The Refugee Experience: Books for Children



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The Refugee Experience: Books for Children

While the books in this list convey the hardships that refugees face as they flee war and persecution, they also capture the triumphs and the resilience of children.

We encourage you to consider these stories a resource in informing yourself or your students about the challenges that refugees may face in their new lives.

For YA titles, see our Refugee Experiences booklist, and for recommendations on supporting refugee students, see these suggestions and video clips from veteran educators.


90 Miles to Havana by: Enrique Flores-Galbis Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

"Drawing on his own experience as a child refugee from Cuba, Flores-Galbis offers a gripping historical novel about children who were evacuated from Cuba to the U.S. during Operation Pedro Pan in 1961. Julian, a young Cuban boy, experiences the violent revolution and watches mobs throw out his family's furniture and move into their home. For his safety, his parents send him to a refugee camp in Miami, but life there is no sweet haven…(T)his is a seldom-told refugee story that will move readers." — Booklist



A Song for Cambodia By: Michelle Lord Illustrated by: Shino Arihara Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Independent Reader

In his Cambodian village, Arn's home was filled with music and laughter. But when the Khmer Rouge arrived, Arn's world was turned upside down and he never saw his family again. Arn worked in a labor camp for children for four long years, where he was chosen to play the khim, a traditional wooden stringed instrument. Today, Arn is recognized around the world for his efforts to bring healing to Cambodia and his commitment to preserving the Cambodian songs and instruments that saved his life.


Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan By: Mary Williams Illustrated by: Gregory Christie Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Garang is eight years old when war comes to his village in southern Sudan. He soon joins the thousands of other boys who must flee their country by walking hundreds of miles to Ethiopia and then Kenya. Along the way, the boys care for each other and help each other survive the hardships of famine, drought, and war. Based on the true stories of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Mary Williams and R. Gregory Christie have brought a powerful and unforgettable story to young readers.


Dia's Story Cloth: The Hmong People's Journey to Freedom By: Dia Cha Illustrated by: Chiie Thao Cha Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Through a quiet text and a series of stunning images created from embroidered cloth, the author relates her family's often harrowing journey from China to Laos to Thailand, ultimately settling in the United States. An afterward provides additional history and ethnology.



Four Feet, Two Sandals By: Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammad Illustrated by: Doug Chayka Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Lina has not worn shoes for two years. On the day that new clothes are delivered to her refugee camp, she is excited to find a beautiful yellow sandal with a blue flower in the middle. She wonders where the other sandal might be — until she sees it on another girl. Evocative paintings capture the spirit of friendship that develops between these two survivors, as well as the dramatic setting of their story. Based on the lives of Afghan refugees living in the Peshawar Refugee Camp.


Girl of Kosovo By: Alice Mead Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Even after her father and brothers are killed and her leg is gravely injured in a Serb attack, 11-year-old Zana, the narrator, struggles to heed her father's advice: "Don't let them fill your heart with hate. Whatever happens." Zana's friendship with a Serbian girl, Lena, and her trip behind enemy lines to a hospital in Belgrade provide Zana with evidence of kindness to weigh against the brutality in the Serb faction, while her cowardly KLA uncle Vizar illuminates weaknesses among the Albanians. Mead puts the war into a context that young readers will understand. — Publishers Weekly


Home of the Brave By: Katherine Applegate Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

This novel, written in free verse, tells the story of Kek, an eleven-year-old boy from the Sudan who arrives as a refugee to Minnesota in the middle of winter. In moments both amusing and heartbreaking, it is possible to see through Kek's eyes what it is like for new immigrants who come to this country and to think about the scars that war leaves on its youngest victims. Teacher's Guide available.



How I Learned Geography By: Uri Shulevitz Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Beginning Reader

As a young boy in 1939, Uri Shulevitz and his family fled Poland for the Soviet Union. They lived for a time in Turkestan, where Uri's father returned from the market one day with a large world map. Initially, Uri and his mother couldn't believe that his father had bought a map instead of bread. Eventually, however, the exotic names and places on the map captured Uri's imagination as he spent "enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery." Whimsical and colorful illustrations of Uri's imagined journeys provided a dramatic contrast to the earlier depictions of the family's suffering.


How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story By: Eve Bunting Illustrated by: Beth Peck Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Independent Reader

After the soldiers come, Papa tells his family that they must leave everything behind and set sail for America. The journey across the Caribbean is dangerous and long, and our narrator and his little sister keep asking — just how many days is it to America? Prolific children's author Eve Bunting, herself an immigrant from Ireland, shares the story of a new generation of pilgrims who are willing to risk their lives to look for freedom in America.


Inside Out and Back Again By: Thanhha Lai Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Hà's family flees war-torn Vietnam. When they arrive in Alabama more than 3 months later as refugees, they struggle to adapt to a new life. Yet slowly Hà and her family begin to find their way, making friends in unexpected places and helping each other survive. Based on the childhood experiences of the author, this compelling novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. A reading guide from Scholastic is available.



Mai Ya's Long Journey By: Sheila Cohen Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Mai Ya's Long Journey follows Mai Ya Xiong, a young Hmong woman, from her childhood in Thailand's Ban Vinai Refugee Camp to her current home in Wisconsin. Mai Ya's parents fled Laos during the Vietnam War and were refugees in Thailand for several years before reaching the United States. But the story does not end there. Students will read the challenges Mai Ya faces in balancing her Hmong heritage and her adopted American culture as she grows into adulthood.

