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

Mary Beth Leatherdale Author Of Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees
By Mary Beth Leatherdale

The Books I Picked & Why

When Stars Are Scattered

By Omar Mohamed, Victoria Jamieson

Book cover of When Stars Are Scattered

Why 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.

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Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)

By Daniel Nayeri

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

Why 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. 

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Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War

By María José Ferrada, Ana Penyas

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

Why 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. 

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Other Words for Home

By Jasmine Warga

Book cover of Other Words for Home

Why 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. 

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Carry On: Poetry by Young Immigrants

By Various Contributors, Rogé Girard

Book cover of Carry On: Poetry by Young Immigrants

Why 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. 

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