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Immigrant and Refugee Experiences in Children’s and Young Adult Literature

The Penn Libraries is actively expanding its collection of children’s and young adult literatures with the goal of privileging diverse voices, cultures, and perspectives. Recently, an internal collection development grant enabled the Libraries to narrow in on juvenile literatures that focus on immigrant and refugee communities in the United States.

Cover of Other Words for Home.

Collection Overview

The Immigrant and Refugee Experiences in Children’s and Young Adult Literature Collection is new and growing. This collection can be easily accessed through the catalog, or explored here. The books it houses range widely in form, topic, and genre. They include works of fiction and non-fiction, picture books, grade-school and young-adult novels, biographies and autobiographies, poetry, and histories. These books tell stories about immigrants from around the globe: sometimes the focus is on these communities’ respective traditions and cultures back home or abroad, while at others, the focus is their experiences within the United States and in relation to American cultures.

Thematically, these books also vary greatly. Some focus on the experiences of refugees displaced by war, violence, persecution, or environmental catastrophe. These include Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy (2020), Other Words for Home (2019), The Good Braider (2014), and The Whispering Cloth (1996). Picture books like Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale (2013), Two White Rabbits (2015) and Calling the Water Drum (2016) allegorize migration under perilous conditions for young readers.

Some books explore children’s relationship to their grandparents from other countries, such as Nana Akua Goes to School (2020), Grandpa Across the Ocean (2021), When I Found Grandma (2019) and Grandfather Counts (2010). Others deal with adjusting to life in a new place, with navigating differences, or with celebrating traditions. A number of books, for instance, revel in the power of food to create bonds and transmit culture: Cora Cooks Pancit (2009), Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge (2017), Hot Pot Night! (2020), A Place at the Table (2020), and Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao (2019).

Still other books thematize fantasy, adventure, and the celebration of joy. Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter (2018) features a magic camera whose photographs reveal Japan’s hidden spirit world. Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019) presents a fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream centering a pre-teen girl’s efforts to navigate her Indian-American heritage and her dreams of becoming a renowned baker. Finally, Once Upon an Eid (2020) assembles short stories by Muslim authors celebrating the joys that accompany the holiday of Eid.

This growing collection of juvenile literature about immigrant and refugee experiences complements other segments of the Penn Libraries’ collections that similarly focus on diversity in children and young adults. In 2018, the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscript received a major collection of African American children’s books from collector Joanna Banks. Then, in 2019, the Kislak Center also received the archive of African American children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan. These collections join papers of Atha Tehon, children’s books designer who worked on notable works like Julius Lester’s The Old African (2005) and the award-winner Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (1976); holdings of Soviet children’s books from the 1920s and 1930s; early children’s books, including many fictional works for youth in the Singer-Mendenhall collection; early children’s series books and dime novels; and titles in the Caroline F. Schimmel Fiction Collection of Women in the American Wilderness.