Teaching children about refugees, immigrants and slaves through picture books

Children around the world

How do we explain the unimaginable? Where are the words to describe how some children are torn from their homes, run in fear from all they know, looking for a place to live where they will feel safe?

Children’s literature does not fail us here. Recent publications include stories of slaves, immigrants and refugees, spoken in honest words. These books are heart-rending, but true tales, revelations of strife and hopeful ideals. When children ask questions about the protests they are hearing about on the news surrounding immigration issues these books lead to a path to understanding, and sometimes to more questions.

I am a children’s librarian, and caregivers ask me all the time, with a book or movie in their hand, “Is this appropriate?” For whom? While these books might not be the answer for every child’s questions, they can serve as a starting place to help explain these difficult topics.

Faith Ringgold’s We Came to America (grades K-2) portrays the diversity of people who live in America. On these pages, illustrated in vivid colors in the folk art medium she is noted for, Ringgold depicts Native Americans, slaves and immigrants to America from all over the world, and she writes of the gifts they have shared. Ironically the book includes the lines, “Our food, our fashion, and our art Made America GREAT.”

We Came to America is a celebration of the diversity of the United States of America. A footnote at the bottom of the tile page reads, “Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.” We Came to America salutes all the people who have made this nation great, how they got here and their contributions.

Intimate and personal portrayals of the lives of slaves reach out from the pages of Freedom over me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life by Ashley Bryan (grades 3-6). This title shares portraits in poetry and paintings in the mixed mediums of pen, ink, watercolor and collage, depicting the lives of slaves telling their stories based on the lives of real people. The book highlights official documents the author researched from 1828, the Last Will and Testament from the estate of Cados Fairchild, which records humans listed as property with a price attached to their value. These were people who each brought their gifts to the life of the plantation and their talents are showcased in their strength, their art and their voices.

Freedom Over Me is a 2017 Newbury Honor Book and Coretta Scott King award for both Author and Illustrator. It presents a darker chapter in American history, but offers an opportunity to discuss slavery based on the lives of these 11 unique and talented people.

The horrors experienced by refugees are revealed in The Journey (grades 2-5) by Francesca Sanna. War puts the peaceful life of a family in turmoil. They once spent weekends at the beach, but their father was taken away, illustrations show pieces suggestive of him – glasses, slippers strewn across a page – and their mother decides to flee with the children. The Journey is not for the faint of heart or a particularly fearful child. It is an unimaginable story. While the text is short, it is menacing and the illustrations are chilling. Monsters reach out across the pages, derived from everyone’s worst nightmares of fleeing the unknown to reach a nameless destination. There is hope at the end, but no new home in sight.

The author shares that the story was inspired by two girls she met in an Italian refugee center, but it is a combination of many stories of refugees. In text and illustrations, it depicts the sorrow of leaving people and things behind, the disorientation of the journey and the fear of the unknown. It is most disheartening when the mother and children are stopped in their tracks at a wall. As they continue their journey they envy the birds in the sky because of their freedom to find a home.

To parents and caregivers, be honest, be kind, and continue to search for answers to your own questions. Children benefit from the modeling of those practices.


  1. Patty Doggett

    This is very helpful and interesting, Thank you, Laurie!