Plaza Voices: Picture Books

Our regular contributor Naghem S. writes:

I have a confession to make. I spent the entire weekend reading—two glorious days reading picture books. I love picture books, even now as an adult. Seeing vivid colors splash across the page, and creatures of my imagination come to life, has always been magical to me. But this weekend I wasn’t reading for pleasure. I was researching age-appropriate books for school children to learn about the world around them. And what I discovered filled me with memories and left me in tears.

Many children in our communities go to school with immigrants and refugees, or are immigrants or refugees themselves. I wanted to come up with a list of books that explore in detail the lives of immigrant children in a strange land, and reassure young readers that it's okay to be an immigrant or refugee. The books that I read were about refugee children trying to adjust to a new life, and how hard that can be. Some books described life in the U.S., while others took place in refugee camps. Page after page, goosebumps would come and go, but the tears were endless and my own journey flashed across the pages. 

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo is a story about Sami, a Syrian refugee. He was forced to flee to a refugee camp when his home and town were destroyed. In doing so, he left behind his beloved pet pigeons. This story hit close to home. When my mother and I fled Iraq, I had to leave behind my chickens. They were a present from my grandfather and every morning I would run to the chicken coop and pick their freshly laid eggs. I had two, a black hen and a white hen. They were funny little things that I chased around. They never hurt me, not even when my clumsy 5-year-old hands were searching for their eggs. When I left Iraq, I left behind my chickens and their eggs. Even now, 22 years later, I still daydream about running to the chicken coop to look for the eggs. 

My Name is Sangoel by Khadra Mohammed is a story about Sangoel, a Sudanese refugee, who comes to the United States with his mother and sister. He has little to call his own, except his name. The story details how Sangoel’s new classmates can’t pronounce his name and how he overcomes that. Sangoel is my hero. No, really, because my name, my Arabic name, is very rarely heard outside of my home. نغم became Naghem because no one could pronounce my name in school and I got tired of everyone laughing when they tried. So I came up with a name that is “easily pronounced” and close enough to my real name. Maybe if I had stood my ground, I wouldn’t have two names. 

The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman is a story about Hassan, who misses his home in Africa after arriving in America. He misses the colors and sights of his home. I miss the taste and smell of home. I miss the endless blue sky, the scorching sun, and the sand. I really miss the sand. When I returned to Iraq in 2006, ten years after I fled, I fell to the ground. I cupped the sand in my hands and I took a huge breath as I bought my hands to my face. The sand was so healing that my tears fell without my command. The ground was welcoming me home. It was as if she was asking me where I was all these years, and why I had left her. 

Two other books I want to recommend are Stormy Seas by Mary Beth Leatherdale, about the experiences of young boat refugees, and Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs, which tells the story of a Syrian family making their way in Europe.

Are you an immigrant or refugee? What books speak to your experiences in the U.S. or elsewhere? Share with us in the comments!

Plazas are an open community space where immigrants from all over the world connect with people, information, and resources, building Denver’s global community. Come to practice a language, prepare for citizenship, pursue your goals, and create your future. Whatever you’re doing, we can help! Please see our events calendar for more information.

Written by Amma R. on January 19, 2018


Bradi S. on January 21, 2018


This is a really good post. I think I'll pick up some of these books to read to my kids.

Thank you Amanda and Naghem!

Abby on January 22, 2018


Thanks for this thoughtful post! To me, these books look like excellent reading for all ages - now perhaps more than ever.

Virginia V. on January 22, 2018


This is a wonderful resource. I still remember some books that helped open my mind to other parts of the world when I was younger - they made a lasting impression on me. I can't wait to introduce some of these beautiful books to the kids I know.

Lisa M. on January 23, 2018


Stormy Seas will bring much needed visuals for my children to understand their dad's and his family's hardships as refugees.


Thank you to everyone who read this post. Naghem's thoughtful pieces are always a joy to read and her recommendations are excellent!

Mandy L. on January 24, 2018


Thank you for this beautiful post.

Karen Lausa on February 1, 2018


Outstanding post. As an adult who was deeply moved by Helen Thorpe's Newcomers, now there are suggestions on how reading these beautiful picture books can promote and encourage compassion and empathy for differences at a very young age. Thank you!

NH on February 9, 2018


My favorite is "A Place To Grow," by Soyung Pak. It is moving and positive, while mentioning the difficult past without dwelling on it.