When the news is flooded with stories about refugees and war, and you need help talking to your kids about the crisis, turn to a book.
Think of these children's books about refugees as tools to teach children compassion, as well as answer questions like "What is a refugee?" "Why must they leave their homes?," or "Where do they go?" These refugee stories will also encourage children to look for ways to help others in need.
You may be concerned about exposing your children to the traumatic experiences of others, but consider the millions of children all over the world who are living through the chaos of being uprooted from their homes. Their lives deserve to be heard and equally represented.
Importantly, reading about refugees will teach children how they 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.
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Children's Books about Refugee Stories
Would you like a printable list to take with you to the library? You can get one at the bottom of the post.
TOGETHER WE GROW by Susan Vaught, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Together We Grow is an excellent choice for preschoolers. Vaught and Murphy's picture book reminds us that offering comfort to others is an important part of living in a community. During a storm, a fox family seeks shelter in a barn but the farm animals, fearful of their natural enemy, reject the pleas and turn the strangers away. However, a small duckling–perhaps the most vulnerable one of all–recognizes the needs of the fox family. Not only does the resolution offer comfort to both reader and fox, but it delivers the important message of inclusion and empathy for refugees. Ages 3 and up.
MIGRANTS by Issa Wantabe
This gorgeous, wordless picture book tells the story of a difficult journey undertaken by a group of diverse migrants. They travel with only a few belongings, are followed by the personification of death, face the hardship of weather, the fatigue of exertion, and the cruelty of rough seas. Sadly, not all the refugees make it to the destination, a place where flowers bloom on the trees. A wordless book is a great tool for starting conversations with children. Ages 6 and up.
MUSTAFA by Marie-Louise Gay
In late summer, Mustafa and his family come as refugees to their new home in Canada. Mustafa goes out to the park, where he observes his environment and people. He takes note of a girl walking a cat, but he is too timid to approach anyone. Everything feels very unfamiliar to Mustafa and he feels invisible. As summer turns into fall, he starts to open up and he and the girl with a cat introduce themselves to each other. This is a really important, thoughtful and touching book about the refugee experience of children after they have reached a new home. Ages 4 and up.
FOUR FEET TWO SANDALS by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Khadra Mohammed
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. Ages 6 and up.
PASSAGE TO FREEDOM: THE SUGIHARA STORY by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee
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. I particularly like how the boy's father includes him in the events, saying, "My father always took the time to explain everything to me." The afterword by the author, describing what happened in later years, is fascinating. Ages 7 and up.
SUGAR IN MILK by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le
This is a wonderful book to teach compassion and the value of diversity. A young girl is an immigrant in an unnamed country. She is homesick and feels out of place in her unfamiliar surroundings. She goes for a walk with her aunt, who tells her a folktale about refugees. The refugees came to a new land but the king refused to allow them to settle, pointing to a glass of milk as a metaphor for a land that was full. The refugees, however, placed sugar in the milk, communicating that adding something new will make the milk sweeter. I have always loved folktales and I was so delighted to find this picture book which demonstrates how important folktales are in passing down wisdom that still resonates with contemporary events. Ages 5 and up.
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 a necessary one. 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. Ages 6 and up.
HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY by Uri Shulevitz
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. Ages 5 and up.
LUBNA AND PEBBLE by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Lubna and her father are refugees. They arrive at the "World of Tents" to live temporarily. Lubna has no toys so she picks up a pebble, gives it a face and turns it into her friend. This book is surprisingly emotional, highlighting Lubna's creativity and resiliency. In the midst of an unstable situation, Pebble provides comfort. When Lubna meets Amir, a boy refugee on his own, the two become friends and play with Pebble. When Lubna and her father then get word they will travel to a new country, Lubna finds courage and gives Pebble to Amir. Ages 5 and up.
MARWAN'S JOURNEY by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borràs
Marwan walks across the desert with a group of people, leaving his homeland behind. He describes, in simple but poetic language, the uncertainty of the journey, the items he carries (including a "photograph of my mommy"). He describes love for his former home, his memories of his mother and father, and the "darkness" that came to "swallow up everything." He also expresses a desire to eventually return. A sensitively told story in poetic, flowing text. Ages 6 and up.
THE DAY WAR CAME by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
This moving story starts with children attending school on an ordinary day. Their daily lives are interrupted with the chaos of the sudden attacks of war. Davies' prose is poetic, with first person narration by a child who watches her world change in an instant. The child flees but feels the war "under her skin." When she finds a new classroom, another child helps her find room to join them. Ages 6 and up.
STORY BOAT by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh
Find it: Amazon | Bookshop
"Here we are," begins the tale narrated by two children in a group of refugees on a journey. The children reflect on the here and now throughout their travels. With the help of their imagination a cup–"here is a cup"–is turned into a boat, a blanket becomes a sail, flowers become a ladder. The narration focuses on the way the children create their own story. In a small nod to moments where life is "not so cozy", the children are warmed by the mother. Ages 4 and up.
THE PAPER BOAT: A REFUGEE STORY by Thao Lam
Lam's wordless book about the flight of refugees from Vietnam was inspired by her family's story. The splendid collage illustrations are a visual treat. After she saves a group of ants from a sugar trap, a young girl flees Vietnam with her mother. When they are lost in the dark night, ants appear to lead them to their destination. The girl's mother makes a paper boat and Lam's illustrations show us the ants in the boat on treacherous waters. At the end, we see the child and her family eating a meal in their new home. I imagine this will be a book your children will want to examine closely and talk about. Ages 6 and up.
JOURNEY HOME by Lawrence McKay, illustrated by Keunhee & Dom Lee
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. Ages 7 and up.
THE COLOR OF HOME by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
Find it: Amazon | Your Library
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. Ages 5 and up.
HOW MANY DAYS TO AMERICA? Eve Bunting, illustrated by Beth Peck
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. Ages 5 and up.
STEPPING STONES 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. Ages 7 and up.
MY NAME IS SANGOEL by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock
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. Ages 5 and up.
OSKAR AND THE EIGHT BLESSINGS by Tanya Simon and Richard Simon, illustrated by Mark Siegel
Oskar arrives in New York after surviving 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 a Jewish American. There is also a map of Oskar's walk up the length of Manhattan. Ages 5 and up.