Yuyi Morales heard hateful rhetoric about immigrants and knew she needed to fight back.
So she started drawing.
The author and illustrator already had made her mark on children’s literature in more than a dozen books. With the 2016 election fresh in her mind, Morales felt it was time to tackle a more personal topic.
“I felt like I had no choice, actually. … I felt that if someone was going to define who immigrants were,” she says, “it was going to have to be us.”
Morales’ 2018 children’s book, “Dreamers,” tells the story of a journey she made decades ago, and how she found her way after coming to the United States from Mexico with a young son in tow.
The award-winning immigration tale has already become a mainstay on the shelves of many bookstores and libraries. And it’s far from the only one.
Inspired by the political moment and their own experiences, a growing number of authors are writing children’s books about immigration.
“It’s a total golden age. … We have seen a serious uptick,” says Kirsten Cappy, executive director of I’m Your Neighbor Books, a Maine-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting children’s books about “new arrivals and new Americans.”
From 2000-2006, there were just a handful of children’s books dealing with immigration or immigrant families published each year, according to a database the group maintains. In 2016, there were a dozen. And by 2018, there were more than 100.
Events in the news are also inspiring some books hitting the shelves. One novel for young readers published this year tells the story of a migrant caravan from El Salvador through the eyes of a child making the journey. And a picture book describes what life is like for a child whose father is being held in an immigrant detention center.
Some books weave immigration into their stories without directly mentioning it. Others make characters’ journeys from one country to another a central focus.
Here’s a look inside several recent children’s books, and why the authors who wrote them say they decided to tell these stories:
She read picture books with her son when she was a new immigrant
Morales’ “Dreamers” paints a vivid portrait of the struggle to understand a new place — and how books themselves can offer refuge.
Written in the voice of a mother talking to her son, the story details their lives as new immigrants in the United States and how they found comfort in an unfamiliar land when they discovered the picture book section of their local public library.
It’s an uplifting story. But Morales also is open about the difficulties she faced along the way.
“There were so many things we didn’t know,” she writes in one section of the book. “Unable to understand and afraid to speak, we made a lot of mistakes.”
Morales says the illustrations on those pages depict mistakes she made after she came to the United States in 1994 — from being afraid to answer the phone to struggling to find place names a map.
“I gave myself permission to tell my story in the hopes that it would become an invitation for other people to tell their story…so that everyone knows, especially children, how valuable and important their stories are,” she says. “A story doesn’t have to be out of this world to be significant.”
She rewrote part of her book after the election
Juana Martinez-Neal came up with the idea for “Alma and How She Got Her Name” long before the 2016 election. But she says she changed several pages in the book after the results came in.
The book was published in 2018 and won a prestigious Caldecott Honor this year. It tells the story of Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela, a little girl with a long name — “too long if you asked her.” Throughout the story, Alma’s father tells her about each family member who inspired her name — including the scene Martinez-Neal says she added after the election, a grandmother depicted marching in a protest who “always stood up for what is right.”
By the end of the book, the girl’s frustration with her name turns into a sense of pride.
“Alma is an immigrant and so is her family. I do feel it is in some ways an immigration story,” says Martinez-Neal, who immigrated to the United States from Peru. “But I think the most important part about the book is we don’t center the book on the fact that she’s an immigrant. We just center the book on the fact that she has a story and she can share it.”
Martinez-Neal says the story is something anyone can relate to, no matter their cultural background. “We all have names,” she says.
He wanted to write a book that would make his daughter proud
Bao Phi, a spoken-word artist and poet based in Minnesota, didn’t write children’s books until he had a daughter of his own.
“There were times when my daughter, when she was much younger, kind of showed that she was both ashamed and not understanding the place of Southeast Asians in America,” Phi says. “So I wrote ‘A Different Pond’ because I wanted her to have a picture book that honored the struggle of her grandparents, working-class Vietnamese refugees.”
“A Different Pond” tells the story of a boy and his dad fishing before sunrise to bring home food for their family. “A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river,” the boy says as they head to the pond. “But to me his English sounds like a gentle rain.”
The book was published in 2017 and won a Caldecott Honor last year. Phi says the 2016 election had nothing to do with the story itself, but “probably had an effect on the way it was received.”
“I wrote this book because these issues have always been issues. … Those of us who are marginalized people, this is part of our lives always. Whether or not the larger culture or the mainstream ever focuses a lens towards us, that’s out of our control. We just have to write what’s important, and that’s what I was doing,” he says. “I wrote it for my kid. I wrote it for my parents. I wrote it for all the little kids who are friends of my daughter, so they understand the struggle of where she comes from.”
Why an immigration attorney became a first-time author
Fiona McEntee couldn’t find the right book to read during storytime at her daughter’s school. So she decided to write the story she wanted to tell.
In the recently published “Our American Dream,” McEntee — a Chicago-based immigration lawyer who herself immigrated to the United States from Ireland — describes characters she says were largely inspired by her clients, like a Russian artist who relishes in the freedom of expression she has in the United States or a woman who started a tech company.
One goal, she says, is bridging the disconnect between the way immigrants are often portrayed and what she sees in her office daily.
“I think having these conversations with children earlier, they’re not going to buy into hateful narratives,” McEntee says. “They’re going to look at immigrants like their neighbor or their teacher or their friend’s mom who’s from somewhere else, and just appreciate diversity.”
She portrayed a woman who’s a pillar in her community
Oge Ma’s book, “Thank You, Omu,” never explicitly mentions immigration. But the author and illustrator says she drew on her experience as the child of Nigerian immigrants growing up in America.
“Sometimes, when you’re the second generation, you feel like you’re being pulled into two different places. Am I American? Am I Nigerian? Attaching your identity to one of those doesn’t really work. You kind of exist in this third space,” she says.
“And so it was really interesting to me … to write from my space, that in-between, and create a book where there’s such a specific connection to Nigerian — specifically Igbo — culture, but there’s also the Americanness as well. It’s not a Nigerian book. It’s not an American book. It’s in that middle space like I am.”
The book tells the story of a delicious stew made by Omu — the Igbo word for “queen” and the name Ma used for her grandmother growing up. The stew’s aroma is so alluring that a boy in her apartment building, a police officer, a nearby hot dog vendor and even the mayor stop by to try some. Over the course of the book, Omu — a Nigerian immigrant — feeds her entire American neighborhood.
While the book, which was published last year and won a Caldecott Honor this year, didn’t arise out of the 2016 election and its aftermath, Ma says that recent events made her feel “more resolved that this needed to be told.”
“There’s so much anxiety around immigrant voices. … There’s this conflict of how people feel about immigrants. It felt very important for me to share my own experience and tell the story of this woman coming from that cultural perspective who’s here in America and honestly is a pillar of her community, who brings an entire community together.”