“Give me your tired, your poor”: 11 Immigration Books Reviewed by Teens

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Emma Lazarus crafted the words engraved on the pedestal tablet upon which the Statue of Liberty stands to, at one point in America’s past, light the way for immigrants. With “silent lips,” she utters, “Give me your tired, your poor,/ your huddled masses/ yearning to breathe free/…send these, the homeless,/ tempest-lost to me.”

The “me” is America, right? My grandfather thought so as he made his way through the inspection station at Ellis Island, the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to America from 1892 to 1954. And the “tempest”? The violent windy storm of civil war, famine, dictatorships, discrimination, poverty, and catastrophe. In the Lazarus poem, the implied “we” seems to be not only asking for but essentially declaring that we/America will take those “yearning to breathe free,” that we will give them that for which they yearn. It is a poem, however, not a legal document.

Of course, other “poems” in the form of  “acts” gradually began to restrict the implied all. If you were sick after escaping the famine or too tired after surviving a bomb and crossing the ocean, you were rejected or detained in the island hospital. If the quota for your national origin was met, then even though you survived life-threatening discrimination of freedom, you were sent back to oppression. Still, many people came to America with nothing but hope in their pockets.

Since 1886, there has been a tall lady with a torch lighting the way to our shores and since 1890 an immigration station on Ellis Island to process the “tired,” “poor,” “homeless,” and “tempest-lost.” While many were turned away, some of us — here today — can trace our ancestry to the immigrants who came through that gateway. We are here because our people made the journey in spite of the risks, passed the inspection (or cheated it), and fit the profile of whatever quota was in place.

The immigration process was never easy, never perfect. The poem was an imagined ideal. Lazarus was imagining how our world ought to be while the laws that followed tempered hope with discrimination and eugenics. And before and during the poems and acts and processes, many human beings were brought here against their will–enslaved, exploited, dehumanized. There is no liberty there. And there was no liberty for the Native peoples who were killed for their land as cities extended into the plains to accommodate population shifts and development dreams.

It is worth reminding ourselves and our students of the dark side of immigration,  of the work to be done as we imagine an America.

A new version of America is emerging with executive orders that have, in the past, caused waves of immigration; our students (under 18) did not have a say in imagining this America. Travel bans have started. More “acts” restricting and rejecting human beings hoping for a reprieve from their trauma are coming. This story is all over the news — with real and alternate facts — but “the story” is about one man rather than the essentially dehumanized friends, family, and future America. The news is imagining an America that I don’t want us to be.

Facts can inform. Facts can show us a version of what’s happening in the world,  but they fall short of helping us understand the social forces that shape the lives of people across the globe — lives that are increasingly interdependent. We cannot afford to think “America first” or “America only.”  What happens “there,” impacts “here.” What happens “here,” impacts “there.” Our students are growing into this America, and they need help understanding the ethical implications of this increasing interdependence.

Enter books.

Immigration stories can help our students understand the social forces that push people from all they know. Reading immigration stories helps our students understand that getting here is nothing short of a miracle for so many and being here does not necessarily mean a life of rest, riches, shelter, equality, and freedom.

A written, published story asks us to bear witness to an account of life that both resembles our own and pulls us into imagining lives beyond our existence and imagination. At minimum, readers’ feelings will be tugged toward compassion; at best, they will recognize injustices, imagine how the world ought to be, and one day use their lives to move closer to that “ought.”

11 immigration stories

For several years, my junior high students have been reading stories of immigration. I have assembled here a collection of eleven immigration books and included students’ readings of those books. Typically, the blogger offers the summary or synopsis. I read a book a day (#bookaday) in search of that just-right book for specific students. Sometimes I make a good match, but sometimes I can’t because I am just not a teenager. What I imagine a book to be doing is not always what a teenager experiences. Thus, for this blog, I offer student voices to make visible the sort of thinking teens are doing about immigration and the social forces that impact lives around the globe.

These discussions, written by seventh and eighth graders, give you a glimpse of what your students will experience when they read these stories imagining an America. (To preserve their voices, I have not altered the students’ writing.)

Stories of Immigration as Discussed by 7th and 8th Graders

28763485The Sun is Also a Star  by Nicola Yoon

Daniel and Natasha just met today, and they are falling in love, but Natasha tries to hide her feelings because she’s getting deported back to Jamaica tonight, but she doesn’t tell Daniel. They went to a coffee place and then Natasha walked Daniel to where his Yale interview is.  Natasha has to tell Daniel that she’s getting deported, and then Daniel could help her be able to stay in America. Here is my reasoning for making that claim: Natasha is catching feelings for Daniel, and she can’t just walk away from him forever. Here is my text evidence to prove my reasoning is sound: “I close my open palm, which wants to hold his hand, and I walk on” (103). This book is making me feel like I can’t put the book down once I start reading because its so interesting and you never know whats going to happen next, but you need to know right away.

