The Heart of the Matter: Family Histories Bring Immigration Stories to Life for Young Readers





Reviewed By K. L. Going



One of the many things I enjoy about writing for young audiences—whether they’re picture book, middle grade, or teen readers—is the way that every concept, no matter how complex, must be made accessible. Much as in poetry, when words are scarce, each one must be chosen with care. Writers for children must get to the heart of the matter.


Immigration has divided our country from its inception and continues to be inflammatory. In the adult world, when it comes to immigration, words have not been scarce, nor have they always been kind. In the world of children’s literature, there has been a growing trend in immigration stories, but in contrast these are mostly uplifting depictions. The Journal of Children and Media (Volume 15, 2021) states, “The depiction of migration as an ultimately positive and successful experience challenges the grimmer picture emerging from mainstream media depictions of migration and refugees as theaters of tragedy and suffering.”


These three children’s book writers have bridged the gap between harsh political rhetoric and young audiences by turning to their own family immigration stories. By sharing personal, heartfelt narratives, these authors have gotten to the heart of what immigration is all about: our fellow human beings searching for safety, opportunity, and freedom. By delving into their own families, each of these writers sheds light on how the journeys of one’s forebears can have long-reaching impact.


There are, and always will be, incredible complexities when it comes to immigration, but each of these books connects us to the heart of the matter: deeply meaningful stories about real people. These are narratives that allow people of any age to develop a better understanding of, and greater empathy for, immigrants.



Colby Cedar Smith


Call Me Athena


Andrews McMeel Publishing / 2021 / 547pp / $18.66 hardback




 

Colby Cedar Smith’s beautifully written young adult novel uses free verse to weave together the narratives of three different characters. These stories are occasionally interspersed with the love letters written between two of the characters. The letters are formatted to resemble actual letters, but they are also clearly written in verse.


We’re first introduced to Mary, coming of age in Detroit, Michigan, during the Great Depression. As the daughter of Greek and French immigrants, she struggles to balance her own desires against the traditional expectations of her parents. Although she’s been pledged to a Greek man, she longs to marry an American boy with whom she’s fallen in love. Mary also dreams of running a business. Ultimately, she rebels: “It is at this moment / that I decide. / I am not / a Good. Greek. Girl. / I am / a Modern. American. Woman.”


As she tries to understand her parents’ traditions, Mary wonders why they came to America. Her questions are answered when she finds the love letters. For the reader, we gain even more insight through Giorgos’s and Jeanne’s narratives. Giorgos’s story begins in Komnina, Greece, in 1915, where his hopes of becoming a fisherman are shattered and he’s forced to flee. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, he’s given an ultimatum to join the US Army or be sent back to his home country. The army sends him to the trenches in France where he meets Jeanne, a young woman working as a nurse. Together they channel their hopes for the future into the family they’ll raise in America.


Through this intergenerational story, we gain insight into the experiences of both the immigrants and their first-generation offspring. In one revealing poem, Mary worries how her family and her boyfriend’s family will find common ground. “Billy’s mother is a / Daughter of the American Revolution. / I am the daughter of immigrants.” In another scene, Giorgos finds a job at the Ford factory in Detroit where the new hires arrive “in their native costumes / from all around / the globe” but:


When the cauldron tips,

all of the men

walk out


wearing the same

Ford factory

uniform.


Americans.


These poignant moments offer opportunities for reflection on the American experience. In the author’s note, Cedar Smith explains that Giorgos and Jeanne were her great-grandparents and Mary was her grandmother. The novel is affecting because of the lyrical, vibrant poetry, and also because of the heart that shines through. Readers will feel Jeanne and Giorgos’s longing for a new life, and in turn, they’ll empathize with Mary as she struggles to live out the fulfillment of their dreams. Although the book was written for young adults, it’s highly recommended for adult readers as well.




Doyin Richards and Joe Cepeda


Watch Me


Macmillan Publishing Group / 2021 / 40 pp / $18.99 hardback



 

“This land is your land. This land is our land. There is enough for everyone.” The caption on the back of this picture book is pulled from one of the many gorgeously illustrated two-page spreads within. Doyin Richards tells the story of his father’s immigration to America in the mid-twentieth century from Sierra Leone. We first meet Joe while he’s a boy, still in Africa, dreaming about making a “big move.” Joe knows that his dreams are too large to accomplish where he is. As the story progresses and Joe grows up, many people—both those in Sierra Leone and those in America—doubt Joe’s ability to fulfill his dreams, but Joe always says, “Watch me.”


