BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

The Refugee Experience for Middle Grade and YA Readers [in The Booklist Reader]

This is the second in a two-part series of recommended books for youth about the refugee experience. For a list of picture books, click here.

Canada, with her groovin’ President, functional healthcare system, and more welcoming borders, is currently in the throes of “Month 13,” the first month following the year-long commitment Canadian families made to adopt Syrian refugee families. Letting go and encouraging independence are understandably challenging tasks for both groups.

Even as headlines about refugee and immigration bans proliferate, refugees have been a part of the American story for centuries, whether escaping religious persecution from Britain, starvation in Ireland, genocide in Europe, war in Southeast Asia, mass destruction and murder in the Congo, Eritrea, Sudan, and beyond – and, alas, the list goes on.

With all the fear, uncertainty, and difficulties that adults face as refugees, a child’s experience is likely to be exponentially more challenging. In encouraging understanding and empathy, books serve as validation for the refugee child as well as provide portals to learn more about the refugee experience. These middle grade and YA novels accomplish just that.


Middle Grade

all the broken pieces: a novel in verse by Ann E. Burg

By age 10, Matt Pin has already had a harrowing life as a child of war. As one of the first groups of children airlifted out of an imploding Vietnam, Matt begins life anew on the other side of the world with a welcoming mother, father, and little brother. Haunted by memories of his birth family, he fears his new American parents will send him back if they ever found out what really happened in Vietnam.


Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lại

Lại’s 2011, National Book Award-winning debut novel, told in verse, is the autobiographical coming-of-age tale of 10-year-old Hà, whose family is forced to leave their homeland forever as Saigon falls. They board an old navy ship, eventually arriving in Alabama, where they are sponsored by a kind man and his not-at-all-friendly wife. Life in the new country is an enormous adjustment for all, but especially for young Hà, who must navigate the cruel intolerance of her new schoolmates.


It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yousefzadeh’s peripatetic upbringing has already spanned great distances – not just in miles, but across cultural, social, and political divides as well. Originally from Iran, her family is finally settling in California in the summer of 1978 when Zomorod renames herself Cindy, after the youngest child in The Brady Bunch. Her American metamorphosis is threatened by the hostage crisis in Iran, which makes being Iranian in the U.S. a matter of survival. Dumas (Funny in Farsi) distills a difficult chapter from recent history into an accessible coming-of-age novel infused with resonating contemporary issues, including bullying, multi-generational challenges, racism, and activism.


Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War and
One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Over two volumes, award-winning Canadian author Skrypuch introduces readers to Son Thi Ahn Tuyet, following her from her last days in a Saigon orphanage to the new life she finds in Canada with the Morris family. Just learning to feel safe is a challenge, as memories of war and tragedy haunt Tuyet’s dreams. Beyond the expected challenges of adapting to a new language, culture, parents and siblings, Tuyet undergoes multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own best hero.


A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Since Newbery Medalist Park published Water on November 2010, borders shifted (again) and the world recognized the birth of the Republic of South Sudan on July 9, 2011, making the book almost an anachronism – its map is no longer accurate, and country names will need updating. Park’s dual narrative intertwines 11-year-old Nya’s titular “long walk to water” on which her family relies for survival, and 11-year-old Salva Dut’s decade-long odyssey as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The two children are enemies merely by chance of being born into warring tribes, yet despite their violent inheritance, Nya and Salva’s lives will intersect in a life-saving effort of cooperation and peace.


Lost Girl Found by Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca

Poni’s fiercely supportive mother is determined that her daughter will have a different future than her 12-year-old best friend, who endured child marriage only to die in childbirth. But when war destroys her family and their home, Poni’s road to survival takes her to a Kenyan refugee camp. With tenacity and courage, she becomes the titular lost girl found. In 1999, when the U.S. State Department allowed the resettlement of young Sudanese refugees, nearly 4,000 Lost Boys arrived in America, but only 89 girls. Co-authors Bassoff and DeLuca give voice to the overlooked Lost Girls. Their hope: “that more girls will get to tell their stories.”


Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

McCormick’s 2012 National Book Award-finalist presents the horrifying experiences of Cambodian activist/humanitarian Arn Chorn-Pond’s childhood survival during the decimation of his native country by the Khmer Rouge, which claimed the lives of almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Arn loses most of his family, his friends, his hopes, his beliefs. He’s forced to commit indescribable acts as a child soldier, numbing his heart and mind in order to live to the next day. Miraculously, he reclaims his humanity to become an outspoken champion of the world.


Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees by Mary Beth Leatherdale, illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare

The first line speaks volumes: “If you’re reading this, you – like me – have probably won the lottery. Not the giant-check, instant-millionaire kind of lottery. The other lottery win. . . [t]hat random, lucky break that means you were born in or immigrated to a relatively peaceful and prosperous place in the world.” Sixty-five million are less lucky: they’re today’s refugees fleeing their homes, most recently Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean. But boat refugees are not new news; that history covers a half-millenia, from French Huguenots who fled to England in 1630, to Irish Catholics who sailed to North America in 1770, to Mormon Danes U.S.-bound in 1850, to Sri Lankans and Indians arriving in Canada in 1987, and so many more. Through interviews, and enhanced with additional contextual research, Leatherdale gives voice to five children—Ruth from Germany, Phu from Vietnam, José from Cuba, Najeeba from Afghanistan, Mohamed from the Ivory Coast—who further illuminate their experiences with current updates.


Young Adult

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

Palestinian American activist Abdelrazaq prefaces her webcomic-turned-printed book: “I don’t draw Baddawi because this story is unique. I draw it because it is a common story that is not frequently told.” Palestinians, she explains, “make up the largest refugee population in the world, numbering more than five million.” Her father was one of those displaced, born in a Lebanese refugee camp called Baddawi after his family’s Palestinian village was destroyed in 1948. Through her own extended history, Abdelrazaq draws poignant attention to refugees worldwide: “I see Palestinian refugees (and for that matter, refugees in general) portrayed as objects of suffering to be pitied, defined by circumstance, rather than subjects of their own individual narratives to be empathized with.”


Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Inspired by three years of living in Thailand and visiting refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, Perkins follows the lives of two boys on opposite sides of the war they inherited. City-educated Chiko is abducted to be trained as a soldier. Tu Reh finds Chiko when he becomes the sole survivor of a mine blast. Trapped by inhumane conditions, both must learn to rely on their own morals to counter the fighting and hatred, despite the imminent threat to kill or be killed.


Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis

Canadian anti-war activist and bestselling author Deborah Ellis gives voice to children whose families fled war to often unwelcoming new countries. Despite a civilization that is one of the world’s oldest, its ancient glory buried in the hanging gardens of Babylon, Iraq’s recent history is defined by violence, from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980, to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which sparked the First Gulf War, to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion in 2003. Sara, 15, speaks for many: “We all miss our homeland. We had friends there, and lives that could have been wonderful.”


Cry of the Giraffe by Judie Oron

The centuries-long history of Jews in Ethiopia does not protect them from derision and abuse from their countrymen. With growing violence compounded by unrelenting religious persecution, Wuditu and her family begin an arduous trek to a refugee camp in the Sudan, following promises that they will be rescued and evacuated to Jerusalem. For Canadian journalist Oron, this little-known history of Ethiopian Jewish refugees is also part of her own personal journey: two of her characters became her daughters.


In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda, translated by Howard Curtis

This novel’s protagonist, Afghan-born Enaiatollah Akbariis, is a real person, just ten years old – “I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when I was born” – when his harrowing odyssey crosses five countries. Italy is where Enaiatollah meets author Geda, “an Italian novelist who works with children under duress,” whom Enaiatollah entrusts to “write his story down, so that people who had suffered similar things could know they were not alone, and so that others might understand them better.”


Of Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard by Mawi Asgedom

At four, Asgedom fled the civil war cleaving Eritrea and Ethiopia, spending three years in a Sudanese refugee camp. In 1983, assisted by World Relief, his family settled in a Chicago suburb. Their new life wasn’t easy, but guided by his father, Asgedom worked hard – in school and in life – treating all people with equal respect, whether the “lowliest of beetles” or one of “God’s angels.” Encouraged by school administrators, Asgedom went to Harvard on full scholarship, giving the commencement address in 1999 in which he revealed details of his personal story, which became this inspiring bestseller.


Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War by Deborah Ellis

Ellis’s active interest in Afghanistan began in 1996; by giving voice to the Afghan community over the last two decades in numerous books – Women of the Afghan War for adults, and the ever-popular middle grade/young adult Breadwinner quartet (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, My Name is Parvana) – Ellis has raised over a million dollars in book royalties for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International. In Kids of Kabul, Ellis introduces 27 girls and boys, ages 11 to 17. All have survived horrors, yet their resilience is remarkable: “At school I have learned that there are better ways to do things than all this war, war, war all the time. It’s the younger generation that will change that. My generation. Me,” says Mustala, 13. Testimony from Sigrullah, 14, attests to the saving power of books: “I am happiest when I am in this library. All of our problems can be solved with these books.”

Published“The Refugee Experience for Middle Grade and YA Readers,” The Booklist Reader, April 13, 2017



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