Kids receive messages about refugees from a wide range of sources. News reports may highlight the tragedies that cause citizens to flee. Other stories may emphasize the tireless help of humanitarian aid workers. People on the social media may spout xenophobic attitudes. These middle grade books about refugees tell the stories of the refugees themselves, giving voice to the millions of children caught in crises.
Covering a wide range of historical time periods and countries, this list of refugee books is aimed at readers ages 8-13. I've included a few picture books that are excellent read alouds for the classroom, or at home, as well as novels and a handful of nonfiction titles that answer general questions about refugees and immigrants.
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You can find this list combined with my list of picture books about refugees at Bookshop here.
Table of contents
Would you like a printable version of this book list about refugees? You can find one at the bottom of the post.
Picture Books to Read Aloud
For more read aloud picture books about refugees (also suitable for this age group, as well as younger children) visit: Children's Picture Books about Refugees
A STORY LIKE THE WIND by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Jo Weaver
A Story Like the Wind is more of a very short novella, but the illustrations are everything! Lewis's tale of refugees is gorgeously illustrated by Jo Weaver. Rami and a group of refugees are in a bleak situation. They have no oars or motor and the tide is menacingly rising. But Rami has a violin and he begins to play and tell a story that offers hope. An astounding book that will give you and your children plenty to appreciate and talk about. Ages 7 and up.
ESCAPE: ONE DAY WE HAD TO RUN by Wah Chen & Ming Chen, illustrated by Carmen Vela
Escape is a collection of true refugee stories from around the world. Each double page spread is titled with a single word, like SWIM or FLEE. The stories span the globe and cover centuries, from Harriet Tubman, to Joachim Neumann, who tunneled under the Berlin wall, to Russom Keflezigh, who fled Eritrea and went on to win the NYC marathon. A good way to experience this book would be to read aloud one story a day and then discuss it with your children, looking at maps and learning about the countries and conflicts. Ages 9 and up.
DIA'S STORY CLOTH: THE HMONG PEOPLE'S JOURNEY OF FREEDOM by Dia Cha, illustrated by Chue and Nhia Thao Cha
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. Ages 8 and up.
BROTHERS IN HOPE by Mary Williams, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
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 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. Ages 10 and up.
Graphic Novels about Refugees
The majority of graphic novels about refugees, like the superb The Unwanteds by Don Brown, are for a young adult audience. However, here are a few excellent middle grade options I found.
WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERED by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
I could not put down this graphic novel memoir. Jamieson and Mohamed tell the story of Mohamed's experience as a refugee living in a camp in Kenya. Readers will learn of the difficult life in a refugee camp but relate to the hopes of Omar and Hassan. Omar faces tough choices that could affect his future as well as his family and although the experiences of Omar and Hassan are likely to never be known by most readers of this book, readers will not soon forget them. Ages 9 and up.
ZENOBIA by Morten Dürr, illustrated by Lars Horneman
In this short graphic novel and with very few words, Dürr and Horneman tell the story of Amina, a Syrian girl who flees the violence in Syria. The book opens with Amina on a boat filled with refugees. Amina falls overboard and as she is enveloped in water, we learn her story through her memories. When Amina's parents din't return home, her uncle told her to leave and gave her money for the journey. Amina also thinks of her parents, playing and cooking with her mother, and the story of Zenobia, a strong Syrian Queen who defeated the Romans. Ages 9 and up.
THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan
Tan's wordless, surrealist science fiction storytelling and utterly gorgeous illustrations depict one man's journey to a new land, where everything is new and strange. Alien language dons the signs, signaling to the reader the man's encounter with a foreign tongue. Unusual mechanics, like floating elevators communicate to us the way immigrants feel out of place in a new culture. But amidst the discombobulation is hope, caring actions from others and new friends. Ages 8 and up.
Middle Grade Novels about the Refugee Experience
These novels tell diverse refugee stories. Some of the authors based their stories on their own experiences fleeing their homelands and what it's like building a life in a new country with a new language and strange culture.
LETTERS FROM CUBA by Ruth Behar
I could not stop turning the pages of this excellent epistolary novel. In 1938, Esther leaves her mother and brother in Poland and joins her father in Cuba. Esther tells her story in a series of letters to her sister. Making the journey by herself, as a Jewish refugee, Esther looks forward to her new home. Once in Cuba, she falls in love with the island and her neighbors. Her father has been working as a peddler, but Esther is a talented seamstress and finds success selling sought after dresses so that she and her father are finally able to send for the rest of the family. Behar based the book on the story of her grandmother and introduces readers to an incredibly diverse population. Ages 9 and up.
