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August Shelfie: How to Start a Community Conversation with a Book About Immigration

My favorite bookshelf is in pieces — literally. Like a child’s Tinker Toy set waiting to be assembled, the shelf's parts lie in a bright red bin. One by one, librarians fit the scattered wooden dowels, blocks, sliders, and flats together until they form a home for 30 diverse picture books.

Once those books are displayed on the assembled bookshelf and the banner reading, "Welcoming Library: Meet your neighbors by sharing books set in our immigrant communities” is hung, a pop-up community conversation on immigration has begun.

A community conversation in the works...

Why picture books and immigration? Picture books are an intimate space to meet a character, to feel what they feel, to see what they see, and, in doing so, to expand our thinking. Picture books can help children and adults access the complexity of the New Arrival/New American experience.

Here are a few of the 30 books in the Welcoming Library that are also in the Diverse BookFinder collection. These books open the reader's mind to the immigrant experience. At the bottom of each book review on the Welcoming Library site, look for one of the 200 discussion questions that have been developed as empathy companions to these books.

Picture books are an intimate space to meet a character, to feel what they feel, to see what they see, and, in doing so, to expand our thinking. Picture books can help children and adults access the complexity of the New Arrival/New American experience.

There are more than 70 million refugees and displaced people around the world. It is not only impossible to comprehend a number of this size, but it is so difficult to imagine the stories that each refugee might tell. In 2014, author and artist Francesca Sanna began collecting those stories from asylum seekers in Italy to write The Journey. From all those stories came one searing journey of a mother who made the impossible choice. With each bag and box the family leaves behind, the reader feels the loss acutely. This journey is many journeys. This story is many stories.

Welcoming Library Question: Reread the pages set in the forest. The child says her mother is never scared. Is that true? How do you know? Is it good that the mother hides her tears?

Author/illustrator Yuyi Morales says, “Someday we will become something we have not imagined.” The "we" that Yuyi addresses is her infant son and herself as a New American. She also, I think, includes the reader of Dreamers/Soñadores in her "we." A good part of this breathtakingly beautiful book is about the power of picture books and libraries to not only teach a mother and son English, but to transform their experience of Belonging. Turn to the final pages where she begins each sentence with, "We are..." and let your own imagination be opened to becoming...

Welcoming Library Question: In the library, the mother and son “didn’t need to speak, we only needed to trust.” Do you trust the library? Tell us why. Can having a library card open up the world for you? How?

When your father has known war and all its crushing heartbreaks, there are family silences that are hard to fill. In A Different Pond, a Vietnamese American boy stands with his father in the darkness between his father's work shifts. Beside a pond, the boy waits for a fish to bite, waits to be useful, and waits to know something of his father's story. Sometimes while fishing, the boy's father speaks of a "different pond" where he fished with a brother, not a son. Each frame of this stunning book breathes life into the sadness, longing, and gratitude for family.

Welcoming Library Question: In the “Note from Bao Phi,” the author says his parents told him “difficult stories about the war.”  Why was it important for Bao’s parents to tell those stories?  Should a child know war?

If a family has fled war, the pain and knowledge of that war fades a little with each generation. Soon, a parent or a grandparent is able to see their beloved child have the rich childhood they were not allowed. In My Friend Jamal, the titular character, a Somali Canadian boy, has that joyful life. Narrated by his best friend Joseph, the book celebrates the way that Jamal and his white friend are the same - they each love basketball, superheroes, and trucks. The book also celebrates the ways the boys' families are different. Joseph's open curiosity about his best friend is a clear lens into a loving Western Somali Muslim family.

My friend Jamal


by Anna McQuinn

A picture book story about a childhood friendship in which unfamiliar cultures meet. Playful visuals combine illustrations and photographs, and book recognizes the bond between two boys as well as sampling the differences in their lives. Different cultures. Fast friends. Jamal and Joseph were born in the same hospital in the same month...Joseph's best friend Jamal is Somali and his family has different customs and traditions from Joseph, but through their shared interests they remain close friends.

Beautiful Life Cross Group Incidental

Welcoming Library Question: Joseph learns that there are different ways to be Somali. Jamal is Somali even though he was born here. Jamal’s aunt is Somali even though she does not wear a headscarf like Jamal’s mother does. What makes each member of this family Somali? How does your family show what community they come from?

People immigrate to America for so many reasons, sometimes following loved ones that made the journey before. In Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala,Priya's grandmother shares a house with her in the U.S., but Priya can see how much her Babi Ba misses India with all of her senses. When the bleakness of winter sets in, Priya enlists her classmates to make a garland of paper marigolds to assuage Babi Ba's longing and to acknowledge her belonging.

Welcoming Library Question: When Babi Ba speaks about India, she remembers her country with all of her senses. Can you remember Babi Ba’s memories of touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste? Can you recall a memory with all your senses? Can you ask a relative or elder friend to remember what their childhood felt, looked, sounded, smelled, or tasted like?

Our August Shelfie comes to you from Advisory Council member, Kirsten Cappy. Kirsten is the co-founder of I'm Your Neighbor Books, a website that features children’s books set in New Arrival and New American communities. The site sorts books by culture and country of origin, allowing schools, libraries, and organizations to best select and share books that represent their neighborhoods. In 2017, she and a team of librarians and authors put a curated collection of I'm Your Neighbor picture books on the road to create pop-up community conversations on immigration. The Welcoming Library, circulating in regions nationwide, uses picture books with embedded discussion questions to build dialogue about belonging and welcoming. These projects are created and maintained by Kirsten's company, Curious City. Curious City develops library programming, classroom activities, and larger community projects that center children's literature. Kirsten has a B.A. in Anthropology from Wheaton College.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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