Welcoming Immigrant and Refugee Newcomer Students Using Children’s Books
“Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else. Hers was the school of faraway places.
Mai was from a city so big that it was like its own country.
India and Camila were from a stony village at the tippy top of the world.
Matteo had lived in a desert so hot even the cactus fainted.
Nu was born in a jungle famous for its tigers and its poets.
And Lola was from the Island.”-Excerpt form “Islandborn” by Junot Díaz
Perhaps yours is a class of faraway places! As a dual language teacher, I’ve had quite a few necomer students join my classes – recent immigrants or refugees from other countries. And each time, it is a gift. We gain a new friend and have the chance to get to know them, their family, and about their unique story. And of course, we have a perfect opportunity to see the value of being multilingual and multicultural!
While there are many ways we can help new students feel welcome and build community, one of my favorites will always be learning and connecting through amazing children’s literature. There is a plethora of resources for finding English titles, but it’s much harder to find quality Spanish texts.
These Spanish titles are some of my top choices for helping your newcomer students (ages 3 to 13) feel seen, valued, and embraced in their new school community. I hope you can find them at your local library or bookstore! The links provided are Amazon links, and you can also find them in Bilingual Balance’s Bookshop.
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Picture Books on Newcomer Students (3+)
by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman [Ages 3+]
The Spanish version of the classroom favorite “All Are Welcome!” In this story, you’ll follow a group of children through their school day, at a place where everyone is welcome and accepted. Students from all walks of life learn from each other, celebrate and embrace their similarities and differences. A must-have for your classroom!
by Nomar Perez [Ages 3+]
Based on events in the author’s own life, this is the story of a little boy from Puerto Rico who moves to New York. When Miguel moves from San Juan, he leaves behind his grandparents and his beloved pet, Coquí. Yet while exploring his new home in the United States, he discovers it might not be as different from San Juan as he thought. And that he’ll always keep a bit of his homeland with him! This title won the Pura Belpré honor award.
In English: Coquí in the City
by Juana Martinez-Neal [Ages 4+]
Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela has six names – and she thinks that’s too many! But when she learns about the special person and story behind each name, she becomes proud of her name and heritage. A beautiful story to inspire your class to be proud of who they are and where they come from. This title is a Caldecott Honor winner for its exceptional illustrations.
In English: Alma and How She Got Her Name
by Yuyi Morales [Ages 4+]
This is the story of author Yuyi Morales and her infant son’s passage into the United States and making it their new homeland. Together they found an unexpected refuge – the public library. Book by book they learned about their new home and its language and culture. It is a beautiful yet simple story about family and immigration. This book won the Pura Belpré award for illustration in 2019.
In English: Dreamers
by Alexandra Alessandri, illustrated by Courtney Dawson [Ages 5+]
One of our absolute favorites, this bilingual book is about feeling new and making friends. Isabel is the new girl at school, and feels her emotions through the colors that she sees around her. English, with its cool blues and grays, feels wrong. She loves the warm oranges and reds of Spanish. But her first day takes a twist when she realizes there’s more than one way to communicate with a friend.
by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa [Ages 5+]
Lola’s class is a diverse group of students – many originally from different countries. But when Lola’s teacher invites the class to draw a picture of the place where they immigrated from, Lola feels lost. She was only a baby when they moved from the island. With the help of her family and friends, however, she takes a journey back through their sweet, sad, and wonderful memories of their home country.
In English: Islandborn
by Sara Pletcher, illustrated by Randy Pletcher [Ages 5+]
This amazing book is about Sofía and her first day at a bilingual school. We follow along with her as she figures out how she’ll communicate with her teacher and peers in a new language. A story of the uncertainty and trepidation involved with starting over in a new place. Love this for dual language classrooms with newcomer students!
by Jessica Betancourt-Perez & Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Gina Maldonado [Ages 5+]
This bilingual title is mostly English, with Spanish dialogue throughout. Isabella has recently arrived in the United States from Colombia with her mamá and abuela. She misses her papá (who’s waiting on his papers in South America) and her friends, but Isabella is looking forward to making new friends at school! However, her first day of school is canceled due to snow. When a little girl falls in the snow outside her window, Isabella runs out to help! Together, the girls build a snowman – and an unexpected friendship.
by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez [Ages 5+]
Six children are playing on the playground. Three speak English, and three speak Spanish. Will they find a way to play together without speaking each other’s language? This heartwarming story of making friends despite a language barrier will inspire your class to find creative ways to be a friend. The text is bilingual, with Spanish and English perfectly woven throughout.
