The best books about refugee children

Many authors have picked their favorite books about refugee children and why they recommend each book.

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Refugee Boy

By Benjamin Zephaniah,

Book cover of Refugee Boy

In a world where the number of forcibly displaced people is rising faster and to the highest levels ever, I believe this beautifully written story of fourteen-year-old Alem is incredibly important. Thinking he’s on a short holiday to the UK with his father, Alem, who is an aspiring architect, happily soaks in the sights and sounds, making apt comparisons between London and the urban landscapes and architecture of Ethiopia. However, Alem is about to have his world turned upside down. The next day, his father abandons him in the UK in a desperate attempt to keep him safe from the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. This means Alem is forced to navigate the asylum process and get used to living in the UK while trying desperately to hang onto the hope that his parents are still alive and that they might one day be reunited as a family.


Who am I?

Born the same year as Winona Ryder, Tupac Shakur, and Elon Musk, I’m a Toronto-based writer of novels, short fiction, graphic stories, nonfiction, and scripts for film and television. My YA books include the graphic novella The Lion of Africa, the supernatural, climate change-fuelled Daughters of Light trilogy, and the hard-hitting Since You’ve Been Gone. My writing gives voice to strong, diverse protagonists in urban settings who are dealing with seemingly insurmountable challenges. I’ve been a special education teacher for more than 20 years and my characters are often inspired by the amazing young people I’ve worked with. The cities in my work are living, breathing entities that shape the plot and the protagonist’s character.


I wrote...

Enough

By Mary Jennifer Payne,

Book cover of Enough

What is my book about?

Life hasn't been easy for fifteen-year-old Lizzie Jackson since her father's sudden death four years ago. Shortly after he died, her mother, Lydia, began dating and drinking herself into oblivion, leaving Lizzie to parent her younger brother, Charlie. Things go from bad to worse when Lydia marries Dean. To protect Charlie from Dean's rage, Lizzie makes herself the target of his abuse. But when Dean sexually assaults Lizzie, things change forever. Can she continue to ensure her brother's safety after she flees their home? 

When Water Makes Mud

By Janie Reinart, Morgan Taylor (illustrator),

Book cover of When Water Makes Mud: A Story of Refugee Children

Janie Reinart’s lyrical telling of this story, coupled with Morgan Taylor’s beautiful illustrations, takes the reader on a ride filled with love and emotion. It’s about refugee children who have, as the author says, “nothing but dreams.” Big Sister wants Little Sister to be happy, so she decides she can create something from nothing. She makes amazing things, but they don’t last. However, when Big Sister makes a mud doll, the two sisters play together, create other mud dolls, and continue to dreamWhat affected me the most as I read this is that this book is based on a real refugee camp, and proceeds are donated to UNICEF where our collective kindness can have the power to heal. 


Who am I?

I am a teacher, writer, mother, and grandmother who sees the debilitating effects of meanness and the healing effects of kindness daily. In case that isn’t reason enough for writing A Flood of Kindness, I’m also what some call “A Floodie.” Like my character’s home flooded, so did mine. As devastating as it was, the kindness of others was overwhelming. I spent time with children whose homes also flooded. Aside from losing material things, it is easy to feel powerless. Like myself, I found that the children began their healing when they were able to give back, even in very small ways. I knew this had to be my book. 


I wrote...

A Flood of Kindness

By Ellen Leventhal, Blythe Russo (illustrator),

Book cover of A Flood of Kindness

What is my book about?

A Flood of Kindness demonstrates the healing power of kindness to all children, especially those who have experienced grief or loss. When Charlotte’s home floods, she thinks only of her loss until a small act of kindness puts her on the road to healing, and she realizes that she’s not as powerless as she thought. Children will be encouraged to be kind to those who need a friend and empowered to help others in whatever way they can, no matter how small. This story demonstrates that kindness is so powerful that it can heal both the giver and the receiver. 

Stormy Seas

By Mary Beth Leatherdale, Eleanor Shakespeare (illustrator),

Book cover of Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

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. 


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.

Other Words for Home

By Jasmine Warga,

Book cover of Other Words for Home

This is a moving middle grade novel in verse in which the protagonist, a young Syrian girl who flees to America with her mother, must leave devoted family members behind and in danger. Written by an American-born woman with patriarchal roots in Jordan and a few Syrian friends, she has nevertheless given us a vivid picture of the war in Aleppo, Syria, and the difficulties encountered by Jude who must come of age during a very difficult and confusing time in her own life and the life of her country. Young people will be able to relate to this on many levels including the wish to belong, homesickness for what was known, and what it is to come of age in such a completely unfamiliar setting. For someone who has moved many times, this story was particularly affecting.