One of the many strengths of this book is the theme of “enough,” which permeates the text without having to be explicitly spelled out. The young audience (listed as ages three to five, although older children will enjoy the book as well) is continually encouraged to actively engage with this tale. Richards uses the phrase “like you” to emphasize the cross-cultural connections between the child audience and Joe: manners, grades, being different, music, struggling with things that are out of their control. At other times he asks children to look around, seeing if they can spot people who might also be immigrants. “Do you see people like Joe? Do you watch them learn and study, surrounded by books? Do you watch them as they deal with all kinds of looks?”


The connections that Richards creates with his words, and Cepeda makes real with his vibrant, colorful paintings, allow the audience to root for Joe, hoping he’ll succeed. He ultimately does so by becoming a doctor and a father. Through the family connection with the author, listeners understand that there was enough room in America for Joe, and that our country benefitted from having him here. The sparse language makes this a read-aloud picture book that can be enjoyed again and again, and the hopeful ending will leave children dreaming about the possibilities that await future immigrants. This book would be a wonderful addition to any classroom, library, or family collection.




Rosemary Wells and Jerry Pinkney


The Welcome Chair


Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers / 2021 / 40 pp / $17.99 hardback



 

The Welcome Chair, by Rosemary Wells, is a picture book (written for the four to eight age range) that’s rooted in a family legend. The beginning of the story originates in Wells’s great-great-grandmother’s diary. The book begins in 1807 when Sam Seigbert, Wells’s great-great-grandfather, is born in Bavaria. When Sam is sixteen, he gains employment as a bookkeeper on a ship and sails into New York Harbor. The narrator observes, “There is a lighthouse at Sandy Hook, but Lady Liberty is not going to appear for another sixty-two years.” In America, Sam becomes both bookkeeper and apprentice carpenter to Able Hinzler. When Able’s son Magnus is born, Sam makes a rocking chair for the family and carves the German word for welcome, “Willkommen,” across the top panel.


As the story progresses, the rocking chair travels west. In Wisconsin, Sam meets Ruth (Wells’s great-great-grandmother), another immigrant. When their son is born, Sam carves the Hebrew word for welcome under the German one so that Henry will know his heritage. During the Civil War, Henry’s little sister makes her father carve the English word “Welcome” on the chair because they are in America now. The chair next passes to Helen’s seamstress (an Irish immigrant) as a wedding present. “Failte,” the Irish word for welcome, is added. Years later, the much-loved chair ends up in disrepair and is found at the Salvation Army by two nuns who have fled the Dominican Republic. The nuns add “Bienvenido.” When they pass away, the chair ends up in a rummage sale and reappears with the Basquet family, who adopt an orphan from Haiti, so they add the word “Byenvini” in his honor. Finally, the Basquets give the chair to a family of Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country. Although there is a lot of ground to cover (literally!), the writing is concise, telling each segment of the story in simple, straightforward language, thus allowing the whole story to unfold in a way that will keep young readers and listeners engaged.


The book is strongest when it’s rooted in family history. Wells says in her author’s note, “. . . my grandmother’s account ended in 1918. No one knew what happened to the Welcome Chair after that.” So Wells infused the rest of the story with true immigration stories that she then imagines being connected to the Welcome Chair. As an adult reader, I was a little bit disappointed to learn of this half-truth format, but young readers will be swept up in the story’s concept of welcoming many generations of immigrants from all over the world. This message, combined with Pinkney’s familiar detailed style and warm pencil-and-watercolor palette, makes this book an excellent story for older picture book readers.


 

K. L. Going is the award-winning author of multiple books for young readers. She received a Michael Printz Honor for her teen novel, Fat Kid Rules the World, which was made into a feature film. Her beloved middle-grade novel, The Liberation of Gabriel King, was named an IRA Notable Book for a Global Society and a CBC Children’s Choice. It was nominated for eleven state awards and is taught in classrooms around the world. Her books have been Booksense picks, Scholastic Book Club choices, and Junior Library Guild selections and have been published worldwide. Her newest novel, The Next Great Jane, was published by Dial Books in 2020. She’s also the author of several picture books, with a new one on the way in 2023. K. L. Going is a proud alumnus of Spalding University.