Using Children’s Books to Explore Immigrant Experiences

We risk miseducating all of our [children] if we allow them to use their own cultural attitudes and values as the sole measuring stick for ‘normal human nature’”  (Taylor,  2000)

When children are exposed to books that offer various viewpoints and values, they increase your child’s ability to analyze, evaluate, and make judgments about the world around them. Books can help young readers experience the lives of others, build empathy, and strengthen cultural identity and community pride.

I don’t believe in “bad” books, but there are some books that reinforce ideas about groups of people that are negative or untrue. What I do believe in is the power of using books as a tool. Any book can be useful, just depends on how you interact with it. When you read with your children using a more critical lens you can guide them in recognizing examples of stereotypes, biases, and power structures in the text or within the illustrations. A critical perspective doesn’t teach your child to “meet standards” or “master basic reading skills”. Instead, critical literacy helps children explore social justice issues and discuss topics from various perspectives.

My little ones (ages 9, 11, and 12)  questioned what they’ve seen on the news and heard on NPR about the immigrant children who were separated from their parents. Like I do with most topics, I had critical discussion with my children, looking at a situation from all sides, and using books to make sense of it all.

Engaging with children’s literature about the experiences of the immigrant children currently in the media helped me show them the complexities and nuances of immigrants’ experiences. I use children’s literature in three different ways with my children:

 

MIRRORS – to reflect their own lives as readers and to validate their personal experiences.

 

 

WINDOWS – to help them view other cultures, experiences, or perspectives and to help them develop empathy and understanding for others.

 

 

DOORS – to help them open up their own perspectives where they see societal injustices, issues, and various value/power system.

 

The manner in which immigrants are portrayed in children’s literature can influence how our children (and quite frankly, us adults too!) perceive and comprehend the realities of immigrant groups. Because children draw on their prior knowledge about the world to understand how issues are being presented, it’s our role, as parents, to connect these experiences in meaningful ways that broaden their social consciousness.

Let’s look at the children’s book “One Green Apple” written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ted Lewin.

This story takes place on field trip at an orchard, where Farah, a new immigrant, joins her classmates in apple picking. Farah tells the story from her perspective and examines how her classmates are both similar and different from her. When the children got an opportunity to pick one apple and put it in the machine to make apple juice, Farah chooses a green apple (because it’s different like her) and mixes it with the other red apples that her classmates picked. On the surface, it’s a sweet book that depicts one young girl’s immigrant experience and her first days of finding her way in a new environment.

Side note: I am also mindful of the backdrop of the book’s setting, an apple orchard (can’t get more All-American than that, I presume). Here are some big ideas that came up while reading this with my family.

MIRRORS: My boys and I share experiences when assumptions were made about us and how we dealt with it. We also talked about the time we picked strawberries from the local farm and how much we all loved it and want to do it again. In the book Farah is a little annoyed when the teacher thinks because she doesn’t understand English it means there something is wrong with her, “I understand, It’s not that I am stupid. It is just that I am lost in this new place.” My children and I talked about times and situations where we felt different and how people thought one thing of us and it wasn’t correct. We discussed how it made us feel, how we reacted and how we would handle the situation in the future.

WINDOWS: The story didn’t say where Farah was from, but because of her dupatta (head covering) we know she is from a Muslim country. My sons and I talked about why Farah covers her head and how they felt about it. We also discussed what Farah meant when she said “In the house is a wooden machine with a metal handle. I see no cow or goat or shepherd. The house is here for some other reason.” What does this tell us about where Farah was from? Why did she mention this? How is this important to her culture? We also discussed Farah’s need to “fit in” and be like the other kids in the class. “I will blend with the others the way my apple blended with the cider.” We really talked about the idea of “blending in” and the implications of this? Who says we should all “blend in”? What is the benefit of “blending in”? What is the drawback of “blending in”? This conversation led to great discussions on being activists and change agents, being okay with being different, and supporting others who feel alone or bullied.

DOORS: There was a part in the beginning of the story that was a direct link to current events with the immigrant children being taken away from their parents.  Farah says, “Some are friendly, But some look at me coldly and smile cruel smiles…My father has explained to me that we are not always liked here.” My boys really examined this from a social justice perspective. We discussed the various perspectives, stereotypes, and narrow-mindedness that occurs when someone says they dislike an entire group of people. We discussed ways we could be proactive in changing people’s minds, educating ourselves, and making sure we don’t make others feel that way. We also discussed the concept of assimilation and how we felt about that.

So you, as a parent can choose how you read aloud to and with your children. I think the more read with them, the more we help to raise children who see the world through mirrors, windows, and doors! How do you use literature to interact with your children?

Happy (CRITICAL) reading!

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