, new opportunities, and new experiences. We each have unique experiences; but, we share the same feelings of loss and joy when we move. Leaving our homes, we might feel like we are losing friends or our familiar places; but, arriving in a new country or a new city, we find joy, friends, happiness, hope, and opportunity. I love that we can connect with friends and family through our shared stories and I love that when we move and immigrate to a new place we learn. We bring our ideas and culture with us and add new ideas and new culture, so we grow. 

Curator Tibby W. 

Why I Wrote This Guide:

I am energized by hearing other people’s stories. I love to hear of the hope and joy found in setting out for a new home and new experiences. I enjoy hearing about the ideas people bring with them and how they have learned and grown in their new homes.

Did You Know?

  • Asians immigrated to North America thousands of years ago, populating both North and South America.
  • Europeans have been immigrating to the Western Hemisphere for centuries. Nearly 1000 years ago, 995 years ago to be precise, Leif Erikson started a colony in Newfoundland for Icelandic immigrants.
  • European Immigrants settled in present day Nova Scotia and Maine in 1604.
  • Ellis Island, the first federal immigration station in the United States, was open from 1892 to 1954. Today, Ellis Island is operated as a museum by the National Park Service. You can take a virtual tour of Ellis Island on the Scholastic website.
  • Today, over 41 million immigrants live in the United States and nearly 7 million immigrants live in Canada.

A Song for Bijou by Josh Farrar

When Alex is smitten with a beautiful Haitian student at their sister school, his loyal, inexperienced posse offers aid and (dubious) advice. Bijou Doucet, who lived through Haiti’s horrific earthquake three years earlier, has more on her plate: life with her childless uncle and aunt in a new country whose adolescent culture Bijou’s expected to ignore. (Kirkus)

Reading Tip: Many immigration stories are written as a personal narrative -- a glimpse of one part of a person’s story. Before you begin reading a personal narrative you can set a reason, or purpose, for reading by previewing the front and back covers, title, and the chapter titles and asking, “What questions do I have about this person and his or her immigration story?” or “What lessons do I think I will learn by reading about this person’s life?” If there is an especially intriguing chapter title, like “My Secret” you can ask, “What secret do I think this character is keeping?” Then try to find clues about the character’s secret as you read.

After Reading: Ask yourself some questions to process the personal narrative you’ve read:

  • What do I think overall about this person? What in the story makes me think this way?  
  • How was their experience unique? What part of this personal narrative made me notice how unique his or her story is?
  • What did they learn? How did these experiences change him or her?
  • What can I learn from reading his or her story?

Same Sun Here by Silas House, Neela Vaswani

Meena lives with her recently immigrated Indian family in New York City. River lives with his grandmother, an environmental activist, in rural Kentucky. Connected by their pen pal letters, the two find many differences in their lives, and a few connections, as they share their feelings about religion, politics, prejudice, and music. Narrated by the two authors in alternate chapters, the two establish a friendship strong enough to surmount distance and difference.

Before Reading: Look carefully at the cover of “Same Sun Here.” If you and I are looking at the same cover, we have so many details to explore. Starting at the upper right hand corner, start identifying the things you see. How do you think they will appear in the story? How are the left and right sides of the cover the same? How are they different? What does this tell you about “Same Sun Here?”

During Reading: Pay attention to the organization. Same Sun Here is a series of letters between Maeena and River. You can tell who is writing by noticing the greeting of each letter.

After Reading: Consider the title and cover of the book. How does this title fit the story?

  • How were the lives of Meena and River similar? How important are these similarities?
  • How do Meena and River change over the course of their story?
  • How are the lives of Meena and River enriched by their friendships with others such as Meena’s friend, Mrs. Lau, and River’s grandmother? How is your life made richer by friendships?
  • What connections can you make between “Same Sun Here” and your life, feelings, experiences, or other books you have read? To what part of the story do you connect?

Other topics to discuss include Speaking Up & Speaking Out, Injustice, Community, Friendships, Politics.

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

A young girl visiting her great-grandfather wonders how he remembers the important moments of his life since he couldn’t read or write for much of his life. Inside a cigar box she discovers a collection of old matchboxes, each holding a memory that the old man explains as she holds the treasures in her hand. An olive pit from his native Italy brings the memory of sucking on the pit when the family had no food, a fish bone tells the story of hard work in a cannery, and a piece of movable type represents his mastery of the written word.

After Reading: Do a Family History Interview. Talk to your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to learn more about your family’s immigration and migration stories. When you begin asking, you can share that you are interested in your family story and would like to know about all of the places where your family has lived and how they lived. Find a way to save the memories. You can write and illustrate the stories your family tells you, record their stories, or take pictures of them telling their stories. What questions should you ask? Think like a reporter or investigator and ask Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? questions.

