The best children’s books about refugees

Alyssa Hollingsworth Author Of The Eleventh Trade
By Alyssa Hollingsworth

Who am I?

My sister worked for nine years teaching women in Afghanistan, and the Taliban tried to kill her for it—several times. Back in 2011, I was able to visit her in-country and I fell in love with the kind, brave people and their scarred, stubborn nation. But when my sister was eventually forced to return home, she was not the sister who had left. Refugees told me similar stories; stories about memories that wouldn’t stay quiet even though they were safe. I couldn’t help wondering: How do you rebuild a life after losing everything? My debut book, The Eleventh Trade, became the place I wrestled with that question. 


I wrote...

The Eleventh Trade

By Alyssa Hollingsworth,

Book cover of The Eleventh Trade

What is my book about?

They say you can't get something for nothing, but nothing is all Sami has. When his grandfather’s most-prized possession―a traditional Afghan instrument called a rebab―is stolen, Sami resolves to get it back. He finds it at a music store, but it costs $700, and Sami doesn’t have even one penny. What he does have is a keychain that has caught the eye of his classmate. If he trades the keychain for something more valuable, could he keep trading until he has $700? Sami is about to find out.

The books I picked & why

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Esperanza Rising

By Pam Muñoz Ryan,

Book cover of Esperanza Rising

Why this book?

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising is a classic for a reason. Written in a simple but poetic voice, this compelling story grabbed me from the start. Esperanza lives a pampered life on her family’s ranch in Mexico—until the unthinkable happens. She is forced to flee with her mother to a camp in California, where the Great Depression has dried up all prospects. Weighed by grief and faced with her harsh new life, Esperanza can sink under the pressure and be broken—or she can rise. Absolutely beautiful, full of depth and hope.

When my uncle was dying, he asked me for more books that felt like The Eleventh Trade. This was the first one I sent him. But it’s really the other way around—I can only aspire to write with a thimble of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s power.


The Red Pencil

By Andrea Davis Pinkney, Shane W. Evans (illustrator),

Book cover of The Red Pencil

Why this book?

Amira is twelve and living in a small Sudanese village. Her biggest dream: to go to school. But then her home is shattered when the Janjaweed attack. These chapters around the attack capture the emotion of witnessing a traumatic event with such power—and all in a way children and adults can both appreciate. With what remains of her family, Amira takes to the road. Her dream of education has never been farther from reality…until a stranger gives her a red pencil. This book in verse is urgent and beautiful in its portrayal of displacement. 

At my first official event as a published author, I got to sit on a panel with Andrea Davis Pinkney. Hearing her read the chapter "Is This Happening?" in person stole my breath away.


Wishtree

By Katherine Applegate,

Book cover of Wishtree

Why this book?

Red, our narrator, is an oak tree. For many rings of her life, she has watched the neighborhood and collected wishes on her branches. Then a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, but Red—with the help of the animals who live in her hollows—sets out to bring her little community together.

Katherine Applegate’s sparse but poignant prose has been an inspiration ever since I read The One and Only Ivan. In Wishtree, she brings the same light touch to a story about outsiders, loneliness, and friendship. I aspired to do something similar when I was writing The Eleventh Trade: Capture the quiet but immense power of community.


Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

By Mary Beth Leatherdale, Eleanor Shakespeare (illustrator),

Book cover of Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Why this book?

Stormy Seas is a compelling collection of true stories about the child refugees who had to take to the water throughout history. With a diverse cast and engaging visual design, this book is a great introduction to the topic for middle-grade readers. Even adults might be surprised by some of the stories. 

The story of Najeeba, fleeing from Afghanistan, particularly spoke to me during my research for The Eleventh Trade. Though my main character only speaks briefly of his journey across the Mediterranean, stories like Najeeba’s helped make the dangers of that voyage real for me. A quick but intense read that opens the door to important conversations with children. 


Escape from Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai,

Book cover of Escape from Aleppo

Why this book?

When bombs fall on Nadia’s home, she’s separated from her family in the middle of a war. Over the course of a few short, dangerous days, she has to find a way through her destroyed city to her parents. With startling detail, N.H. Senzai captures the frenzy and peril of Nadia’s situation. 

N.H. Senzai also writes wonderful books about Afghan refugees, like Shooting Kabul, but I personally found Escape from Aleppo her best work so far. I read it all in a gulp, and came out with a deeper understanding of what even a tiny slice of the refugee experience can look like.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in refugees, Sudan, and trees?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about refugees, Sudan, and trees.

Refugees Explore 85 books about refugees
Sudan Explore 18 books about Sudan
Trees Explore 31 books about trees

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, and What Is the What if you like this list.