Seeing stories about refugees and migrants in the news can be worrying and confusing for children. Thankfully there are an increasing number of good books available for children and teenagers that can help them understand and explore what these words mean and why sometimes people need to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.
First, let’s look at books to help younger children understand more about the plight of refugees and migrants. These picture books selected are perfect for cuddling up and reading to a younger child. Early readers may wish to read them aloud.
Picture Books About Refugees & Asylum Seekers for Younger Children
All Are Welcome
by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman
“Join the call for a better world with this New York Times bestselling picture book about a school where diversity and inclusion are celebrated. Perfect for back to school–no matter what that looks like!
Discover a school where–no matter what–young children have a place, have a space and are loved and appreciated.
Follow a group of children through a day in their school, where everyone is welcomed with open arms. A school where students from all backgrounds learn from and celebrate each other’s traditions. A school that shows the world as we will make it to be.
“Penfold and Kaufman have outdone themselves in delivering a vital message in today’s political climate.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“A lively, timely picture book.” —Booklist
“A great read-aloud selection to start the year and revisit time and again.” —School Library Journal
“This is a must-read for pre-school and elementary classrooms everywhere. An important book that celebrates diversity and inclusion in a beautiful, age-appropriate way.” – Trudy Ludwig, author of The Invisible Boy”
We love “All Are Welcome”. It’s the perfect book for class teachers to read aloud at the beginning of each term to remind children that all are welcome within the classroom and community- I wish it has been published many years earlier so I could have used it in my teaching days.
“No matter how you start your day,
What you wear when you play,
Or if you come from far away,
All are welcome here.”
For parents, it’s a lovely book to read to help children feel reassured about starting school and to encourage them to be kind and welcoming to all their school friends and family. The rhyme and rhythm of the words flow easily and the bright, bold illustrations feature children with diverse ethnicities, physical abilities, gender, religion, and family dynamics. It’s such a happy, encouraging book- like being wrapped in a big warm welcoming hug!
2. My Name is Not Refugee
by Kate Milner
“A young boy discusses the journey he is about to make with his mother. They will leave their town, she explains, and it will be sad but also a little bit exciting. They will have to say goodbye to friends and loved ones, and that will be difficult. They will have to walk and walk and walk, and although they will see many new and interesting things, it will be difficult at times too. A powerful and moving exploration that draws the young reader into each stage of the journey, inviting the chance to imagine the decisions he or she would make. From the winner of the V&A Student Illustration Award 2016.”
As Jacqueline Wilson writes on the cover, “This is a much needed, lovely book for small children which explains the refugee crisis in a simple child-friendly way.” It very gently guides us through the boy and his mum’s journey through his mother’s calm, comforting and simple explanations. There are also questions on each page, such as (when quickly packing a grab bag) “What would you take?” which coax the reader into thinking about what they would do and feel if they were in this situation. It’s always important to encourage children to imagine how they would feel if they were standing in someone else’s shoes. It is sad, but also hopeful. “Soon those strange words will start to make sense.”
“You’ll be called Refugee
Refugee is not your name.”
3. The Journey
by Francesca Sanna
“. . . a wonderful teaching tool for those who are welcoming refugees into their community.”–The New York Times
“With haunting echoes of the current refugee crisis this beautifully illustrated book explores the unimaginable decisions made as a family leave their home and everything they know to escape the turmoil and tragedy brought by war. This book will stay with you long after the last page is turned. From the author: The Journey is actually a story about many journeys, and it began with the story of two girls I met in a refugee centre in Italy. After meeting them I realized that behind their journey lay something very powerful. So I began collecting more stories of migration and interviewing many people from many different countries. A few months later, in September 2014, when I started studying a Master of Arts in Illustration at the Academy of Lucerne, I knew I wanted to create a book about these true stories. Almost every day on the news we hear the terms “migrants” and “refugees” but we rarely ever speak to or hear the personal journeys that they have had to take. This book is a collage of all those personal stories and the incredible strength of the people within them.”
