A pivotal scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton features Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette celebrating their bond as fellow immigrants to America: “Immigrants. We get the job done!” The musical centers on Hamilton’s struggles as an immigrant outsider who became an integral part of the American Revolution; it strikes chords as both history and commercial entertainment. It also resonates and engages with today’s contemporary political landscape. In an era where immigrants face increased discrimination, plays, novels and memoirs that portray immigrants with compassion and insight are crucial for understanding our society.
By recommending reading, building displays, fostering book discussions, and creating bibliographies, librarians can promote a literature that engages with immigration as a human experience. This literature is important for readers who are immigrants themselves; to see oneself portrayed in literature positively and honestly can be a profoundly validating experience. It is also important for non-immigrant audiences, because reading about immigrants’ lives builds empathy and identification.
Literature, particularly YA literature, is an important vehicle for bringing young readers of all backgrounds face to face with the immigrant experience: it educates, it illustrates, and it encourages readers to acknowledge both the particularities of immigrant lives and the common bonds of our humanity. However, it is somewhat misleading to write about “the immigrant experience;” the singular construction encourages us to assume that there is only one variety of immigrant experience, when in fact immigrant experiences are diverse and wide-ranging. Each immigration story is unique. The following three books provide examples of how YA literature and coming of age memoir can powerfully communicate wide-ranging experiences of immigrant life.
An Na’s A Step from Heaven traces the life of Young Ju, from her earliest infant days in Korea, to her childhood growing up in “Mi Gook,” or the United States. In the early part of the book, English is deliberately rendered phonetically, making the language look and feel strange, as it would feel to a non-native speaker. As Young Ju gets more comfortable with the language, she finds that there are other barriers she must navigate, including those based on race, gender, and class. At the center of the story is her relationship with her abusive father; because she speaks English fluently and he depends upon her to conduct business, they are under constant strain. Beautifully written in lyrical, poetic language, A Step from Heaven is a great example of literature’s power to make readers discover and relate to what it is to be an outsider.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi is a searing portrait of a young Haitian immigrant trying to make her way in Detroit. After her mother is detained at the airport, Fabiola Toussaint is left to navigate a new country on her own. At first, Fabiola is intimidated by her loud American cousins, and high school in the United States is a confusing landscape. Yet eventually, she adjusts to the vagaries and inconsistencies of American teen experience, performs well in school, and even kindles a romance. Fabiola seems to be living the American Dream. And then it all falls apart. Zoboi’s novel involves readers in the alternating highs and lows of life in a post-industrial American city and as a teenager. Adolescence is in some ways a useful allegory for immigrants’ experience; feeling torn between two different worlds, trying to manage a transition, and grappling with one’s identity are all features of YA literature that make it excellent for telling immigration stories.
Finally, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, by Diane Guerrero, is a memoir written by the daughter of Colombian immigrants who went on to become a well-regarded television actress. Best known for her acting on Jane the Virgin and Orange Is the New Black, Guerrero’s eventual success was a hard won victory. When Guerrero was fourteen, her parents were suddenly deported, and she was left to navigate shelter, food, and her own education. Drawing upon a support network of family and friends, Guerrero was able to negotiate admission to an arts high school, where she honed her acting skills. Poignant and funny, Guerrero’s memoir illustrates the challenges of coming of age as the child of undocumented immigrants in the only country she has ever called home.
These are just three immigration stories; a selected bibliography follows below. Don’t see your favorite title? Add it in the comments!
Selected Middle Grade, YA, and Adult Narratives of Immigration
Randa Abdel-Fatah, The Lines We Cross. Scholastic, 2017.
Marjorie Agosin, I Lived on Butterfly Hill. Atheneum, 2014.
Julia Alvarez, Before We Were Free. Laurel Leaf, 2004 (Originally published 2002).
Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do. Henry N. Abrams, 2017.
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street. Vintage, 2009 (Originally published 1984).
Melissa de la Cruz, Something in Between. Harlequin Teen, 2016.
Firoozeh Dumas, It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel. Clarion Books, 2016.
Terri Farish, The Good Braider. Marshall Cavendish, 2012.
Eddie Fuang, Fresh off the Boat: A Memoir. Spiegel and Grau, 2013.
Reyna Grande, The Distance Between Us. Atria, 2012.
Diane Guerrero, In the Country We Love: My Family Divided. Henry Holt & Co., 2016.
Thanha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again. HarperCollins, 2011.
An Na, A Step from Heaven. Speak, 2003 (Originally published 2001).
Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother. Random House, 2007 (Originally published 2005).
Mitali Perkins, You Bring the Distant Near. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2017.
N.H. Senzai, Shooting Kabul. Simon & Schuster, 2010 (Originally published 2009).
Francisco X. Stork, Disappeared. Arthur A. Levine, 2017.
Lac Su, I Love Yous are for White People. Harper Perennial, 2009.
Nicola Yoon, The Sun is Also a Star. Delacorte, 2016.
Abi Zoboi, American Street. Blazer + Bray, 2017.
Author: Loretta Gaffney
Loretta M. Gaffney, MLIS, MA, Ph.D., is a librarian and teacher at Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. Illinois-born and Iowa-raised, she is slowly becoming an Angeleno by learning to shiver in 50-degree weather. Loretta is the author of Young Adult Literature, Libraries, and Conservative Activism, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2017. A frequent conference speaker and guest lecturer, Loretta taught YA Literature, Reading Research, Intellectual Freedom, and Youth Services Librarianship at both UCLA and the University of Illinois. She has twin 13-year-old daughters and two extremely active kittens.