BOY, EVERYWHERE by A. M. Dassu
After Sami's mother and sister are injured in an explosion at the mall, his family decides to flee Syria and travel to England. The journey is difficult and dangerous and once they reach England, his father requests asylum at the border. The family is then separated and detained by the authorities while they work to present their case. Moving, eye-opening and hopeful. Ages 10 and up.
OTHER WORDS FOR HOME by Jasmine Warga
This free-verse novel begins in Syria around the start of the Arab Spring. Jude and her pregnant mother decide to emigrate to live with her uncle in America. Her older brother, caught up in the protests against the government, stays behind with their father. In America, Jude meets new friends and discovers an interest in theater. With unflinching honesty and a keen perception, Jude describes the transition from Syria to her experiences adjusting to living in America. A splendid book.
NOWHERE BOY by Katherine Marsh
13-year-old Max, an American boy whose family has come to live for a year in Brussels, is resentful that he has to repeat a grade and go to a French-speaking school. Ahmed, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee was separated from his father on the water crossing to Greece. He is able to make his way to Belgium and hides out in Max's basement. When Max discovers him, the two become friends and hatch a plan to help Ahmed get out into the world again. A timely, sensitive book about friendship, family and taking charge of one's life. Ages 10 and up.
THE NIGHT DIARY by Veera Hiranandani
I could not put this book down! Nisha and her twin brother are half-Muslim, half-Hindu siblings living with their father in India just before the time of Partition. When word comes that their town is to become part of the new Pakistan state, Nisha, her brother, her Hindu father and grandmother must make the harrowing and dangerous journey to the Indian border. Each chapter is an entry in Nisha's diary as she leaves her comfortable life behind and struggles with her own questions of identity. Highly recommended! Ages 9 and up.
REFUGEE by Alan Gratz
This moving book tells three stories. Josef is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany; Isabel and her family are attempting to escape Castro's Cuba in 1994; and in 2015 Mahmoud's family runs from war-torn Syria. The alternating narration draws parallels between all three journeys with an ending that brings the three stories together. Ages 10 and up.
A LONG WALK TO WATER by Linda Sue Park
In war-torn Sudan, 11-year-old Salva Dut is separated from his family and joins a group of refugees who are walking across the unforgiving and treacherous landscape in an attempt to reach safety. The journey takes years and along the way he encounters wild animals, militia, endures hunger, thirst and loneliness. In a parallel story, 11-year-old, Nya, a Sudanese girl, makes a two hour trip every day to fetch water. Utterly compelling. You won't put it down until you've reached the last page. Ages 10 and up.
THE RED PENCIL by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Written in verse, The Red Pencil contains some tough subject matter, but it is a marvelous book. 12-year-old Amira lives in the Darfur region of Sudan on her family's farm. It is 2003, just as war is breaking out in the area. She loves her family and dreams of going to school. When the Janjaweed arrive in her village, the survivors make the long walk to the refugee camp, where conditions are hard. Amira receives the gift of a red pencil and yellow notepad which becomes a catalyst of sorts, both for her spirit and for her mind. The most difficult scene in the book is when the Janjaweed terrorize the village and Amira sees the death of her father. The ending of the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered but curious and thoughtful children will want to learn more. Ages 10 and up.
THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS by Onjali Q. Raúf
Alexa's class has a new student. Ahmed has arrived in Britain from Syria. He doesn't know the language or understand all the customs. Alexa wonders about Ahmed and decides to befriend him. She and the other students gradually get to know him and his story. When they hear the country may close the borders to refugees, they decide to take action. The novel emphasizes children's capacity for compassion, kindness and their innate desire to help others. Ages 8 and up.
SANTIAGO'S ROAD HOME by Alexandra Diaz
After 12-year-old Santiago runs from his abusive home, he meets the kind María Dolores and her daughter, Alegría. They are on their way to El Norte, where they have family, and Santiago joins them on the treacherous journey. Once over the border, they come close to death in the desert and are found by immigration officers who take them to detention centers. In the center, Santiago learns the awful truth of how immigrants are treated and despairs that he will never leave. It is the kindness of María Dolores's family that saves him. A totally engrossing and important story. Ages 9 and up.