This book of mesmerising collages tells a poignant tale as one family escape war and make “the journey” to find refuge.
“The war began. Every day bad things started happening around us and soon there was nothing but chaos.”
“One day the war took my father.”
The story is told through the child’s voice but the images show us more, such as when he tells us his mother is never scared, we, the reader, see her hidden nighttime tears as he sleeps in her arms.
“The further we go…the more we leave behind.”
The ending compares their journey to birds, who of course also migrate but without the problems of borders. We still have a lot to learn from the birds, it seems.
4. Children of the World: Refugees and Migrants
by Ceri Roberts & Hanana Kai
“The Children in Our World picture book series helps children make sense of the larger issues and crises that dominate the news in a sensitive and appropriate manner. With relatable comparisons, carefully researched text and striking illustrations, children can begin to understand who refugees and migrants are, why they’ve left their homes, where they live and what readers can do to help those in need.
Where issues aren’t appropriate to describe in words, Hanane Kai’s striking and sensitive illustrations help children visualise who refugees and migrants are, in images that are suited to their age and disposition.
The series forms an excellent cross-curricular resource that looks at refugees, war, poverty and racism making them ideal for tying into Refugee Week and discussions on current affairs.”
This is a simple non-fiction book which explains “Refugees and Migrants” to children in a way they can understand. I like the way it reassures the reader and asks them not to worry. It also explains to the reader how they can help refugees. This book includes a “Find Out More”, Glossary and Index. It’s a great first non-fiction book to learn about an important subject.
5. The Colour of Home
by Mary Hoffman and Karin Littlewood
“Hassan feels out of place in a new cold, grey country. At school, he paints a picture showing his colourful Somalian home, covered with the harsh colours of war from which his family has fled. He tells his teacher about their voyage from Mogadishu to Mombasa, then to the refugee camp and on to England. But gradually things change. When Hassan’s parents put up his next picture on the wall, Hassan notices the maroon prayer mat, a bright green cushion and his sister Naima’s pink dress – the new colours of home.”
This has always been one of my children’s favourite picture books. Again, I wish it had been published a few years earlier than 2003 as I would have found it very useful when I found myself teaching Somalian Refugees in my classroom. It is written by Mary Hoffman, who wrote the highly acclaimed, essential to every child’s bookshelf, Amazing Grace series of books.
It’s a very moving picture book which follows Hassan through his first few days at school. Hassan has only recently arrived in grey England after he and his family were forced to flee Somalia, and he deeply misses the colourful landscape of his former home in Africa. But with the help of his parents, an understanding teacher, and a school art project, Hassan finds that by painting a picture of his old home and sharing his story, his homesickness and the trauma of leaving a war-torn country are lessened. And he finds that there are many things to like about his new home in America. The colourful, impressionistic illustrations are a perfect complement to the wonderful text. Together art and text make this poignant story accessible and affecting for a young audience. Readers rejoice as he carries out a colourful painting to show his mother at the end of the school day.
More books about refugees for younger children:
There are so many more wonderful children’s books about refugees than there used to be. Other recommendations are: “The Day War Came” by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb; “Lily and the Polar Bears” by Jion Sheibani and Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher (we always read this at Christmas time). Nicola Davies really inspired my own children to want to help refugees when she started the #3000Chairs campaign in 2016. Their drawings of chairs were published in the Guardian. You can still see Izzy’s squiggle rainbow chair in the online gallery.
Win a Copy of All Are Welcome
For a chance to win a copy of “All Are Welcome”, by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman, enter the Rafflecopter below. Please remember to read the terms and conditions- good luck!
Picture Books About Refugees & Asylum Seekers for Older Children and Teenagers
Next, let’s look at this selection of books to help older children, teenagers and young adults understand more about refugees and migrants. These are all interesting, gripping and powerful books for free readers to enjoy. As with any books, there is no age limit, adults can enjoy (and learn from them) too.
The Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Rauf
WINNER OF THE BLUE PETER BOOK AWARD 2019
WINNER OF THE WATERSTONES CHILDREN’S BOOK PRIZE 2019
SHORTLISTED FOR THE JHALAK PRIZE 2019
“Told with heart and humour, The Boy at the Back of the Class is a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense.
There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it.
He’s nine years old (just like me), but he’s very strange. He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets – not even lemon sherbets, which are my favourite!
But then I learned the truth: Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. A real one. With bombs and fires and bullies that hurt people. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to help.
That’s where my best friends Josie, Michael and Tom come in. Because you see, together we’ve come up with a plan. . .”
With beautiful illustrations by Pippa Curnick
The Boy at the Back of the Class is a new addition to our bookshelves and by a happy coincidence, Izzy came home from school and said they’re currently reading it in her class too!
This book is a heartfelt, humorous first read for first free readers. At the end of the book, there are some facts and questions to encourage the reader to develop their thinking, understanding and compassion. We’re definitely going to buy more books by Onjali Q Rauf.
by Miriam Halahmy
“An exciting as well as a thought-provoking novel about a teen who finds an injured illegal immigrant and must make a complex moral decision about his fate. For fourteen-year-old Alix, life on Hayling Island off the coast of England seems insulated from problems such as war, terrorism and refugees. But when Alix and her friend Samir go to the beach and pull a drowning man out of the incoming tide, her world changes. Mohammed, an illegal immigrant and student, has been tortured by rebels in Iraq for helping the allied forces and has spent all his money to escape. Desperate not to be deported, Mohammed’s destiny now lies in Alix’s hands, and she is faced with the biggest moral dilemma of her life. Hidden was Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week and nominated for the 2012 CILIP Carnegie Medal.”
This is a beautifully written thought-provoking book with a strong contemporary feel that I’d recommend to any older teen or young adult reader interested in a good story.
by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin
“This is a powerful and timely story about one boy’s epic journey across Africa to Europe, a graphic novel for all children with glorious colour artwork throughout. From Eoin Colfer, previously Irish Children’s Laureate, and the team behind his bestselling Artemis Fowl graphic novels.
His sister left months ago. Now his brother has disappeared too, and Ebo knows it can only be to make the hazardous journey to Europe.
Ebo’s epic journey takes him across the Sahara Desert to the dangerous streets of Tripoli, and finally out to the merciless sea. But with every step he holds on to his hope for a new life, and a reunion with his sister.
*Winner of the Judges’ Special Award at the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Awards*
‘Beautifully realised and punchily told.’ Alex O’Connell, The Times Children’s Book of the Week
‘A powerful, compelling work, evocatively illustrated … It would take a hard heart not to be moved by this book.’ Financial Times”
This book aptly opens with the powerful quote:
“You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”
– Elie Wiesel, writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor.
Illegal is a heart-stopping read that will be devoured upon one sitting but returned to again and again to take in the integral beautiful drawings. Being a graphic novel, it’s a great choice for younger teens and older reluctant readers.
Although Ebo’s story is fictional, every part of it has been inspired by facts, based on extensive interviews and research. We also liked how they included the moving story of “Helen”, adapted in comic form at the back of the book.
4. The Other Side of Truth
by Beverley Naidoo
“This is the story of 12 year-old Sade and her brother Femi who flee to Britain from Nigeria. Their father is a political journalist who refuses to stop criticising the military rulers in Nigeria. Their mother is killed and they are sent to London, with their father promising to follow. Abandoned at Victoria Station by the woman paid to bring them to England as her children, Sade and Femi find themselves alone in a new, often hostile, environment. Seen through the eyes of Sade, the novel explores what it means to be classified as ‘illegal’ and the difficulties which come with being a refugee.