  • Where did your parents live when you were born?
  • Did they ever live anywhere else?
  • Why did they choose to live there?
  • What stories did you parents and grandparents tell you about our family?
  • What family traditions did our family bring with them or start?
  • What did you learn from your parents or grandparents?
  • Who are some important people in our family you don’t want me to forget?

Activity: Create a Family Story Wall Hanging

You’ll need:

  • A flat piece of paper
  • Fabric markers and pens
  • A frame
  1. Draw a map of your family’s immigration routes
  2. Add pictures of family members
  3. Add a timeline and immigration stories
  4. Ask family members to add the stories or pictures they can share.

The following stories portray the lives and immigration stories of young people who left their war-torn countries for a new home. Before Reading talk with your child about the need for some people to leave their homes due to war and the new homes they make for themselves when they immigrate to a new country. Check out CNN’s virtual tour of a refugee camp to see what some of the people and characters in the following stories may have experienced in a refugee camp.

Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan By Mary Williams, Illustrated by Gregory Christie

Since 2000 the U.S. has taken in about 3,000 "Lost Boys of Sudan," orphaned by the wars that have left two million dead. Through the fictionalized first-person account of one boy, Garang, this moving picture book tells the big story of children at war. Driven from his village home by the soldiers, Garang treks with other boys nearly 1,000 miles across the border, first to Ethiopia, and later to Kenya. He finds shelter in refugee camps, but many other refugees die along the way. (Booklist)

Before Reading: Listen to the artist, Gregory Christie, share his work for “Brothers in Hope.” As you read, look for the emotions Gregory Christie shares through his illustrations.

Home of the Brave By Katherine Applegate

From the author of the Animorphs series comes this earnest novel in verse about an orphaned Sudanese war refugee with a passion for cows, who has resettled in Minnesota with relatives. Arriving in winter, Kek spots a cow that reminds him of his father’s herd, a familiar sight in an alien world. Later he returns with Hannah, a friendly foster child, and talks the cow’s owner into hiring him to look after it. When the owner plans to sell the cow, Kek becomes despondent. Full of wide-eyed amazement and unalloyed enthusiasm for all things American, Kek is a generic—bordering on insulting—stereotype. (Kirkus)

After Reading: “Brothers in Hope” or “Home of the Brave” discuss war as a reason for emigration. The Lost Boys of Sudan faced their obstacles with determination, hope, and courage. Did your family experience any wars? If so, how did your family face this obstacle and how has your family changed as a result of this experience? If no, do you know anyone whose family emigrated because of war? How did their experience shape their family?

Goodbye Vietnam By Gloria Whelan

Thirteen-year-old Mai is frightened and distraught to learn that her parents have planned to leave their home and secure passage to Hong Kong. But with hopes of freedom and prosperity to spur them on, Mai and her relatives cram themselves onto a barely seaworthy boat captained by a crusty, greedy man. The voyage is difficult at best: food and water are scarce; illness, lice, rats and blazing sun plague the debilitated passengers. When they finally reach Hong Kong, the challenges of a police inspection and a camp filled with thousands of other refugees await them. (Publishers Weekly)

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

10-year-old Hà flees with her mother and three older brothers. Traveling first by boat, the family reaches a tent city in Guam, moves on to Florida, and is finally connected with sponsors in Alabama, where Hà finds refuge but also cruel rejection, especially from mean classmates. Based on Lai’s personal experience, this first novel captures a child-refugee’s struggle with rare honesty... Eventually, Hà does get back at the sneering kids who bully her at school, and she finds help adjusting to her new life from a kind teacher who lost a son in Vietnam. (Booklist)

Red Midnight By Ben Mikaelsen

Relying upon his wits, Santiago manages to escape from guerilla soldiers with his four year-old sister, Angelina. At his uncle’s home, twelve year-old Santiago retrieves the kayak that will start them on their journey to America. With fierce determination and perhaps a bit of naïveté, he pilots the craft out of Guatemala and across the ocean to the United States… This true-to-life tale illuminates the plight of refugees leaving behind a country they love with hope as their only guiding star. (School Library Journal / Zoobean)

Call Me Aram by MarshaForchuk Skrypuch

In Aram's Choice, some boys orphaned by the Turkish/Armenian conflict of the 1920s make a harrowing journey from a refugee camp in Greece to a new home in Canada. Call Me Aram picks up the boys' story in 1923, soon after they arrive at a farm in Georgetown, Ontario. Aram Davidian, one of the older orphans, takes on a leadership role as the group tries to adjust to new foods, customs, and the expectations of the kind people who have taken them in but cannot understand their language. The tone is child-appropriate. Parts are humorous, others more serious, as when the boys object to changing their traditional Armenian family names to Canadian ones. (School Library Journal)

After Reading: One of the above stories, check out Time Magazine ideas for talking about the current refugee crisis with your children. Carey Wallace suggests reassuring your child that he or she is safe and cared for. Wallace provides suggestions for talking with older children to encourage empathy and to help them get involved. How, as a family, can you get involved in caring for refugees?