8537327 Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai  (book group discussions below)

7362158Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

The story explores one immigration experience; it talks about language and culture because the character in my book struggles with the language barrier in America, it also explains a little bit about her culture. For example in the text where Kim goes to an American school for the first time she struggles to communicate with her teacher. In the text it says, (Teacher) “Can’t you speak English? They said you did.” This came out as a grumbled whine. Who was he talking about? He took a breath. “Why are you late?” This I understood. “I sorry, sir, we not find school.” (25)  This  shows the language barrier because she is having a hard time communicating with her teacher. I will now give a brief summary of the book. This book is about a girl named Kim Chang and her mother. They are coming to America for the first time from Hong Kong. They are doing this for a better life for their family. They are very poor and don’t own much, this makes things very hard for them.

659871Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea

The genre is realistic fiction because the story is something that can happen in real life. I’ve read page 142-220 (the end) this week, and here is a little bit about what happened. Mai has mixed feelings about her grandma. She wants  to ask her grandma why she didn’t want to come to America at the same time as her cousins and why did she keep it away from her so long. Mai doesn’t ask this question to her grandma even though she really wants to. For the first time though, Mai’s grandma raised a hand at Mai. Mai was surprised of this and i think it supported not liking her grandma more than liking her. Mai is tired of helping her grandma with every little thing like translating, going to all the appointments with her, and just helping her in general. Even though she knows that her grandma does need her help. Later on, Mai gets a letter from her best friend from the refugee camp, Pa Nhia. The letter states that Pa Nhia is married and that she is pregnant and works a lot. Mai’s grandma says that what Pa Nhia’s going through is better than America and this also ticks Mai off.

5981 Journey of the Sparrows  by Fran Leeper Buss

The genre is realistic fiction. I’ve read read pages 52 to 104 this week, and here is a little bit about what’s going on the white haired man tried to physically hurt Maria, but from the help of the other women in the factory maria ran away. Tomas found a church where they gave food so maria , Oscar & Tomas went to the church frequently. They met a women in the church, they called her ” the quetzal lady”. After what had happened with the white haired man , maria had to stop working in the factory. The quetzal lady gave Maria and Oscar something, which they enjoyed. After awhile maria went back to work with Alicia, Julia gave bad news to maria , which made her even more worried. one day while Alicia and maria worked the immigration came & took many women including Alicia , but luckily maria got saved. Maria was caught stealing at a church by father Jonathan. father Jonathan helped maria by giving her food and aspirin. mama send Teresa to the north with maria, Oscar and Julia hoping she would get there safe and sound. Tomas and maria kept telling each other about themselves. Julia’s water broke so they went dona Elena’s house to deliver the baby , but were scared that things wouldn’t come out right. This is a story of escaping the danger in El Salvador through Mexico and then crossing the border into the United States. Not everyone in Maria’s family made it.

5970496 Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

The title of the book I am reading is Into the Beautiful North. The author is Luis Alberto Urrea. The genre is fiction because its not on real events. I’ve read pages 1-50 this week, and here is a little bit about what’s going on.  So what’s going on is that there’s this 19 year old woman named Nayeli and she has there main friends named Tacho, Yolo, and Vampi and she has an aunt named Irma and a woman named La Osa . What the conflict is is that they live in a town names Los Tres Camarones and it’s in Mexico, Sinalo. And what’s happening is that in the beginning that town was being ruined by drug dealers and men. And now that many people have discovered a place called “America” and there all going there so many men are leaving the town and many of them are leaving to find work in American. Nayeli wants to go to America, too, but not to stay — to bring the men back home.153281

Of Beetles and Angels by Selamawi Asgedom

The genre is a memoir. I’ve read pages 17 to 44 this week, and here is a little bit about what is going on Selamawi’s family is about to leave Sudan and a few days before they are about to leave Selamawi’s half sister Mulu comes but she doesn’t have the papers to leave with Selamawi and his parents. They try to get her pass the security guard but the guard says  that she can’t come because she doesn’t have the papers. Selamawi’s father Haileab tells the guard ” WOULD YOU LEAVE YOUR DAUGHTER HERE IF YOU WERE  GOING TO A DIFFERENT STATE?!”. The guards says “There’s nothing I can do”. This is really the story of resettling in Wheaton, Illinois as a family. Every family member has a story of figuring out how to live.