With endnotes including the UN Convention and Rights of the Child charter
WINNER OF THE CARNEGIE MEDAL 2000 and the NESTLE SMARTIES SILVER AWARD 2000
‘A marvellous read … that refuels the desire for justice and freedom’ – Jon Snow
‘Beverley Naidoo breaks the rules, producing books for young people which recognize that they want to know about the real world’ – Guardian”
Back in 1999, Jon Snow wrote in the foreword to this book:
“Not only a marvellous read but one that refuels the desire for justice and freedom within and beyond our shores.”
This is such a moving story. I’d recommend it for mature teenagers as the book begins with the murder of Sade and Femi’s mother. It’s very gripping and realistic about life as a refugee. Interestingly, the UNICEF Rights of the Child are printed in full at the back of the book. This made me realise how much we take these rights for granted in the UK.
5. Welcome to Nowhere
by Elizabeth Laird
“Welcome to Nowhere is a powerful and beautifully written story about the life of one family caught up in civil war by the award-winning author Elizabeth Laird, shortlisted for the Scottish Teen Book Award and winner of the UKLA Book Award.
Twelve-year-old Omar and his brothers and sisters were born and raised in the beautiful and bustling city of Bosra, Syria. Omar doesn’t care about politics – all he wants is to grow up to become a successful businessman who will take the world by storm. But when his clever older brother, Musa, gets mixed up with some young political activists, everything changes . . .
Before long, bombs are falling, people are dying, and Omar and his family have no choice but to flee their home with only what they can carry. Yet no matter how far they run, the shadow of war follows them – until they have no other choice than to attempt the dangerous journey to escape their homeland altogether. But where do you go when you can’t go home?
‘[Sings] with truth’ – The Times
‘A muscular, moving, thought-provoking book’ – Guardian
‘Humane and empathetic . . . an effective call to action’ – The Sunday Times
‘Powerful, heart-breaking and compelling’ – Scotsman”
I wish a book like this would have been available to me as a child. It explains the complex situation in Syria so well within the story. It makes it so much more relatable than the images we see on the news, which I think feel so far removed from anything we know, we can struggle to understand. We immediately warm to Omar and his family. Interestingly the story ends as they reach Britain and wonder, “Do you think we’ll be all right in Britain? Do you think they’ll like us?” In the letter from the author at the end, Laird writes: “If you have read to the end of the story you might be wondering what will happen to Omar, Musa and Eman. How will they get on in their new life in Britain? Will people welcome them? Will they be accepted in their new schools? Will they be helped to settle in and follow their dreams?” To which she powerfully concludes:
“The answer to those questions lies with you.”
Wow. This gave me goosebumps. It’s like a real-life “choose your own adventure” book. Books are so powerful, aren’t they? A must-read for every pre-teen and teen.
More Books about Refugees and Migrants for Older Children and Teenagers:
Other good books to help encourage understanding about refugees and migrants are: I am Malala teen edition) by Malala Yousafzai, The Ones That Disappeared by Zana Fraillon and Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.
Win a Copy of “The Boy at the Back of the Class”
For a chance to win a copy of “The Boy at the Back of the Class”, by Onjali Q Rauf , enter the Rafflecopter below. Please remember to read the terms and conditions- good luck!
Support Your Local Bookshop
If you choose to add any of these books to your collection, I have added links for ease, “browsing before you buy” and price comparison (prices correct at time of publishing). Please support your local bookshop where possible. I understand it’s a hard time to go out and about into lots of different shops but it may be worthwhile phoning your local bookshop as they may be able to order and deliver these books to you. If you also live in Pembrokeshire, Victoria Bookshop are posting orders out to those self-isolating. This is such a handy service.
Reading Books About Real Life Issues
As with all books, I would suggest that you read these books yourself before reading with children or passing on a book for your teen to read. Then you can decide which books your child is ready to read emotionally. Also, then you can be prepared to answer questions and reassure them as well as be ready to enable them to help as they may be inspired to after reading these books.
If you have any other suggestions for books to help us understand more about refugees and migrants please let me know in the comments. If you read any of these books please let me know your thoughts too! Thanks for reading!
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