FLYING OVER WATER by N. H. Senzai and Shannon Hitchcock
Flying Over Water alternates between the perspectives of two 12-year-old girls. Noura Alwan is a refugee from Syria whose family arrives in Florida just as the aniti-Muslim travel ban is going into effect. Jordyn Johnson, is a white, upper class student who is a champion swimmer and who has volunteered to be Noura's school ambassador. The two girls become friends, learning from each other. Noura and her twin brother must cope with the anti-Muslim attitudes of both other students and older Floridians. Jordyn is dealing with anxiety of her own. This is an incredibly moving and page-turning novel about how children deal with adversity. Ages 8 and up.
BROTHER'S KEEPER by Julie Lee
I could not put this book down. In 1950, as the border between North and South Korea is closing, 12-year-old Sora Pak and her family join the mass exodus out of the north. In the chaos, Sora and her younger brother are separated from the rest of the family. Sora is determined to continue on and make it down to a meeting location in the south, where she knows her family is headed. The journey is harrowing, her brother becomes sick, hunger is a constant and winter sets in. Lee based her impressive novel on the experiences of her mother. Ages 8 and up.
VILLAGE OF SCOUNDRELS by Margi Preus
I never met a book by Margi Preus that I didn't love. Set in a small mountain village in Vichy France, Preus based her story on the real-life heroic villagers of Le Chambon sur Lignon, who hid Jewish refugees during WWII. Preus crafts an intriguing cast of well-developed characters and follows the stories of each as they work tirelessly to resist the regime. One of the most interesting characters is the French policeman, Perdant, who is constantly questioned by a 10-year-old about the morality of what he does. A superb book. Ages 10 and up.
INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhhà Lai
This is the story of Hà, a 9 year old girl living in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Hà, her mother and three brothers escape the city on a ship as it falls to the communists. Rescued by the American navy, they eventually find their way to Alabama through the help of a sponsor. This story is suspenseful, touching and even quite funny in parts. Kids everywhere will relate to Hà's description of learning English and its spelling and grammar rules! It is a story of fitting in, the importance of family, and hope even in sorrow. I loved it. Ages 8 and up.
THE DAY OF THE PELICAN by Katherine Paterson
In the 1990s, the war in Kosovo upends the life of 12 year old Meli Llesh and her family, who are ethnic Albanians. The war comes literally to their front door and the Llesh family flee the Serbian forces, walking all the way to a NATO refugee camp in Macedonia. At the camp, the family awaits news that they will be permitted to immigrate to America. This is a fantastic book, and will provide insight into events in recent history. Just to note: there are a lot of references to ethnic violence, and some references to violence against women. Ages 10 and up.
SHOOTING KABUL by N. H. Senza
After Fadi's father is pressured by the Taliban, the family claims asylum and moves to San Francisco. Horrifyingly, on the way over the border to Pakistan, Fadi's six year old sister is lost in the chaos. Fadi feels responsible and enters a photography contest in the hopes of winning a trip to India, where he thinks he can cross into Pakistan to search for her. A few months after moving, September 11 happens and Fadi feels the changes in the dynamic of the community and his school. Although Fadi doesn't win the contest, his photography efforts lead to a reunion with his lost sister. Ages 9 and up.
Nonfiction Books about Refugees
These nonfiction books about refugees will give kids a wide range of facts about the history of human migration, the history of immigration, as well as point for discussion about contemporary issues surrounding refugees.
IMMIGRATION, REFUGEES AND THE FIGHT FOR A BETTER LIFE by Elliot Smith
If you are looking for a general nonfiction introduction about refugees and the immigration experience, this title is a good place to start. Published recently, it covers historical and contemporary events and is in an easy to digest format, with photographs, illustrations and text boxes with asides. Ages 8 and up.
FINDING HOME: THE JOURNEY OF IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES by Jen Sookfong Lee, illustrated by Drew Shannon
This is a useful book with chapters on the history of migration, including colonialism and its impact. In addition, the author includes first hand stories, an overview of government policies and public views about immigration, as well as the experiences of immigrants once they've settled in their new home. Ages 9 and up.
WE HAD TO BE BRAVE by Deborah Hopkinson
Hopkinson's expertly crafted book about the Kindertransport combines first person narratives, historical details and commentary to present readers with a much-needed history of the children who escaped Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport, an organized rescue operation that helped Jewish children reach safety in Great Britain. Extensive end notes include a timeline of events, glossary, and further resources. Hopkinson's companion book, We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance is also a must read. Ages 10 and up.