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Picture Books About the Refugee Experience

January 31, 2017

Recent events have brought the world's attention to the presence of refugees in the United States. The children's picture books featured in this blog post share what it’s like to be a refugee from a child’s perspective, and are wonderful to share with children of all backgrounds.

"Alive and Ready Sudanese Refugee Girl". Photo by Hannah Galli, Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

One of the greatest benefits of books is that they can help us understand the experiences of other people who may be very different from us. Reading books can help us realize that what we may think is somewhat unusual is perhaps common to many. Many Nashville residents have the experience of being a refugee, or someone who has to leave their homeland due to ethnic, religious, or political persecution, or because they are fleeing war and economic devastation. Families from countries such as Bhutan, Iraq, and Somalia-and others-have resettled in Nashville and are a vital part of our city. They are our neighbors, our children’s classmates, our coworkers. They are us. The children’s books below share what it’s like to be a refugee from a child’s perspective, and are wonderful to share with children of all backgrounds.

Based on a refugee aid worker’s experience with Afghani refugees in Pakistan, Four Feet, Two Sandals is a touching tale of friendship and sharing. When aid workers distribute clothes for the waiting crowds at the refugee camp, all young Lina is able to get is one sandal, yellow and topped with a blue flower. She sees that another girl has the missing sandal. What will the two girls do with only one shoe? They decide to share the sandals: Lina wears them one day, while Feroza-the girl with the other sandal- wears them the next. They also form a deep friendship, giggling, playing, and sharing chores together. The text is not complicated by any means, and is very approachable for a young independent reader. It also lends itself well to sharing with younger children who enjoy listening to well-developed stories. [[nid:2385]]

The Whispering Cloth is set among Hmong refugees in Thailand. The Hmong are a people originating from Southwest China. Many of them fled into and out of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos following periods of persecution. Thousands of Hmong now live in the United States. While living in a refugee camp in Thailand, Mai’s grandmother teaches her to make traditional pa’ndau-story cloths-to sell. Hmong pa’ndau are quilts or shawls that tell stories. They are embroidered with flowers or other geometric designs. The illustrations in this book are of special interest. They include details from the pan’dau Mai and her grandmother sew together, and showcase the delicate stitching they entail. [[nid:2386]]

 Hassan is the new boy at school in The Color of Home. He doesn’t speak English, and everything seems “cold and gray.” It makes him miss the yellow sun, the mimosa trees, and the cat he left behind in Somalia all the more. Through a picture he paints on the first day of school, and with the help of an interpreter, Hassan is able to tell his teacher about the tragic night his family left home. Will the United States ever feel like home? The turmoil behind why so many Somalis have left their country is sensitively portrayed. The watercolor illustrations are vibrant and rich with yellows, reds, and greens. This is a great book to share with a child who may have just started in the school system, or with another who is curious as to why some people leave all they know for a new life in faraway country.[[nid:2387]]

These are not the only picture books about refugees in the Nashville Public Library. Don't miss out on the books at the end of this post. For more information about organizations in Nashville that work with refugees, see the list below.

Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee

Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition

Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc.

Klem-Mari Cajigas


In a former life, Klem-Marí was a Religious Studies scholar. She much prefers being the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life! She wants you to read and share books with the children in your life, and for those children to see you to read as well. Originally from Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí also enjoys her cat, baking, yoga, and the works of Octavia Butler.