Main content

Diversity in the Stacks: Immigrant Experiences in Children’s Literature

Posted on by Mayelin Perez

There has always been a certain spatiality to the way we talk about literature written for children and young adults. Frequently, we find ourselves drawn to the language of place and movement when thinking of these works: they offer a window through which young people see other individuals and other realities; or, a door through which they enter and experience other worlds; and sometimes these works are a mirror, through which young people can see themselves. Perhaps this is because so much literature for young readers is inevitably a way to transmit values, norms, and culture and foster a sense of belonging. In this sense, when children immerse themselves in these works, they are trained  to imaginatively navigate the world and discover their place in it. What happens, then, if children’s books create a world for their readers where certain children are absent, where everyone does not belong?

As is the case with virtually every form of media, there is a pronounced lack of diverse representation in children’s and young adult literature. In her recent work, The Dark Fantastic: Race and Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, Penn Graduate School of Education Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas attributes this “diversity crisis”—this failure to adequately capture diverse and different experiences—in juvenile literatures to what she terms an “imagination gap” that negatively shapes how children and teens of color inhabit the world and imagine their place in it. In a similar vein, young adult author Walter Dean Myers asks, “What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? […] Where are the Black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?” In “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop sums up the sentiment: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part.”

In “Decolonizing the Imagination,” young adult author Zetta Elliott writes about growing up as a Black child of immigrants who learned to emulate the language and style of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Frances Hodgson Burnett:

I am an immigrant. I grew up in a former British colony, dreaming of magical wardrobes and secret gardens. Doors figured rather prominently in my imagination, and books were indeed windows into other worlds. They were not, however, much of a mirror for my young Black female self. I learned early on that only white children had wonderful adventures in distant lands; only white children were magically transported through time and space; only white children found the buried key that unlocked their own private Eden.

For Elliott, as for so many children of color (and the adults they became), the literary exclusion experienced from an early age transformed into an imaginative self-erasure. Children’s and young adult literature may be strongly rooted in space and movement, but it certainly does not equip all of its readers for travel in quite the same way. In the process, this lack of diverse representation bars young readers of color from imagining themselves—with their complex identities, backgrounds, and experiences—as worthy of inhabiting creative and imaginative spaces. More than this, it can also make it unimaginable that they should want to inhabit their own identities and realities.

Informed by the literary underrepresentation outlined above, the Penn Libraries is actively expanding its collection of children’s and young adult literature with the goal of privileging underrepresented voices, cultures, and perspectives. As librarians, bibliographers, and educators, we recognize the responsibility of valuing, collecting, and respecting difference, and, in turn, creating space for everyone.

 Most recently, an internal collection development grant enabled three librarians to narrow in on children’s and young adult books that focus on immigrant and refugee communities in the United States. Lynne Farrington (Senior Curator, Kislak Center); Patty Lynn (Librarian for the Graduate School of Education); and Mayelin Perez (Librarian for Literatures in English, Theatre Arts, & Comparative Literature), collaborated in identifying and selecting a substantial number of books that will greatly enhance the Libraries’ circulating collection.

 This growing collection of juvenile literature about immigrant and refugee experiences complements other segments of the Penn Libraries’ collections that similarly focus on diversity in children and young adults. In 2018, the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscript received a major collection of African American children’s books from collector Joanna Banks. Then, in 2019, the Kislak Center also received the archive of African American children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan. These collections join papers of Atha Tehon, children’s books designer who worked on notable works like Julius Lester’s The Old African (2005) and the award-winner Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (1976); holdings of Soviet children’s books from the 1920s and 1930s; early children’s books, including many fictional works for youth in the Singer-Mendenhall collection; early children’s series books and dime novels; and titles in the Caroline F. Schimmel Fiction Collection of Women in the American Wilderness. (All books and materials housed in the Kislak Center are classified as special collections, which means they can only be viewed and read on site.)  

The new books range widely in form, topic, and genre. They include works of fiction and non-fiction, picture books, grade-school and young-adult novels, biographies and autobiographies, poetry, and histories. They tell stories about immigrants from around the globe: sometimes the focus is on these communities’ respective traditions and cultures back home or abroad, while at others, the focus is their experiences within the United States and in relation to American cultures.

Thematically, these books also vary greatly. Some focus on the experiences of refugees displaced by war, violence, persecution, or environmental catastrophe. These include Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy, Other Words for Home, The Good Braider, and The Whispering Cloth. Picture books like Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale, Two White Rabbits and Calling the Water Drum allegorize migration under perilous conditions for young readers.  

Some books explore children’s relationship to their grandparents from other countries, such as Nana Akua Goes to School, Grandpa Across the Ocean, When I Found Grandma and Grandfather Counts. Others deal with adjusting to life in a new place, with navigating differences, or with celebrating traditions. A number of books, for instance, revel in the power of food to create bonds and transmit culture: Cora Cooks Pancit, Dumpling Dreams: How Joyce Chen Brought the Dumpling from Beijing to Cambridge, Hot Pot Night!, A Place at the Table, and Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao.

Still other books thematize fantasy, adventure, and the celebration of joy, demonstrating that these experiences should not be denied to historically-marginalized communities. Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter features a magic camera whose photographs reveal Japan’s hidden spirit world. Midsummer’s Mayhem presents a fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream centering a pre-teen girl’s efforts to navigate her Indian-American heritage and her dreams of becoming a renowned baker. Finally, Once Upon an Eid assembles short stories by Muslim authors celebrating the joys that accompany the holiday of Eid.

These new books will join thematically-relevant works already owned by the Penn Libraries  under a new collection title—the Immigrant and Refugee Experiences in Children’s and Young Adult Literature Collection—that will facilitate discovery and exploration. They will serve as a valuable resource for reading, research, and teaching for the Penn community and its affiliates.

Related