The United States has long prided itself on being a "nation of immigrants." As early as the 1770s, the nation was home not simply to English colonists, but to Germans, Scots, Irish, French, Dutch, and Swedes. In 1782 French immigrant Jean de Crevecoeur published his Letters from an American Farmer with the provocative essay "Who then is the American?" He wrote "I could point out to you a man whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations." In 2021, he could add representatives from every part of Asia, many parts of Africa, and most of central and South America. What all shared was a common commitment to bettering their lives and working to ensure their children's future in a land of liberty. They worked alongside others who were different to achieve that. The great seal of the United States (adopted in 1782) captures that ideal with its proclamation, "E Pluribus Unum" or out of many, one.
With each of wave of immigration -- Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Greek, Eastern European Jew through to Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Central American, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and Afghan-- newcomers have added richness of the American experience and faced resistance and prejudice. But the United States remains one of the few nations in the world where citizens of many national backgrounds live and flourish based largely on their merits not solely on their cultural or social background. Our statehouses, our businesses, our restaurants, and newspapers all reflect our cultural diversity.
The nation's diversity is enriched by Native Americans and those of enslaved African descent as well, but the term "immigrant" applies to one who comes to a nation by virtue of his/her own choice. Here we celebrate their stories, which are those of sacrifice, enterprise, challenge and triumph.
A Very Important Day Maggie Rugg Herold. Illustrated by Catherine Stock. Harper Collins, 1995. (K-2) Love of Country, Immigrant Heritage Month This lively picture book is fine reinforcement for second graders in Core Knowledge programs, who learn about America's immigrant heritage and how one becomes a U.S. citizen. The bright, multi-faceted story brings to life the day when 219 people from many different nations (the Philippines, Ghana, India, El Salvador, and Scotland and more) gather in a Manhattan courthouse to pledge their allegiance to their new country. They must overcome a blinding snowstorm to get there (good symbolism), but the dazzling sun on the snow at ceremony's end speaks to their new hopes. The book can be faulted for not developing a strong plot, but if students have studied the US as a "nation of immigrants," and know something about the process of naturalization, it will sing to them.
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty. Linda Glaser. Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola. HMH Books, 2010. (K-4)Love of Country Born into privilege in New York City, Emma Lazarus wanted for nothing in her youth, but she had a big heart. When she visited Ward’s Island in New York City in the 1880s (an immigrant detention and treatment center), she was touched by the plight of impoverished immigrants coming to American shores. She helped them learn English and find jobs, but eventually she answered the call to write a poem to raise money for the pedestal on which to place the Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus defied the common wisdom that women shouldn’t write and that the destitute immigrants were a threat to the nation. Her poem “The New Colossus,” with its call to “send me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” became the voice of the Statue of Liberty, emblazoned at its base. The words have stirred American hearts and imaginations ever since.
Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre. Amika Aldamuy Denise. Illustrations by Paola Escobar. Harper Collins, 2019. Service, Wisdom, Lives to Learn From (1-3) A touching and inspirational biography. Pura Belpre loved listening to her grandmothers’ stories in Puerto Rico. When her family moved to the US in 1921, she worked in the garment industry, but shortly thereafter found a job at the NYC public library as a bilingual assistant. (This was the 1920s - bravo to NYC!) She was dismayed to find not one book of the folktales she loved on the shelves. But Belpre was a gifted story-teller herself and she spun her abuela’s tales at Story Hour. She even created puppets to make the stories come alive, and drew quite an audience. Then she found a publisher to print the Puerto Rican folktales and thus planted the seeds of stories for many generations to come. Very lively, colorful illustrations. Spanish words and phrases are interwoven (teachers should pre-read so as to be able to translate), but are generally understandable from context.
Write On, Irving Berlin! * Leslie Kimmelman. Illustrated by David C. Gardner. Sleeping Bear Press, 2018. (K-3) Lives to Learn From, Hope, Love of Country The inspirational story of the self-taught musical genius, who became America’s most iconic songwriter. Fleeing persecution in Russia in 1893, five-year-old Israel Baline emigrated to the United States with his family of eight. The Balines lived in a small New York City apartment, lacking money and sometimes food, but they had their freedom and their wits. And little Izzy always seemed to have a song in his heart. He began singing in saloons, writing songs, and signing himself Irving Berlin at age thirteen—and the rest is history. (He sold his first song for 37 cents.) Write On is a whimsically illustrated picture book that captures Berlin’s drive, optimism, passion for music (he wrote songs on his shirt sleeves, in elevators, in the bathtub), and his unabashed love of country (which he served overseas in World War I). “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “God Bless America,” “Always,” and “White Christmas” are just a few of his hits for stage, screen, and troops overseas. *Available on Epic!
A Day's Work.Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Ronald Himler. Clarion, 1997. (K-3) Honesty, Perseverance, Compassion Francisco's grandfather is newly arrived in America, doesn't speak English, but is looking for work. Francisco tries to help him get a job by lying about his abuelo being a gardener; the older man is hired as such. The employer is not happy with the results, when child and grandfather uproot the plants instead of the weeds. The grandfather comes to understand what has happened and tells his grandson: "we do not lie for work." They will return the next day to make right their task as "the price of a lie." And they truly do. (Grandfather is a carpenter who leaves things much restored.) A wonderful inter-generational tale of an immigrant child trying to help, but needing to learn some lessons of his own. Told with sensitivity and dignity.
