The best middle grade books for understanding what it’s like to be a refugee

Why am I passionate about this?

Growing up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario, Canada that my family had owned for six generations, my world was small. That all changed when I moved to Toronto and met my husband, the Canadian-born son of Polish Jews who survived death camps and the Holocaust. His family taught me what it means to find yourself in the crosshairs of history, to be forced to make impossible choices under dire circumstances. I’m passionate about sharing stories that build understanding and celebrating those forced by fate to be fighters — their strong yet often surprising personalities, their unique journeys, and their inspiring grit. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

What is my book about?

From pre-World War II Europe to present-day North Africa, Stormy Seas chronicles the real journeys of five young people who fled their homes, risking their lives on the open sea to seek refuge elsewhere. Each story reveals how these young people were forced to leave behind everything familiar in search of peace and security: Ruth and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José tries to reach the United States from Cuba; Najeeba flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; and after losing his family, Mohamed abandons his village on the Ivory Coast in search of a new life. With enormous courage and remarkable resilience, each overcame horrific obstacles and found hope in what life can be.

“Harrowing, wrenching, and hopeful.” - Publishers Weekly, *Starred review 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of When Stars Are Scattered

Mary Beth Leatherdale Why did I love this book?

For most of us, life in a refugee camp is impossible to imagine. But not for Omar Mohamed. He grew up at Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, with his younger brother Hassan. As young children, Omar and Hassan were forced to flee their home in Somalia when their father was killed in the civil war and they were separated from their mother. Omar shared his story with awarding-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson and the results are extraordinary. Omar’s fears, his boredom, his frustration come alive on the page. And the love, support, ingenuity, and opportunities Omar experiences in the camp give him — and us — hope. You will long remember Omar and his nuanced, true story.

By Omar Mohamed, Victoria Jamieson,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked When Stars Are Scattered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

A National Book Award Finalist, this remarkable graphic novel is about growing up in a refugee camp, as told by a former Somali refugee to the Newbery Honor-winning creator of Roller Girl.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would…


Book cover of Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story)

Mary Beth Leatherdale Why did I love this book?

Like the tornado on the book’s cover, Khosrou, the 12-year-old narrator of this autobiographical novel, storms in and sweeps you away with his stories. Khosrou (known as Daniel at his American middle school) spins tales for his classmates of Persian culture and history, his childhood in Iran, and most significantly why his family fled Iran and become refugees in Oklahoma. Khosrou tells stories to woo his middle school detractors — and to survive being the refugee kid in the back of the class. Nayeri offers an unforgettable character in Khosrou. His “patchwork story” shouldn’t be missed. 

By Daniel Nayeri,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

At the front of a middle school classroom in Oklahoma, a boy named Khosrou (whom everyone calls "Daniel") stands, trying to tell a story. His story. But no one believes a word he says. To them he is a dark-skinned, hairy-armed boy with a big butt whose lunch smells funny; who makes things up and talks about poop too much.

But Khosrou's stories, stretching back years, and decades, and centuries, are beautiful, and terrifying, from the moment his family fled Iran in the middle of the night with the secret police moments behind them, back to the sad, cement refugee…


Book cover of Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War

Mary Beth Leatherdale Why did I love this book?

I’m a big fan of picture books for older readers that tackle tough subjects. Before I read Mexique, I knew nothing about the 456 Spanish children who were sent to Mexico by ship to escape the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Yet, what I love about this book is how it goes beyond the historical facts to share the truth of the story in a moving and memorable way. The lyrical narrative is written in 1st person from the perspective of a child on the ship. And, the artwork, based on actual photographs, with its child-like style, somber colours, and graphic-novel style panels is stunning. You feel like you’re on the journey with the children. Waiting and wondering when you can return home. 

By María José Ferrada, Ana Penyas (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mexique as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On May 27, 1937, over four hundred children sailed for Morelia, Mexico, fleeing the violence of the Spanish Civil War. Home was no longer safe, and Mexico was welcoming refugees by the thousands. Each child packed a suitcase and boarded the Mexique, expecting to return home in a few months. This was just a short trip, an extra-long summer vacation, they thought. But the war did not end in a few months, and the children stayed, waiting and wondering, in Mexico. When the war finally ended, a dictator—the Fascist Francisco Franco—ruled Spain. Home was even more dangerous than before. 

This…


Book cover of Other Words for Home

Mary Beth Leatherdale Why did I love this book?

You’ll want to get to know Jude. She’s a 12-year-old girl who loves her life in her quiet, coastal town in Syria. But when the war threatens her family’s peaceful existence, her parents decide she and her mother should leave Syria for the safety of her uncle’s home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Jude navigates the highs and lows of middle school and grapples with the prejudice she and other Muslims face in the U.S. —  all the while desperately missing and fearing for her beloved Baba and brother an ocean away. Written in verse and narrated by Jude with humour, insight, and compassion, I was completely captivated by this young woman and how she remained true to herself in a new school and country. 

By Jasmine Warga,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Other Words for Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

New York Times bestseller and Newbery Honor Book!

A gorgeously written, hopeful middle grade novel in verse about a young girl who must leave Syria to move to the United States, perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Aisha Saeed.

Jude never thought she'd be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.

At first, everything in America seems too fast and too loud. The American movies that Jude has always…


Book cover of Carry On: Poetry by Young Immigrants

Mary Beth Leatherdale Why did I love this book?

I love the genesis of this book — a high school writing workshop for newcomers to Quebec, Canada. And I love that within its pages, students from around the world — the Philippines, Uruguay, Pakistan, China, Moldova Iran, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Venezuela — come together to share their personal experiences of seeking peace and security in a new country. Students share the pain and loss of being forced to leave their homes, families, friends, and way of life behind and reflect on their changing identities with strength and vulnerability. Illustrated with expressive portraits by Rogè, the collection powerfully conveys the uncertainty these young immigrants face and the cautious hope they have for the future. 

By Various Contributors, Rogé Girard (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Carry On as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A moving #OwnVoices poetry collection written by young newcomers to Canada
Carry On began in a high school in Outremont, Quebec, where author and poet Simon Boulerice conducted creative-writing workshops for young newcomers to Canada. As the students began writing, their poems gave voice to their reflections on leaving family, friends, and countries of origin to make new homes and connections in their new home, Canada.
Paired with expressive portraits by award-winning artist Rogé, each young writer reflects on the experience of leaving one home for another. The collection of poems express feelings of anxiety, sorrow, anticipation, gratitude, and hope…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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Interested in refugees, Somalia, and the Spanish Civil War?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about refugees, Somalia, and the Spanish Civil War.

Refugees Explore 142 books about refugees
Somalia Explore 13 books about Somalia
The Spanish Civil War Explore 50 books about the Spanish Civil War