If you aren’t sure how to talk to your kids about the current refugee crisis, start with a book. The titles on this list of picture books about refugees are set in a variety of historical periods, as well as the present day. In addition to teaching kids to have compassion for refugees, I think it’s also important to look at how refugees have played a part in the making of countries throughout history. Because picture books are a great way to introduce advanced readers to tough topics, be sure to read these books aloud to your older kids, too.
I’ve included books set in refugee camps, some that take place during the journey from one place to another, as well as books which focus children’s experiences in a new, unfamiliar place. We must remind our children that hardships do not cease just because the physical journey has ended. My hope is that these books help you open an honest dialogue with your children about the plight and experiences of refugee children and families around the world. Teach your kids to be the change.
MORE: See an index of all our book lists for kids here.
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Four Feet, Two Sandals. Two girls in a Pakistan refugee camp each find one shoe. Lina and Feroza meet and decide to share the sandals. A friendship develops and they share details about why they have come to the camp. The text contains descriptions about life in the camp, such as waiting in long lines for water, washing clothes in the river and waiting at home while boys go to school. This is an important book that humanizes the experiences of children in refugee camps.
How I Learned Geography. This award winning book is based on Shulevitz’s own experience as a refugee from Warsaw. In the story, a family escapes war, fleeing to Turkestan where they live in “houses made of clay, straw and camel dung…” One day father brings home a map instead of food for his hungry family. At first the young boy resents the map, but the father helps his son use the map to travel around the world in his imagination. Shulevitz gives more information about his personal experiences as a refugee in an endnote.
Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story. This is an amazing, true story. The narrator is a boy whose father is the Japanese ambassador in Lithuania during World War II. One day, hundreds of Jewish refugees start showing up at the embassy asking for visas to Japan so they can escape the Nazis. They hope to get to Japan so they could move on to another country safely. Three times, the boy’s father asks permission from Japan to issue the visas, and 3 times the answer is, “No.” However, the father decides to do the right thing. This book is so different from many on the list because it is told from the perspective of those who were faced with a choice to help the refugees. I particularly like how the boy’s father includes him in the events, at one point saying, “My father always took the time to explain everything to me.” The afterward by the author, describing what happened in later years, is just as fascinating as the story.
Journey Home. Mai narrates this story of going to Vietnam with her mother, who was an orphan refugee from Vietnam. Her mother is searching for her birth parents with only a photograph as a clue. Mai describes how it must feel to not know what your origins are, and how scary it would feel to be on a journey and not know the destination. While this refugee story is told from a third person/second generation’s point of view, it is an important one. After all, being a refugee means that lives will be affected for generations, and certainly many of our children’s friends are the daughters and sons of refugees themselves.
Colour of Home. Hassan and his family have just arrived in the United States from Somalia, fleeing the war. First grader Hassan misses his home in Africa. He is homesick, he struggles with the English language and he misses the colorful landscape. His art teacher helps him find expression for his complicated emotions through painting. Painting his story brings back Hassan’s feelings about the war and he is able to relate his refugee experience through a translator. I think this is a great book to help kids feel empathy and understand the variety of experiences that kids their own age may be going through.
Brothers in Hope. There is some really tough subject matter in this book. After 8 year old Garang comes home to find his village in Sudan destroyed by soldiers, he joins other orphan boys on a 1000 mile walk to safety. They travel through Ethiopia and Kenya, enduring hardship (to say the least) on the way. Not all of the boys survive the journey. Even the refugee camp where they stay has its own dangers. They boys are eventually accepted as refugees in the United States, but an afterword explains that refugee struggles do not end in their new home country.
Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom. A traditional Hmong story cloth tells the author’s story of how her family got through war in Laos in the mid 20th century. Her father was killed in the war and she and her mother travelled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived for four years before emigrating to the United States. The quilt depicted in the book is gorgeous and parents and educators can connect it to the tradition of telling family history through quilting in America. Pair this book with Patricia Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt.
How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story. The police show up at a family’s house, forcing them to flee their (unnamed) Caribbean country. They set off in a boat to reach America, and land on Thanksgiving Day. During the journey, they endure hunger, thirst and have their belongings stolen. While this has become a classic text for classroom discussion about American’s history of immigration, its message will inspire conversations any time of the year, not just during the third week of November.