Who am I?

The books I've recommended are all skillfully told by someone who is not of the race or sexual orientation of the protagonist. Though I believe in the importance of people telling their own stories, I also think there should be room for writers to write from viewpoints other than their own. The past is where many of my characters live, but I still have to deal with the quandry of authenticity. Daughter of Winter is placed in Essex, MA, in 1949, at the height of the shipbuilding industry and features a mixed-race child and a Wapanoag grandmother. To make certain of my characterizations, I hired a chief of that tribe to read the finished manuscript.


I wrote...

Daughter of Winter

By Pat Lowery Collins,

Book cover of Daughter of Winter

What is my book about?

For years, I often drove past an old school house in the middle of a historic graveyard in Essex, Massachusetts. I imagined how children must have played amongst the headstones and ultimately decided that this place and shipbuilding town would be a unique setting for a novel. When I learned that many schooners from the numerous shipyards at mid-century had set sail for the gold fields, I knew I’d found the time in which to set my story of a young girl’s coming of age, the separations and deaths she must endure, and her brave search for a self that had always confounded her.  

Mexique

By María José Ferrada, Ana Penyas (illustrator),

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

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. 


Who am I?

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...

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

By Mary Beth Leatherdale, Eleanor Shakespeare (illustrator),

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 

The Surrendered

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Book cover of The Surrendered

What happens after you survive the atrocities and randomness of war? Chang-rae Lee examines the deep intricacies of this question and its ramifications, portraying three survivors (Korean War, Sino-Japan War) whose lives mesh at an orphanage somewhere in South Korea after liberation. From that common crossroad, the lives of Sylvie, a missionary wife, Hector, a G.I., and June, a Korean orphan, are forever intertwined, shadowed by pervasive doom pitted against the human need to endure. Lee’s intense focus on physicality seems to reflect the characters’ bodily will to continue life, even as their hearts are blackened by tragedy. It is an intense and absorbing read, frightening for what we do to ourselves and how, despite all the darkness and violence we create in the name of war, some continue to persist in a semblance of life, and helplessly pass along the damage of war to those they touch as they…


Who am I?

Eugenia Kim’s debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, won the 2009 Borders Original Voices Award, was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was a critic’s pick by the Washington Post. For that novel, which is set during the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea, 1910-1945, and for her second novel (below), whose first half is set during the Korean War, 1950-1953, she read more than 500 books and twice traveled to Korea in order to accurately depict these little-known slices of history.


I wrote...

The Kinship of Secrets

By Eugenia Kim,

Book cover of The Kinship of Secrets

What is my book about?

In 1948 Najin and Calvin Cho, with their young daughter Miran, travel from South Korea to the United States for an extended visit. Wary of the challenges that they will face, they make the difficult decision to leave their infant daughter, Inja, behind with extended family; soon, they hope, they will return to her.

But then war breaks out in Korea, and there is no end in sight to the separation. Miran grows up in prosperous American suburbia, under the shadow of the daughter left behind, as Inja grapples in her war-torn land with ties to a family she doesn’t remember. Najin and Calvin desperately seek a reunion with Inja, but are the bonds of love strong enough to reconnect their family over distance, time, and war? And as deep family secrets are revealed, will everything they long for be upended?

Lubna and Pebble

By Wendy Meddour, Daniel Egnéus (illustrator),

Book cover of Lubna and Pebble

Such a tenderly written refugee story. I’ve included this picture book because it offers a gentle but much-needed glimpse into the lives of refugee children and reminds us how we all, but especially those who are fleeing their homelands through no fault of their own, seek a place to belong. Through Pebble, Lubna reminds us that we all need someone who sees and accepts us without judgment and with unconditional love. And that we can also be that person for someone else. Such a joy to read!


Who am I?

As someone straddling multiple cultures, growing up everywhere and belonging nowhere, I know what it feels like to not fit in. I know what it feels like to want to hide parts of yourself so you can fit in. And so, as a picture book writer and a Kindergarten teacher, I'm always looking for books that share stories about children trying to figure out their place in the world. I didn't have those books growing up. What a difference that would have made in my own journey. The books that I picked are unique in the way they portray belonging. I hope you love these gems as much as I do!


I wrote...

American Desi

By Jyoti Rajan Gopal, Supriya Kelkar (illustrator),

Book cover of American Desi

What is my book about?

A young girl longs to know where she fits in: Is she American? Or is she Indian? Does she have to pick or can she be both? American Desi celebrates the experiences of young children growing up first and second-generation Indian American: straddling the two cultural worlds they belong to, embracing all they love of both worlds, and refusing to be limited by either.

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