No one gets into a story and identifies with its characters like middle graders, and since they are the growing tip of the human spirit, I thought I would talk about some books that encourage the kind of understanding of immigrant and refugee experience that seems sorely needed right now.
I’ll begin with Katherine Applegate’s lyrical free-verse novel, Home of the Brave. (Square Fish, 2008) Young Kele has escaped from civil war in the Sudan in which his father and brother were killed. His mother is missing and presumed dead (by everyone but Kele). Kele comes from a traditional cattle-raising village where cattle are valued as the basis of life and wealth. Suddenly he is relocated to another world in Minnesota, to live with an immigrant aunt and her family. He has had little education, and his English is limited to bits he has learned in refugee camps. Nevertheless Applegate has chosen to tell his story in first person, and she deftly unfolds it in spare free verse lines as he begins find language for what is happening to him. He arrives in Minnesota in the middle of winter and experiences cold and snow for the first time:
The man gives me a fat shirt
and soft things like hands.
“Coat,” he says. “Gloves.”. . .
His laughter makes little clouds.
Kele’s aunt works hard for low pay. His cousin has become bitter about their new status in America and mocks Kele for believing he will see his mother again. Kele finds his own way of reconciling his two worlds when he discovers a neglected old cow in a field and begins to care for her, drawing his friend Hannah from school and even his cynical cousin into the project.
Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab-Nye (Greenwillow Reprint 2016) Main character Aref Al-Amri is preparing to move to Michigan, where his parents will study for advanced degrees. He is not a refugee, because they are leaving voluntarily and are well off. Technically this is even not an immigrant story, because his move will only be for a few years, and because by the end of the book he still hasn’t left Oman! It’s about Aref saying a poignant goodbye to the places and people and ways he loves—his good friendships, his cat, rain sticks, fresh apricots and crispy fish and lemonade in clay cups, and most of all the outdoor adventures and rituals and games he enjoys with his beloved grandfather Sidi. Sidi assures Aref that he will return to Oman, like the turtles. I include this story because it fills in a missing piece in the way Americans often perceive immigrants, not considering that they come with a whole culture and life inside them about which most of the people in their new country have little knowledge or curiosity, that they have a language in which they are perfectly fluent, and that they still feel attachment to the place where they have always felt perfectly at home.
Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender (Yearling, 2010) is a novel in two voices. One is Tyler, a Vermont boy who shares his family’s deep love for the land they have farmed for generations. Now that his beloved grandfather has died, his brother is leaving, and his father has been partially disabled in a truck accident, there are not enough hands to do the work, and his parents are talking about selling. Tyler feels helpless. Then miraculously his parents hire a family of Mexican laborers who come to live on the farm with their three young daughters. They are good workers and the farm is saved, but Tyler’s parents are being awfully secretive about them, and he wonders why.
The other voice is of Mari, the oldest girl in the laborers’ family. Her two younger sisters were born in this country and so are citizens, but Mari and her parents crossed the border illegally, and they must all be careful not to draw attention to themselves. Worst of all, her mother went back to Mexico when her grandmother was ill, then tried to come back but has not been heard from for months. Mari writes diary entries and long letters to her mother which she can’t risk sending even to the last known address. Mari and Tyler become friends when he shares his telescope with her, and their families grow closer too. But Mari worries constantly about her mother’s safety and the possibility of a raid, and Tyler is increasingly torn and confused by the growing realization that his parents have broken the law by hiring illegals, even though they could not have managed the farm without them. When the worst happens, though, and family members are treated harshly by the authorities, even some of the town’s hardliners on illegal immigration band together to protect and defend this family they have come to know. Mari’s selfless act, supported by Tyler, who must make a courageous decision of his own, brings the story to a realistic but hopeful end.
Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weeks (Scholastic, 2016) “Save me A Seat!” The the most friendly, affirming words a middle-schooler can hear. As long as you have someone to sit with at assembly or in the cafeteria, you belong, you’re okay. Ravi, one of the two voices in this novel , has just arrived from India. He is fluent in English and was a star student back home, so he and his parents expect that he will excel in his new school and probably find the work too easy. He soon discovers that his favorite subject, math, is taught differently in America, and he is humiliated when his teacher sends him out for special second-language help because no one can understand his Indian accent! They can’t pronounce his long last name or even get his first name right (it’s RaVEE, not RAH vee). Ravi is also slow to realize that Dillon Samreen, a super-cool Indian-American boy in the class, not only is not going to be saving him a seat in the cafeteria, but is determined to mock and steal from and play tricks on him.
The other voice is Joe, who is also being taken out of class for extra help, but for learning problems. Ravi is furious to be treated like a baby and associated with Joe, and he treats Joe rudely. In the course of the story, however, the two boys realize the Dillon is their common enemy, and they work together to beat the bully at his own game. (They ultimately contrive to get Dillon to put leeches in his own underwear –you’ll have to read the book to see how that comes about about!). Gradually Ravi admits to himself that in his old school in India he was insufferably superior and mean to those he thought weren’t as smart, and that he has been unfair in prejudging Joe who is not only not dumb but a good and loyal friend.
