The best children’s books to spark conversations about refugees

The Books I Picked & Why

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?


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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?


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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.


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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.


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Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family's Journey

By Margriet Ruurs, Nizar Ali Badr, Falah Raheem

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.


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