Anna and Solomon. Elaine Snyder. Illustrated by Harry Bliss. Margaret Ferguson Books, 2014 (K-3) Perseverance, Loyalty, Courage In 1897 Solomon falls in love and marries Anna In czarist Russia, He is a talented painter and she is quick with numbers, butpersecution of Jews (a pogrom in their village)persuades the newlyweds to seek their fortune in America. They have the money for only one ticket, however. Solomon goes to the US first, works industriously and saves until he can send Anna a ticket to join him. But to Solomon's surprise, Anna sends her brother in her place. The next ticket sent to Anna brings another brother, then her mother! Will Solomon ever see his wife? This heart-warming and heart-wrenching immigrant story is based on a true story of the author’s grandparents. Beautiful portrayal of family loyalty as Solomon keeps the faith and assists his in-laws in their new life. A video version in available on Epic!
Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story.* Reem Faruqi. Illustrated by Lea Lyon. Tilbury House, 2015. (1-5) Courage, Respect, Faith Lailah's family has moved from Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) to Atlanta, and the ten-year-old girl won't be bringing her lunchbox to school during the feast of Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast. Lailah is excited to fast because it means she's growing up, but anxious about how to explain the custom to her teachers and classmates, who assume she's just forgotten her lunch. What will they think of her? After agonizing in silence in the cafeteria, she slips off to the library, where she confides in the school librarian, and they formulate a plan. Lailah writes a very well received poem of explanation to her teacher and friends. A little girl has the courage of her convictions, and her classmates come to understand and respect a different tradition. The lesson has potential applicability for all children agonizing over customs that make them or their families different. Beautiful watercolor illustrations. The content makes this a 1-5 option. *Available on Epic!
Harvesting Hope. The Story of Cesar Chavez.Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales Harcourt, 2003 (1-3) Responsibility, Courage, Lives to Learn From Cesar Chavez grew up on his family’s ranch in Arizona. In 1937, at the depths of the Depression, a devastating drought took the farm into foreclosure, and the family moved to California to work on other people’s farms. Migrant families worked hard, but at this time of Depression, they were underpaid and unwelcome in the towns and schools. Cesar left school after eighth grade to work in the fields, so his mother wouldn't have to. He listened to those who called for reforms, and himself began to speak out for fair hiring and higher wages for farm workers. Cesar espoused non-violence in the quest for justice, leading a march from Delano to Sacramento with thousands of farm workers for fair wages. This lead to the formation of the United Farm Workers Union. It was a great victory and the beginning of reform for the industry. Vibrant, mural-like illustrations.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln. Margarita Engle. Illustrated by Rafael Lopez Antheneum Books, 2019 (2-4) Perseverance, Courage, Beauty, Lives to Learn From True story of nineteenth century pianist Teresa Carreno, who began to play the piano as a very little girl in Venezuela. “Sometimes she had to struggle to make the stubborn music behave, as she practiced gentle songs that sounded like colorful birds singing in the dark and light branches of a shade-dappled tree.” At age six, Teresa was writing her own music, and at seven played for audiences. But war came to Venezuela and when she turned eight, her family fled to New York. Even though at that time the Civil War was raging at the time, Teresa found a group of musicians who encouraged her talents, and urged her to keep finding beauty in music. She was invited to the White House to play for President Lincoln. Her “dancing hands” played music gave solace to a President burdened by war and grief. Lilting text and gorgeous illustrations make this book sing. (This book works well with the Second Grade CK unit on immigration and/or the Civil War.)
The Lotus Seed.Sherry Garland. Illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi. HMH Books, 1997. (2) A Vietnamese woman leaves her homeland for a new life in America. She remains connected to her home only by the lotus seed she takes with her.
Saving Lady Liberty: Joseph Pulitzer’s Fight for the Statue of Liberty. Claudia Friddel. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Caulkins Creek, 2020. (2-6) Love of Country, Perseverance. Hungarian Jewish immigrant Joseph Pulitzer was a rags-to-riches American success story. He made his name in journalism in St. Louis, but he never forgot his immigrant roots and his love of liberty. When France gifted the Statue of Liberty to the United States, wealthy New Yorkers refused to pony-up for a base for the statue in the New York harbor. Pulitzer sprang into action, launching a national campaign to raise the funds from fellow immigrants and common folks. Lively painting and collage mixed media bring the text to life.
When Jesse Came Across the Sea. Amy Hest Illustrated by P. J. Lynch. Candlewick Press, 2003. (2-4) Diligence Set in the early 20th century, this touching and exquisitely illustrated immigrant story develops themes of courage, hope, and the diligent pursuit of dreams. Jesse, a thirteen-year-old girl from eastern Europe, joins her aunt in America. She has been chosen for the journey to America by her rabbi and her village, but must leave her grandmother behind. Sewing lace, she soon weaves a new life for herself and is able to bring her grandmother to America as well.