It Ain’t So Awful Felafel by Firoozeh Dumas (Clarion, 2016) will give readers some good background on the Iranian hostage crisis and the involvement of the U.S. government with the Shah. It’s the 1970s, and Zomorod Yousefzadeh (or “Cindy” as she has renamed herself to fit in at school) has been moving back and forth between Iran and California because of her father’s work in the oil industry. The latest move is to Newport Beach, and it’s not going well. At first she meets a neighbor girl, also named Cindy, and tries hard to like and be like her so they can be friends. But they have little in common, and Cindy#2 eventually snubs her and gossips about her. Zomorod/Cindy’s mother isn’t adjusting well either, so she has the added burden of being mom’s translator and social director.
So far these are not untypical young immigrant’s challenges. But then the Shah is overthrown in Iran and the conservative Muslim government of the Ayatollah Khoumeni takes over the country. The family is stunned and confused by Iran’s new policies, especially the persecution of former Shah supporters and the restrictions on women’s dress and activities. It gets worse. Iran takes Americans hostage and the crisis goes on for months (“This is not Islam!” her father cries). Suddenly the family are targets of anti-Iranian sentiment. They receive threats at home and taunts at school. Her father loses his job and can’t find another. Fortunately for Cindy, she has one good friend, Carolyn, who is extraordinarily open minded, accepting of and curious about their cultural differences, and stands by her when she faces ugliness in town and at school. Readers will pull for the lively and determined main character and enjoy her wry observations on the contrast between Iranian and American culture.
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes (Scholastic, 2015) Gaby misses her mother, an undocumented immigrant who was caught in a raid at her job and deported to Honduras. Gaby hoped to move in with her friend Alma’s family while her mother struggles to return, but her estranged father insists on moving in instead. He is a clueless and indifferent parent and mostly neglects her, leaving her to feed and fend for herself with Alma’s house as respite. Like her mom, Gaby has a feeling for animals, especially strays, and when her class volunteers at the local animal shelter, she becomes attached to a scrawny, abandoned cat named Feather she would like to adopt. But her father hates cats and she has no place to keep Feather. Gaby’s job at the shelter is to write enticing flyers about individual animals to encourage people to adopt them. But she hopes the shelter can hold onto Feather until her mother somehow comes back and they can all have a real home together, as it should be. Meanwhile the owners who abandoned Feather are now threatening to reclaim her. Gaby takes desperate action.
My last selection, Warren St. John’s Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Delacourte Press, 2012) is a true story, not a novel, though it reads like one. The original was an adult title, but the author has adapted it for young people. The heroine is the unlikely coach of a most unlikely suburban Georgia soccer club. Luma al-Mufleh grew up in a close, wealthy family in Amman, Jordan and went to the American School there, along with the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor. She loved competitive sports and her very demanding school soccer coach, but she was not allowed to play sports outside of school because she was a girl. Her parents sent her to college in the U.S., and when she graduated she decided to stay rather than go back to lead the restricted life of a woman in Jordan. Her father promptly disowned her and cut off her communication with her family. Luma struggled to support herself and eventually moved to Atlanta where she thought she would at least have better weather and lower expenses.
Out for a drive one day, she passed through the nearby town of Clarkston and was astonished to see people out on the streets in African and middle eastern dress and to find shops and stalls carrying the kinds of foods she was used to eating back in Jordan. On one of her many return trips, she saw some boys playing soccer in an apartment house parking lot and was struck by the passion with which they played. As she soon discovered, these were refugee kids from many different countries and conflicts—Ehthiopia, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Vietnam, the Philippines– and in some cases their only common language was soccer. She was determined to make something of this.
It took a while for her to convince African and Muslim boys that she knew a thing or two about the game and to get them to accept her leadership and her tough-love discipline (boys being coached by a girl?), but once the word got around, she was able to form a club called the Fugees with three teams for different age groups. It was even harder to get the town to help. Before it found itself becoming “the most diverse square mile in America,” Clarkston was a sleepy small railroad and farming town that had seen better days but was known for its hospitality. Now many residents had moved away seeking better opportunities, and many of those who remained were keeping to themselves, trying to ignore what was happening across the tracks where the refugees lived. Town officials were not interested in helping Luma with her efforts, either with funds or facilities, and while the Fugees played in rocky dirt parks, some ideal playing fields, originally designed for baseball or football, remained off-limits to the more “foreign” sport of soccer.
Yet Luma and her boys persisted. In her enormous task of forging a real team, she had to discourage “stars” and break down national sub-cliques by making English the only language spoken on the field. She arranged for and required afternoon tutoring for the boys so they could overcome their second-language problems and stay in school.
Outcasts United centers on one championship year, during which the Fugees played against mostly well-equipped private school soccer clubs from around the state. Despite many obstacles, including Luma getting arrested in front of the team and being sent to jail for a burnt-out signal light on her car, they prevailed.
I wish that anyone who has automatic thoughts on what should or shouldn’t be done about immigrants and refugees could read this book. The portraits of these young Fugees and the detailed background of the crises their families have fled will help readers understand their challenges and their reactions upon coming to America. They would sympathize not only with Luma and the refugees, but with the townspeople they now live among, who are also dealing with the loss of a way of life they always thought they could count on, also trying to define home.
What makes the difference in so many immigrant stories is having a friend, that one person or small group who cares enough to get to know and accept the newcomer and help him or her face the indifference or intolerance of others. Maybe the readers of these and other books like them will see themselves as such a friend.
Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel you Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)