Movie Night

Watch “An American Tail” and introduce one of your childhood favorites to your own child and talk about immigration.

An American Tail is a beautifully rendered animated film that tells an overly familiar story in terms children can easily understand. Fievel Mousekewitz and his family of Russian-Jewish mice escape from their homeland in the late 1800s, boarding a boat headed toward America to evade the Czarist rule of the Russian cats. Fievel, however, is separated from his family upon his arrival in New York City, and he discovers to his horror that there are cats in America too (his father said there weren't). Fievel meets his share of friendly and hostile mice, and he eventually befriends a cat as well. (Rotten Tomatoes)

Before Viewing: Pull out a map and trace the routes people have had to take to get to America.

Ask “Why do people move from their homes to new homes?” “What do they hope to find or do in their new homes?”

After Viewing: Trace the route Fievel Mousekewitz and his family took to get to America. Ask “Why did the Mousekewitz family move from their home to a new home?” “What did they hope to find?” “Aside from the cat and mouse portions of the story, did they find what they expected to find in America?” “How was the life they found similar to the experiences people have when they immigrate?” “What connections can you make between this mouse family and the people and characters in the books you’ve read?”

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman

Explore some nonfiction, such as “Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain,” to learn more about the experience of arriving in American. After my own recent visit of Angel Island, I have greater appreciation for my friends whose families immigrated through Angel Island.

Here, the experience is made most vivid and poignant when Freedman weaves in the recollections of detainees, including “picture brides” and refugees, taken from books and videos. The historical photos of Angel Island life, notably the poems expressing frustration carved in Chinese calligraphy into the barracks walls (gracefully reproduced as design accents on front- and backmatter), bring depth and perspective to a dark period in American history. In this case, the walls do talk. (Kirkus)

Before Reading: Watch a short virtual tour of Angel Island. After viewing, share what you observed.

  • What did men and women do while waiting to be processed at Angel Island?
  • What did people bring with them to America?
  • If you had only one small suitcase, what would you pack?

After Reading: Learn about the experiences of families who immigrated through Angel Island through memoirs such as Good Fortune: My Journey to Gold Mountain by Li Keng Wong

An elementary school teacher for 35 years tells about her family's journey to America, their interrogation at Angel Island, and the difficult life they faced in Oakland, CA, where her father ran an illegal lottery business. Paw Paw worked in Gold Mountain and sent money home. One day, the author, her two sisters, and their mother received a letter announcing that they would be returning with him after his next visit. The family studied the papers that he sent to prepare them for the difficult questions they would be asked upon their arrival. Particularly worrisome was the fact that Paw Paw wasn't allowed to bring his wife to America, so she would be posing as his sister. (School Library Journal) You can also read immigration stories on Scholastic Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today.

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town by Warren St. John

The remarkable, inspiring story of a persevering coach, a soccer team of refugee boys, and the Georgia town that is their home. With conviction and skill, Jordanian Luma Mufleh established and coached three soccer teams known as the Fugees. Her players were haunted by memories of war-torn homelands and personal tragedies and were struggling to adjust to life in the United States. However, her high expectations and willingness to help families impacted her young players. Despite challenges to locate a practice field, minimal funding for uniforms and equipment, and zero fans on the sidelines, the Fugees practiced hard and demonstrated a team spirit that drew admiration from referees and even their competitors.(School Library Journal)

Check out a book trailer for Outcasts United created by Teacher Margaret Thornton.

Reading Tip: Set a purpose for reading by predicting what will change in this town and how it will change. You can also set a purpose for each chapter by predicting what will occur in the chapter.  At the beginning of a chapter, ask one or two questions about what will happen next in the story. Consider what you have already read and the chapter title to come up with your questions. Then read the chapter to see if your questions are answered. For example, in the introduction, we learn about Luma and the kind of coach she is. Chapter one is titled, Luma, so we could ask, “What made Luma decide to be a coach?” or “How did Luma become the woman she is today?” Then read to find the answers. If you unanswered questions at the end of a chapter, keep reading to find the answers in later chapters.

K’Naan’s tells his own story in his book When I Get Older: The Story behind "Wavin' Flag."

There is an elegant simplicity in … K’naan’s telling of his story. It is an immigrant story many, many Canadian children will know personally… The emotional highs and lows of K’naan’s tale are captured in Gutierrez’s colour and composition…Hopefully every child reading this book will find the waving flag of his or her homeland. (Canadian Children’s Book News)

After Reading: Listen to K’Naan’s song “Wavin’ Flag” to make connections between his immigration story and “Wavin’ Flag.” “How did K’Naan’s expereinces in Somalia and Canada influence his pride in his flags?”

“What lessons can you learn from K’Nann’s story and song?”