Peppe the Lamplighter. Elisa Bartone Illustrated by Ted Lewin. Harper Colllins, 1997. (2-4)Respect An Italian immigrant child in Manhattan wants to help his sick father support their family at the turn of the century. In the days before electric lighting, Peppe eagerly accepts a job as a street lamplighter. “He works with care. With each lamp lit, he sees himself lighting a small flame of promise for the future.” But the boy’s father is ashamed that his son is engaged in such “menial” labor. A dark night and a lost sister, help both father and son understand that all work is deserving of respect. Starkly and dramatically illustrated.
Junk Man's Daughter.* Sonia Levitin. Illustrated by Guy Porfirio. Sleeping Bear Press, 2007. Perseverance, Diligence 2-4 A classic immigrant tale of a family leaving the Old World to find "the streets of gold" in America, and instead encountering hard times. We see them through the eyes of daughter Hannah, who after a month in America, accuses her father of lying to them about the opportunities ahead. But Dad (a teacher in the old country, but still learning English) is resourceful and starts a family business collecting junk for resale. The kids contribute long hours of labor after school and the Abrams family does well. This is a story of a family working together to create their future. 21st century kids will be struck by their teamwork, hard work, and maybe notice that their own lives are just a little easier than this family's. *Available on Epic!
Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children*. Alexis O’Neill. Illustrated by Gary Kelley. Calkins Creek, 2020 (3-5) Justice, Perseverance, Compassion. *Available on Epic! Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, came to America in 1870 and experienced first hand the horrible living conditions and grinding poverty that many immigrants to New York City endured. He knew he had to do something about it. He tried his hand at various jobs and professions, but came into his own as a journalist. He wrote articles about tenement life, but wanted to do more: SHOW the world the squalor. As a reporter in New York's worst slum (Mulberry Bend), he taught himself to use a camera, and a new invention, flash powder, that illuminated dark spaces. He was able to take and publish photos of the dangerously overcrowded tenements and desperate, starving children. The photographs, published in his classic How the Other Half Lives opened the eyes of people and its police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt. Riis and Roosevelt and others worked over the next decade to transform this section of New York.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by Eric Velasquez. Candlewick, 2019. (3-6) Grit, Perseverance, Lives to Learn From, Black History Afro-Puerto Rican immigrant Arturo Schomburg emigrated to Harlem in the early 1900s, and brought with him a passion for books and a desire to fill a void. Where was the history of people who looked like him? This law clerk and lover of history collected so many works about African history and Black culture that his wife threatened to mutiny. Could he please give them to the library? Or make his own library? Written in free verse, readers will meet the lovable bibliophile who wanted to "tell our stories, proclaim our glories." His collection became the basis for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the basis of the New York City Public Library's collection. Rich and full text make this an older children's book.
Union Made: Labor Leader Samuel Gompers and His Fight for Workers' Rights. Norman Finkelstein. Calkins Creek, 2019. (5-6) Perseverance, Courage An engaging chapter book for older readers on one of America's most beloved labor leaders. Displaced cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers and his family emigrated to the United States from London in 1863 - smack in the middle of the Civil War. As a ten-year-old Samuel was accustomed to working and helping his family. He set out to do the same on the lower east side of New York, but also took advantage of every opportunity for learning that came his way. Not only did he expertly roll cigars, he attended lyceum lectures, taught himself German, participated in debating societies and a baseball club. He married his childhood sweetheart at 17 and they had lots of kids and a long marriage. But his passion was helping American workers win better working conditions, better pay, better hours -- all by unionizing. When asked for his philosophy of "What does labor want?" his standard answer was "More!" A marvelous introduction to the energetic and big-hearted founder of the American Federation of Labor.
Home of the Brave. Katherine Applegate.Square Fish, 2008. (5-6) Hope, Gratitude, Courage. 272 pages This story is not to be missed: you will laugh, cry, and shout for joy with Kek, a ten-year-old boy who, fleeing violence in his African homeland (Sudan), and has settled (with aunt and cousin) in Minnesota. Kek is an optimist, who earnestly strives to embrace his new life, and is quick to see goodness. In Minnesota, he experiences the joy and hardship of winter (moon-shaped snowballs but bone-chilling cold), of school (a chair and desk of his own, but sometimes classmates who mock him), of technology (machines that wash clothes and dishes, but do not forgive if he puts dishes in the wrong one). He is often overcome with wonder at the "honors" that come to him for free. But he is haunted by the memories of violence that took his father and brother, and the uncertainty of ever seeing his mother again. Is she even alive? Then there is the nagging question of whether America will ever be home for him. His friendships (with Hannah, a girl in foster care and Lou, an older woman who runs a farm) and ingenious schemes to better his life and the lives of those around him will win your heart. (Spoiler alert: Mom is alive and joins him at the end.) It is a book of hope, gratitude, and great courage shown on the part of one so young, as by many immigrants over the years. Despite its length, it is written in free verse with wide margins. A riveting read-aloud over 5-7 sessions for older children.