Playing War. On a hot, suburban summer afternoon a group of kids decide to play war. They explain to newcomer, Sameer, that it involves teaming up as enemies and soldiers. As the group collect pine cones to use as grenades, some of them express a longing to fight in a real war. When Sameer explains that he doesn’t want to, and he’s been in a war, the others become silent and listen to his story. His parents and siblings were killed at home during the war in his country. After listening, the kids decide “It’s too hot for war,” and play basketball instead. This book relates a very important message, and is well worth the read. While children in 1st world countries may “play war”, they rarely understand exactly what that means.
The Blessing Cup. Like most of Polacco’s books, this is looooong, but set aside some time because it is worth it. In the 19th century, Anna’s family is one of thousands of Jewish families forced to flee Russia. They take few belongings, but among them is a special tea set associated with the family tradition that anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God. Before they get out of Russia, Papa falls ill and a doctor harbors the family while Papa recovers. However, when the doctor comes under suspicion for housing Jews the family prepares to leave. A great act of kindness by the doctor allows the family to finally reach America. What I love about this book is that, as in Passage to Freedom (see above), it is the kindness and compassion of others which allow families to escape to safety. That’s a crucial lesson to teach our kids, that it is imperative we help others in need. The historical aspect of this story is also an excellent reminder how nations are rooted in a long tradition of immigration and as places of refuge.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings. This is a brand new book about a boy who arrives in New York after living through Kristallnacht. It is the 7th night of Hanukkah as well as Christmas Eve and he must walk 100 blocks to find his aunt. Along the way he encounters people who show him kindness, sees the holiday sights of the city and passes landmarks which inspire him to reflect on his circumstances. The illustrations are beautiful and an endnote from the author explains his own experience coming to understand his identity as an American Jew. There is also a map of Oskar’s walk up the length of Manhattan.
My Name Is Sangoel. This book focuses on the challenge of refugee children maintaining a sense of self in their new cultural home. A refugee from Sudan, Sangeol feels out of place in the United States. Everything is strange and he feels awkward that no one can pronounce his name correctly. He comes up with a creative solution that allows him to feel more at home with the other children at school. The connection between one’s name and one’s identity is a prevalent theme in children’s literature. Kid World Citizen has an excellent book list of picture books about names and their connection to immigrant identity.
BONUS BOOK: A comment below reminded me that we’d also read My Two Blankets, so here’s a quick review, because it’s a great book.
My Two Blankets was just published. It follows a young African girl who travels as a war refugee to a new, strange country. She brings along a blanket that helps her feel safe. One day she encounters a girl in the park. The two become tentative friends even though they don’t share a language. When the girl starts to teach her new words she starts to create a new blanket from the new words. Lovely.
UPDATED TO ADD MORE BOOKS:
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, translated by Falah Raheem, illustrated by Nizar Badr. This bilingual English-Arabic picture book tells the story of a family forced to leave their war-torn home and walk the path to Europe in hopes of finding peace and stability. The illustrations are absolutely fascinating tableaux composed of stones created by Raheem, an artist who has spent his entire life in a small corner in Syria.
The Journey by Francecsa Sanna. I really like the illustrations in this picture book about a family that flees their home after it is destroyed and the father disappears. They travel in many different modes: car, boat, on foot, etc. Yes, it is an intense book, but I think most children 5 and up can handle it, especially if they are aware of the refugee crisis. It is an excellent book for building compassion for others in quite different situations than our own. The ending is uncertain, but not without hope — a great teaching moment for your own kids.
The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond. If your kids are fans of Curious George, this book is an excellent way to help them understand the how the experience of refugees in wartime has affected them personally. After all, there would be no Curious George! This hefty picture book puts together primary sources: Hans’s diary, documents, photographs to tell the story of how the famous duo fled wartime France on bicycle, in 1940.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan. A magnificent wordless graphic novel about an immigrant leaving his home and arriving at his new home. The reader feels the strangeness of the immigrant coming making a journey and coming to a new land full of confusing and fantastical experiences. The immigrant meets others, learns of their experiences and expands his worldview. Truly marvelous. Ages 12 and up.
Final note: while picture books about refugees, and picture book biographies like the ones I’ve listed here are an excellent place to start a conversation with your kids about the refugee crisis, your library also has many excellent non-fiction books. I encourage you to seek those books out, share them with your kids and then plan a local service project so your kids can get involved with helping others who are forced to flee their homes.
A few resources to get you started:
- HIAS: A Refugee Protection Organization
- International Refugee Organization
- Global Citizen: How to Help Syrian Refugees
- UN Refugee Agency
Related book lists:
- Books to inspire kids to change the world
- Books to inspire kids to follow their dreams
- Books to help kids combat racism
- Books about civil rights
- Books to teach kids empathy
- Picture books about peace
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