463780 A Step From Heaven by An Na

The main character of this book is a girl named Young Ju that lives in Korea with her family. Young Ju finds they are moving to Mi Gook (America) through her friend Ju Mi. She then goes and asks her Mom if that’s true, and her Mom tells her that it is. Young Ju thinks that Mi Gook is Heaven, and she is excited because she thinks she is going to see Harabugi, but Harabugi is in a Heaven not America. She then realizes that she is not in Heaven. Later in the book there is conflict between the Mom and Dad. The most interesting part that stood out to me was when Young Ju’s Dad told her that she couldn’t be president because she was a girl. It stood out to me because it broke her heart and she started to think that her Dad likes her little brother and not her. At one point, the author writes, ” I reach down and pull a bow off my shoe. I am not a baby anymore” (40). What I think about all this is that, that made Young Ju feel like she needs to change and act differently. I think that what her Dad told her wasn’t right because then Young Ju will think something else, that she needs to change. But if she does then she’s not herself, she’s not the real Young Ju.

444414Uprising by Margret Peterson Haddix

The genre is historical fiction. I’ve read pages 0-103 this week, and here is a little bit about what is going on: The story is being told through the point of view of three girls. Bella, the first point of view, has immigrated from Italy to the United States, and is being guided by his cousin Pietro. She lives with the Luciano’s who make flowers, but she is warned by Pietro that they are dishonest. At the factory Bella works at the workers are going on strike because they feel they are not being payed or treated fairly, but Bella does not going on. Yetta, the second point of view, also works at the factory and she has had it with the working conditions, so she is a leader of  the union, along with her sister. Jane, who is the third point of view the story is being told from, is a wealthy girl who wants to attend college, but her father is against women’s rights. She drives by the factory and sees the women on strike and standing up for themselves, and she is intrigued.

13262761 Outcasts United by Warren St. John

The genre is biography. I’ve read pages 69 to 127 this week , and here is a little bit about what is going on . The Fugees have gotten more and more intense . Luma has made practices more harder . They have to run for 35 minutes straight. The rules that she made are really straightforward and strict . The Fugees already lost to Phoenix from 7-2 . The players started coming to practice late and disobeying the rules . Luma decided to cut off the next season . She kept her focus on the Under Thirteens but the Under Fifteens fought for what they loved , their team and soccer .

31118Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat

The genre is fiction because it’s first persons point of view of coming to America. I’ve read pages 1-50 this week, and here is a little bit about what is going on, Cealine, lives in Haiti, with her mom named “Manman”. Cealine also has a brother called “Moy”. Cealine goes to school with her friends and likes her classroom. Cealine’s teachers name is Madame Auguste.  The thinking question I want to talk about is what are some new pieces of information that you learned from your reading. My response to this is that I didn’t know that there was a bombing going on and that Cealines mother were nearly killed. At one point, the narrator says “bombs are going off in the capital city of Port-au-Prince (38), and this shows that people were getting killed and some survived. What I think about all this is that people could have lost a leg because a “pipe bomb” was set off and killed lots of people.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Jamaica)

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (verse, Saigon)

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urea (Mexico)

La Linea by Ann Jaramillo (Mexico)






Shadow of the Dragon by Sharon Garland (Vietnam) 320
Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea 240
Song of the Buffalo Boy by Sherry Garland- Vietnam 288
A Step from Heaven  by An Na Korea 160
Nothing but the Truth and a Few White Lies  by Justina Chen 256
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (China) 290
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai   (Vietnam) 272
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (Ireland) 432
Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Italy) 346
Of Beetles and Angels by Mawi Asgedom (east Africa) 176
Outcasts United  by Warren St. John  (many) 240
Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss (El Salvador) 160
Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) 192
Lupita Manana by Patricia Beatty (Mexico)


2 Replies to ““Give me your tired, your poor”: 11 Immigration Books Reviewed by Teens”

  1. Such a cool list! I’m at a Spanish immersion school, so we teach an immigration book a year– immigration is an obvious social justice issue to hit on in a Spanish-speaking school. We teach CROSSING THE WIRE by Will Hobbs to seventh graders, LA LINEA by Ann Jaramillo to eighth graders, and ENRIQUE’S JOURNEY (YOUNG ADULT EDITION) to ninth graders. I would say the books ascend in order with regards to reading level, density, length, and harshness of realities. I think ENRIQUE’S JOURNEY might be a lot rougher for a kid completely unfamiliar with the Mexican border experience. For the advanced students, though, it really leaves some space for wondering.

    1. I started Enrique’s Journey last summer but did not stick with it — in part because I didn’t think my students would. I will give it another try. Another high school level one that has a unique take on crossing the boarder is Luis Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. In this one, Nayeli and her friends cross the boarder in order to bring the men of their village home.

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