The best children’s books to spark conversations about refugees

Who am I?

The refugee story is deeply rooted in my family, as my (great-/) grandparents fled Europe for a safer life in America. I grew up listening to their stories of escape and trying to integrate in their new land. Human rights were also a focus of my graduate studies – and later in founding the Human Rights Watch Committee NL and joining the Save the Children Board of Trustees. I am a writer and poet, Board member, and former strategy consultant who always wanted to write refugee stories for children. Their stories are difficult. But children should understand that although the world is not always safe or fair, there is always hope.


I wrote...

Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children

By Hollis Kurman, Barroux (illustrator),

Book cover of Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children

What is my book about?

Counting Kindness: Ten Ways to Welcome Refugee Children traces the refugee child’s journey through a hopeful lens: 1 boat…helping us on our way; 2 hands…lifting us to safety; 5 wishes…giving us hope... Come with a family as they travel out of danger to a safe place and are shown all sorts of kindness along the way. This unique counting book is full of empathy and hope for all children, everywhere.

Illustrated by Barroux, Counting Kindness is published in 10 countries; endorsed by Amnesty International, nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal and DC Library Association Three Stars Book Award, and won a Northern Lights Award. 10% of author royalties will be donated to Amnesty International. A follow-up book, Counting in Green, is forthcoming in 2023.

The books I picked & why

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The Suitcase

By Chris Naylor-Ballesteros,

Book cover of The Suitcase

Why this book?

I fell in love with this picture book when I first spotted it at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2019. With its simply but beautifully illustrated animal characters, The Suitcase manages to tap into universal truths of the refugee experience, of childhood, and of being human, all at the same time. The book suggests that the best way to put broken lives back together is through kindness and trust. And yet it is not overly sweet. The characters wrestle with the fear of ‘other’ and with the forces of right and wrong. The symbols (the suitcase, teacup, chairs…) are powerful but rendered with a light touch. Lastly, I love the implied diversity of the (animal) characters themselves. Who among us has not been the ‘other’ in some setting?


The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

By Thao Lam,

Book cover of The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Why this book?

This wordless picture book uses gorgeous collage art to soften the frightening story of a wartime escape from Vietnam. The use of ants as a refugee metaphor, and the intertwined wordless stories of ants with a fleeing human family, may make the story a bit complex for very young readers. But the lack of text, in this case, makes it a perfect read-together book and conversation starter. It is a story of hope, courage, and kindness, which are key pillars for refugees to survive and thrive. Separately, we all tend to focus on the biggest, most current, refugee crises (and there are many!). Yet children should also hear refugee stories from around the world and through history. What do these journeys have in common? What makes them unique? What can we learn?


Dreamers

By Yuyi Morales,

Book cover of Dreamers

Why this book?

A non-fiction picture book that reads like poetry, this gorgeous book describes the author’s own journey from Mexico to the U.S. with her young son. The illustrations are as poetic as the language, which infuses English with Spanish words, simple words with more challenging ones, and words of pain with those of pride, resilience, and creativity. The book explores not only the refugee’s journey, but also, and most especially, the challenges and small victories of integrating and trying to make a new life in a new land. I also love the central role that books, words, and libraries play in paving the way toward this new life. Language is power, but it is also magic.


The Boy at the Back of the Class

By Onjali Q. Raúf,

Book cover of The Boy at the Back of the Class

Why this book?

This Middle Grade novel feels like the 'big brother or sister book' to my picture book. Narrated by an almost ten-year-old child, this is the story of what happens following the sudden arrival of a ‘Refugee Kid’ in a fourth-grade classroom. The children learn that the traumatized young boy, Ahmet, fled the war in Syria and lost his family along the way. Without getting overly political, the novel shows the full range of reactions to the boy’s arrival – from the most empathetic to the cruelest – and gently explores not only the ramifications but also the roots of these reactions. An adventure story despite its sensitive topic, this beautiful book shows how hope (and love) can make us brave at any age.


Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey

By Margriet Ruurs, Nizar Ali Badr (illustrator), Falah Raheem (translator)

Book cover of Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey

Why this book?

Although this picture book is a bit dark and bleak for very young readers, Stepping Stones is a uniquely beautiful depiction of the refugee’s journey. The illustrations were inspired by the stone artwork of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr. Stones, like trees, appear to have an ancient power to tell difficult stories like no other. I love that this book focuses not only on the hardships and horrors, but also on the beauties and rituals of the life and culture left behind. So many children will have known only conflict in their short lives, and it is important that they – and the rest of us, too – learn that there was so much more, before. The story is poetically told in both English and Arabic.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in refugees, immigrants, and Syria?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about refugees, immigrants, and Syria.

Refugees Explore 90 books about refugees
Immigrants Explore 84 books about immigrants
Syria Explore 30 books about Syria

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Ida, Always, Digging for Words, and Hands Around the Library if you like this list.