A little more than a month ago, an American hopped up on xenophobia shot up two men from India and another man who tried to stop him, killing one. Anti-refugee rhetoric continues to swirl, and hate groups are at a horrifying high. Books can help bring us together; fiction may acually make us better people. It makes sense, then, to me, to turn to books during times like these; to seek out, and suggest, those books which may help us better understand immigrants, and refugees, and those who migrate, even within the same country.
I first read Pam Muñoz Ryan‘s middle grade novel Esperanza Rising shortly after it was published, in the early 2000s. It has stuck with me, powerfully, ever since. It’s set during the Great Depression, in Aguascalientes and then in the San Joaquín Valley in California, and readers follow Esperanza Ortega from her life as a spoiled child of privilege in Aguascalientes through a desperate flight to the United States following her father’s murder. Readers go into the camps where Mexican agricultural laborers live and watch la migra—today’s ICE—as they raid, harass, and bully the laborers. Perhaps the most incredible element of Esperanza Rising? It is told through a child’s eyes (Esperanza is only 15 at book’s end), and, as I remember it, at least, it really does read like a child’s perspective on immigration. It is also a Pura Belpré Award Winner, for those interested in reading up on diverse award winners.
You may well have heard Nicola Yoon‘s name: her first book, Everything, Everything, is being made into a movie, and her second, The Sun Is Also a Star, won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award For New Talent. It is about The Sun Is Also a Star that I am going to write today. You see, it brings us multiple angles on this theme of migration and immigration and Americanness, and many of them are rarely, if ever, really discussed. The hero, Daniel, is Korean-American; his parents want him to be a doctor, but he’s a poet at heart. The heroine, Natasha, is Jamaican-American; she came young to this country, and is a brilliant student, aiming for the stars, or at least the sun. But she is also, through no fault of her own, undocumented. The Sun Is Also a Star is the story of the luminous, terrifying day during which Natasha and Daniel fall in love, while Natasha is trying desperately to save herself from deportation. (You’re going to cry. And also laugh. And wince.) There’s an added layer of realism to this story: in the words of interviewer Ibi Zoboi (this name will come up again, fyi): “You share a letter to the reader at the beginning of the book about how you and your husband first met. Your name is Nicola and you are Jamaican American, just like Natasha in your novel. Your husband’s name is David and he is Korean American, just like Daniel in your novel.” Zoboi goes on to ask if the novel is autobiographical; Ms. Yoon says that “all evidence to the contrary, the novel is not autobiographical,” but that it “was definitely inspired by the spirit of our relationship.” Ms. Yoon’s books have an almost ethereal, luminous quality—one which I am hoping translates to the screen—and, true to form, The Sun Is Also a Star is beautiful, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, hopeful. It’s also an amazing window into what young Americans like the DREAMers must feel. (And, for those who like to know these things: it has starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.)
Melissa De La Cruz‘s novel Something In Between is, in a way, very similar to Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star. Like Natasha, Jasmine de los Santos is an exemplary American girl, smart and college-bound. She is, in the words of one of the quotes De La Cruz uses to preface her novel, almost “more American than people born here.” She is also an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, although she, like Natasha, does not at first know this. Unlike Natasha, Jasmine learns about her status during the course of the novel. Adding to her angst, she falls in love with the wrong guy: a dude whose father happens to be a congressman who doesn’t believe in immigration reform (and, indeed, works against it). This is very much a romance; Booklist says that “At its gooey heart, this is a love story suited for romance-thirsty teens,” but reviews from Booklist to Publishers’ Weekly to Kirkus all mention that one will probably learn something from it, too, even if Kirkus thinks it’s way too optimistic. This one is very much a happy ending; it will likely make for a satisfying read, and will provide another window into the life of a young American without papers.
Remember Ibi Zoboi, who interviewed Nicola Yoon about The Sun Is Also a Star? Well, she’s back: she wrote the intense American Street, a novel about a young Haitian woman, Fabiola (or Fab) Toussaint, who comes to the United States with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. But there is a sudden, horrible catch: Fabiola has the proper documentation, and is sent ahead to Detroit—but, somehow, Manman does not, and is detained, thrusting Fabiola alone into a brave and frightening new world. American Street reminds me of some of the contemporary Latin American novels I’ve read; I would call parts of it magical realism, except I think back to what a professor once said—how can it be magical realism if it is one’s belief?—and am hesitant to do so, as Zoboi, through Fabiola, calls up Haitian spirits and traditional beliefs to help her survive Detroit. American Street actually has some similarities with The Hate U Give—it, too, touches on the horrors of structural racism and police brutality. It is rather a tour de force. It has also been reviewed well: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist all accord it starred reviews.
I have not read Alexandra Diaz‘s The Only Road; it is, however, a Pura Belpré Honor Book, and, while Kirkus calls it “A deft, harrowing, yet formulaic sketch of a complex subject,” the blog Latinos in Kidlit gave it a positive review, while it garnered a starred one from Booklist. The Only Road takes its middle-grade readers on a journey from Guatemala to the United States, as young Jaime must escape violence at home before it kills him, too. It is a timely book—think of the children fleeing violence in Central America who have come to the U.S.—and will offer readers a window into a world with which they probably are not particularly familiar. Another Pura Belpré winner, the translated I Lived on Butterfly Hill, by Chilean-American academic and writer Marjorie Agosín, offers its readers a look at Chile during the years of the dictatorship, and follows its young heroine to the United States as well. Its reviews mention that it may be intimidating, but Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and the Jewish Book Council all give it strong reviews.
Lithuanian-American Ruta Sepetys calls herself, on her website, a “seeker of lost stories.” Certainly her novels about the human costs of World War II, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, are such lost stories, sought and remembered. I’ll slide away from objectivity here: I loved both Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. They shattered my heart, and I learned a lot from them. Between Shades of Gray follows a young Lithuanian girl, Lina Vilkas, after her father, a math professor, is detained by the Soviet secret police and her mother and brother are sent to Siberia. (My middle name comes in part from a Polish resistance fighter who happened to be a family friend, which might make these stories more intense for me.) It is a story of horror and depravity, but also of humanity and, surprising in those shades of gray, of hope.
Salt to the Sea, meanwhile, showcases several different people—Joana, Lina’s cousin and a nurse; German resistor Florian, fleeing for his life; Polish Emilia, fighting for her life and struggling against the crimes committed against her; and Alfred, a sadistic young Nazi—as they struggle through the end of the war in Prussia. They will all embark upon the Wilhelm Gustloff—and anyone who knows maritime history will know what comes next. (I cried my eyes out anyway, but, because this is Sepetys’ gift, there is still hope.) Both Between Shades of Gray (which definitely isn’t 50 Shades, sorry not sorry) and Salt to the Sea offer a glimpse into the darkness that drives people from their homes. Between Shades of Gray gets starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist; Kirkus gives Salt to the Sea a strong review, Publishers Weekly and Booklist starred ones. Though both are set in the 1940s, and in Europe, both are a pretty stark reminder of the dangerous facing refugees, and of the reasons why people leave.
I think Warsan Shire has probably written the ultimate contemporary explanation of why one would leave home; there is a reason her poem “Home,” with its reminder that “you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay” has been spoken at protests and held up by asylum seekers. The novels I’ve suggested here are not, to be sure, Shire’s “Home”—but they are strong works, pieces that can help us to better understand the lives of others,1 and the realities of our world. And, of course, there are more out there.
1 By the way there’s an amazing German movie called The Lives of Others. It is very much worth watching.