Spanish Picture Books (6+)
by Areli Morales, illustrated by Luisa Uribe [Ages 6+]
Areli was born in Mexico and spent her days with her grandma, brother, and cousins. Each weekend, they played outside and waited on her parents’ phone call from New York. Her parents were separated from their children, trying to pave the way for a different life for their family in the United States. Follow along with Areli on her touching journey across the border and into a new life, new school, new language, and new friends. This extraordinary book is the true story of author Areli Morales who is a DACA recipient.
In English: Areli Is A Dreamer
by Maria Dismondy, illustrated by Donna Farrell [Ages 6+]
Gabe is the newcomer student at school. He only speaks Spanish and is terrified about what his first day will be like. How will he know what to do? What will the other kids think? Johnny, his classmate, doesn’t understand Gabe and doesn’t want a new friend. Little by little, however, he sees how it might feel to be learning something new. He learns that he can be a friend through his actions, and the universal language of kindness. This title is mostly English with Spanish peppered throughout.
by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by Elizabeth Gómez [Ages 6+]
This bilingual book of poetry tells the story of young Jorgito, who immigrated to San Francisco from El Salvador. He remembers so much of El Salvador – the volcanoes, his grandmother’s stories, and the cornmeal pupusas. Yet he is creating new adventures and memories in his new country. These experiences create a patchwork of dreams, or movie in his pillow, of his now bicultural identity.
by Amada Irma Pérez, illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzales [Ages 6+]
This is the poignant story of Amada and her family’s journey moving from Mexico to Los Angeles. Amada records all of her thoughts, fears, and dreams, as they travel to a new land and life. She wonders about how she’ll learn English and if she’ll forget her best friends. She learns that with her family’s love and the courage inside her, she can face it all. The text is in both English and Spanish.
by Jorge Argueta, illustrated by Carl Angel [Ages 6+]
Xochitl and her family are settling into their new home in the United States, but something important is missing from El Salvador. They left behind their beautiful garden and flower shop. Then one day, they decide to start a nursery and sell the flowers in their new community. Finally, they get a sense of belonging and start feeling connected to their neighbors and community members. This is a side by side bilingual book that can be enjoyed in English or Spanish.
Newcomer Students Chapter Books (9+)
by Pam Muñoz Ryan [Ages 9+]
Esperanza Ortega is a young Mexican girl who has an enchanted life – she’s part of a wealthy family and will one day inherit their prosperous ranch. Then one day, a family tragedy changes everything. Esperanza and her mother flee to California to start a new chapter in their lives. She’ll discover hard work, poverty, humility – and that family and community are life’s real treasures.
In English: Esperanza Rising
by Aida Salazar [Ages 9+]
Nine-year-old Betita and her family have fled from the cartel wars in Mexico to a new home in Los Angeles. Then one day, her father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico. Next, she and her pregnant mother are also detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp. This heartbreaking story will teach your students about the harsh realities of immigration and asylum, while opening up discussions about community and hope.
In English: Land of the Cranes
by Alexandra Diaz [Ages 9+]
Twelve-year-old Jaime is drawing when he hears the yell. His best friend and cousin, Miguel, is dead. Los Alfas are a gang that is known for its violence and drug trafficking in their home country of Guatemala. Fearful for their lives, Jaime and his prima Ángela flee their home and make the tumultuous journey toward the United States. An immigration story full of bravery, danger, love and loss inspired by actual events. This title won the Pura Belpré Honor award and has a sequel: La encrucijada.
In English: The Only Road
Enjoy! I encourage you to check out these books on newcomer students and read them yourself to decide whether they are right for your particular class and group of students. I hope that one will make a difference in helping you welcome newcomer students!
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