My Freedom Trip By: Frances Park & Ginger Park Illustrated by: Steve Jenkins Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

In this intense and moving book, Frances and Ginger Park share the story of their mother's escape from North Korea as a young girl. On the night that Soo prepares for her freedom trip, she bids her mother a tearful farewell and begins a journey during which she will travel by train and foot to reach the border with South Korea. Filled with suspense and heartache, the story is a tribute to those who set out for freedom — and those who stay behind.


Out of Iraq: Refugees' Stories in Words, Paintings and Music By: Sybella Wilkes Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Product Description: Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have fled to other countries. This book provides, in words and pictures, a glimpse of what life was like in Iraq before they left, why they were forced to flee, and how they feel about life as a refugee. Their stories are set against background information about Iraq, Saddam Hussain's rule, the invasion, and the subsequent civil war. The role of the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR) is outlined, and ideas for using the book in the classroom are also included. This edition includes a foreword by Angelina Jolie.



Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Young Readers Edition) By: Warren St. John Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Product Description: This young people's version of the adult bestseller, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference, is a complex and inspirational story about the Fugees, a youth soccer team in Clarkson, Georgia made up of diverse refugees from around the world, and their formidable female coach, Luma Mufleh. The author explores how the community changed with the influx of refugees and how the dedication of Lumah Mufleh and the entire Fugees soccer team inspired an entire community.


Playing War By: Kathy Beckwith Illustrated by: Lea Lyon Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Independent Reader

On a summer day when no one can think of anything to do, "playing war" seems like the perfect way to spend the day to Luke and his friends — until they realize that their new friend, Sameer, has had more experience with war than any of his friends can imagine. Beckwith and Lyon offer a poignant look at real and imagined war from a child's point of view. Teachers with refugees may find this an effective bridge for discussion.


Red Midnight By: Ben Mikaelsen Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Product Description: When guerrilla soldiers strike Santiago's Guatemalan village, they destroy everything in their path — including his home and family. Santiago and his four-year-old sister escape, running for their lives. They set sail in a sea kayak their Uncle Ramos built while dreaming of his own escape. Sailing through narrow channels guarded by soldiers, shark-infested waters, and days of painful heat and raging storms, Santiago and Angelina face an almost impossible voyage hundreds of miles across the open ocean, heading for the hope of a new life in the United States.



The Cat from Kosovo By: Mary Jane Hampton Illustrated by: Tamara Thiébaux-Heikalo Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Product Description: One day Olsa and Bashkim opened their doors to a small brown-and-white striped cat, they opened their hearts too. But the rather ordinary happiness of their lives was threatened as the war in Kosovo grew nearer. Forced to leave their home, they gathered all their courage and the few things they simply could not leave behind, journeying first to Macedonia and then to Canada. But no one at the receiving centre in Greenwood, Nova Scotia would have guessed that of the more than two thousand immigration cards issued for the refugees, one would be for a small brown-and-white striped cat — the cat from Kosovo.


The Color of Home By: Mary Hoffman Illustrated by: Karin Littlewood Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Product Description: First-grader Hassan has only recently arrived in the United States after he and his family were forced to flee Somalia, and he deeply misses the colorful 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.


The Memory Coat By: Elvira Woodruff Illustrated by: Michael Dooling Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Meet Rachel and her cousin, Grisha, two Jewish children living in a small town in Russia. When soldiers begin to attack their town, the family decides that they must set sail for America and their grandmother offers Grisha a new coat instead of his old, tattered coat so that the family will make a good impression at Ellis Island. Grisha insists, however, on keeping the coat that is so special to him — a decision that ultimately helps keep the family together in America. Based loosely on a true story, young readers will appreciate the emotional impact of the story as well as the beautifully evocative illustrations.



The Whispering Cloth By: Pegi Deitz Shea & You Yang Illustrated by: Anita Riggio Age Level: 9-12 Reading Level: Independent Reader

After much practice, Mai is finally ready to make her own pa'dau, or embroidered story cloth. Listening to the stories of her grandmother and the other women at the refugee camp, however, she feels that there are no stories left for her to stitch. Can she find a story of her own? This moving tribute to the Hmong people is richly enhanced by a breathtaking, intricate story cloth woven for the book by pa'ndau artist You Yang.


When I Get Older: The Story behind "Wavin' Flag" By: K'NAAN Illustrated by: Rudy Gutiérrez Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Independent Reader

Product Description: In his first book for children, Somali-Canadian poet, rapper, singer, and songwriter K'NAAN tells his own story. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in Somalia, he grew up in Mogadishu. His grandfather was a renowned poet who passed on his love of words to his grandson. When the Somali Civil War began in 1991, K'NAAN was just thirteen. His mother made the difficult decision to move her family so that they could grow up in safety. K'NAAN's love of music, and his enormous talent, became a way for him to connect with his past, with his classmates, and eventually, to millions of people around the world when his hit "Wavin' Flag" was selected as the FIFA World Cup theme.



Ziba Came on a Boat By: Liz Lofthouse Illustrated by: Robert Ingpen Age Level: 6-9 Reading Level: Beginning Reader

Ziba has left the war-torn Afghanistan to come to a place that is safer and warmer — Australia. As the tiny fishing boat rises and falls on the sea, Ziba remembers all that she left behind, and dreams of the freedom that awaits her in her new life. Haunting illustrations convey both the pain and hope that consumes Ziba on her journey. Based on the stories of the Hazara refugees living in Australia.


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