Books That Explore the Refugee Experience
These nine books—for students of all grade levels—convey what it’s like to be a refugee.
A recent UNICEF report says that 28 million children worldwide are refugees. Horrifying images of young people fleeing war-torn regions circulate online, and it can be overwhelming for students to see other young people suffering. But literature and art have long been vehicles to help us make sense of tragedy, and in the hands of gifted storytellers and illustrators, humanitarian crises in Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere can not only deepen student empathy but inspire action.
There are many books that can help give kids this deeper perspective—these are a few memorable reads recommended by educators.
Told from the perspective of a young child, this 2016 book set in an unspecified region uses lush illustrations and few words to present a family’s migration as an allegory. Inspired by true stories she heard at a refugee center in Italy, author and illustrator Francesca Sanna tells the story of a mother and her two children, who face their fear of the unknown with a sense of hope. (Grades pre-K–2)
When civil war reaches their Syrian village, Rama and her family must flee with only the things they can carry to join the “river of people” searching for a better life. Margriet Ruur’s 2016 story—in English with an Arabic translation—features luminous art by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who arranges pebbles and rocks into beautiful narrative images of Rama and her family. (Grades pre-K–3)
My Name Is Sangoel
Eight-year-old Sangoel is proud of his Dinka name, which was handed down to him by his father and grandfather. But when he and his family leave their war-torn Sudanese village and arrive in the United States, he discovers that nobody can pronounce it. Sangoel changes that with an idea that inspires his classmates in this 2009 book written by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed and illustrated by Catherine Stock. (Grades 1–5)
Somos Como Las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds
Author and poet Jorge Argueta fled a civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s, arriving in the U.S. as a 19-year-old. This bilingual book of his poems, published in 2016 with haunting illustrations by Alfonso Ruano, gives readers a window into the fear and vulnerability of a displaced life. (Grades 3–6)
The Unforgotten Coat
When two Mongolian refugee brothers, Chingis and Nergui, come to Julie’s suburban British classroom, her orderly life breaks down. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s 2011 novella—told via Julie’s diary and Polaroid photos—is a reflection on friendship, the role of imagination, and what it’s like to be a refugee trying to assimilate. (Grades 3–7)
The Red Pencil
In Andrea Davis Pinkney’s 2014 coming-of-age novel in verse—with illustrations by Shane W. Evans—12-year-old Amira lives in a small Sudanese village and dreams of going to school. When the Janjaweed militia attacks her village and kills her father, Amira and her remaining family members begin the long march to a refugee camp. There she is given the red pencil of the title, which opens up new opportunities for her. (Grade 4 and up)
Inside Out and Back Again
A favorite among teachers and students, this poignant 2013 coming-of-age novel in verse centers on 10-year-old Hà, who loses her father and must flee her home in Vietnam when Saigon falls, in 1975. Full of hope, she and her family get on a boat and immigrate to Alabama. The story—inspired by author Thanhha Lai’s childhood experience as a refugee—chronicles Hà’s struggles to fit in and adjust to a new and complex world. (Grades 4–8)
The Milk of Birds
Fourteen-year-old K.C. lives in Richmond, Virginia, and hates school. When she joins a pen pal program, she is paired with Nawra, a Sudanese girl her age who lives in a refugee center and can neither read nor write—she dictates her letters to an aid worker. Nawra’s life story is horrific, but this 2014 debut novel by Sylvia Whitman also conveys the profoundly healing power of friendship. (Grades 8 and up)
The Best We Could Do
Thi Bui’s debut graphic novel, published just this year, tells the story of her family’s escape from Vietnam in the 1970s and her reflections on the meaning of family and identity as she becomes a mother. You won’t find a wasted word or brush stroke in a tale for teens and adults that Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it.” (Grades 11 and up)