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With Sensitivity and Courage: Sharing Books in the Classroom about Crossing the Border

Alice Levine is a long-time educator and family engagement specialist. After many years of work in the Boston Public Schools, Alice now lives in Western MA where she provides training and consulting for schools, districts, and organizations. Alice is very involved with issues of immigration justice, including solidarity with undocumented immigrants within her own community, witness and protest at the Homestead Child Detention Center in Florida, and an upcoming trip to the Brownsville/Matamoros border. She is excited to see her professional and social justice interests come together in this guest post. 

I am always on the lookout for books that reflect the cultures and life experiences of all our students and families. I clearly remember nine years ago when I first saw the book From North to South by René Colato Laínez displayed in the children’s section of my local library. Because I was aware that many of the families I worked with in Boston were navigating issues related to documentation, I was excited to see a book that reflected the realities for mixed status families. I’ve collected many such books since then. 

But, that was 2010, and this is 2020. A decade later and the world has become a much scarier place for undocumented students and for children of immigrants—particularly those that live in fear of ICE raids. I’ve spoken to a number of teachers and counselors who work with children from immigrant families and I’ve heard a lot of contradictory perspectives. Some feel that we should only read books that affirm children’s and family’s countries and cultures of origin—but not raise the issues of family separation, or the realities of crossing the border, or what it means to have, or not have, “papers.”

Others, including children’s book authors who themselves were undocumented or lived in mixed status families, feel it is important to have books that reflect the real lives of children from immigrant families. As the actor Diane Guerrero says in her memoir for children, My Family Divided, about her parents’ deportations,

I kept my story a secret, and many of my friends and classmates had no idea what I was going through…I felt like the only kid who’d ever dealt with having the people I loved most in the world snatched away from me. It would’ve meant everything to know that someone, somewhere, had survived what I was going through.

Diane Guerrero

Might she have felt less alone if occasionally a book used in school was about a family like her own? And as author, elementary school teacher, and previously undocumented immigrant, René Colato Laínez -- whose books I discuss in further detail below -- shared,

I think that books about immigration are windows of understanding for those who have not lived the experience. And they are pillows of comfort for those whose lives are reflected in the stories, even those who cannot reveal their status because of fear of ICE or the immigration system.

René Colato Laínez

In my own work on issues of immigrant justice, I have grown close to several families of children who have experienced separation from a parent or are in fear of that happening, so now I read the books with these vulnerable children in mind. As I consider the many books that have come out recently about crossing the border, I wonder (and worry about) how they would be received by children who must put one foot in front of the other, and somehow concentrate in school, even as they live in fear. These children and their families live on hope, and we do not want to kill that hope, even with good intentions. The following are my reflections on books that tackle these topics, with special attention to how they might affirm the experiences, or increase the fear, of children living in undocumented or mixed status families.

Mango moon


by Diane De Anda and Sue Cornelison

"When a father is taken away from his family and facing deportation, his family is left to grieve and wonder about what comes next. Maricela, Manuel, and their mother face the many challenges of having their lives completely changed by the absence of their father and husband. Moving to a new house, missed soccer games and birthday parties, and emptiness are now the day-to-day norm. Mango Moon shows what life is like from a child’s perspective when a parent is deported, and the heartbreaking realities they have to face, but Maricela learns that her love for her father is sustained even though he is no longer part of her daily life." -- publisher

Oppression & Resilience

Mango Moon (2019), written by Diane de Anda and illustrated by Sue Cornelison, is a beautiful, powerful, and sad story. I would recommend it to teachers, librarians, counselors and others who work with children who may be in similar situations—to read in order to educate themselves—but not to share in the classroom. Not only is the father picked up in a workplace raid, but everything begins to fall apart in the children’s lives as a result. The mother is not around as much because she has to take a second job, and the family eventually has to move away because they can’t afford the rent. Toward the end, the author writes, “Mama says they will be sending Papi to live in another country very soon. I am scared, because I heard her and my aunt talking about how they left that country because it was too dangerous.” The book ends with affirmation of love even in the face of distance--but with no hope for family reunification. Although this may be the awful reality for some of our students, I wonder if it serves them to add to their fears and diminish their hopes. 

On the other side of the spectrum, when stories suggest that children have more control over immigration issues than they really do, I also worry. I spoke with a teacher who had used the book Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by the wonderful Haitian author Edwidge Danticat several years ago. She liked the book, and said her students did too, because the little girl in the story had such “agency.” In another context, it would be wonderful to read about a young child who writes a letter to her local newspaper. However, I worry that it is not reasonable or healthy in the current climate to suggest that children can get their parents out of detention or stop them from being deported, as happens in this story. If children believe they could do something to impact these life-changing events, might they worry that they have not done enough for their own families—and that that’s WHY their parent(s) are still detained or are being pursued by ICE? 

There are other books that I would use, with care, with clear knowledge of who is in my class, and with careful planning so that children don’t overgeneralize from the story to their own lives. For example, Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca (2019), written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Anna López Real, is a story about loving parents who make the decision to have the whole family return to Mexico so that they can stay together. The father in the story tells his children directly, “Mami and I don’t have the papers we need to stay here.” This is a book that should be shared first with parents because it may easily raise the question of what will happen if undocumented family members of your students are threatened by or taken by ICE. Will the family return to the home country together, or will the parents make arrangements for U.S.-born children to stay here with other friends or relatives? This book could be used at a family event (with immigrant advocates or counselors present) where parents are given safe space to consider how they might talk to their children about their emergency plans. For children whose family status in the U.S. is secure, this is a good book to help explain the current conditions for many immigrant families and the difficult decisions parents have to make.

There are another set of books that explore issues of crossing the border and of documentation but which take place in a different time period—and so are more likely to have happy endings. For example, La Frontera is based on the true story of Alva—who came to the US with his father in the 1980’s from Mexico. Although Alva and his father crossed the border without papers, they were able to apply for amnesty under President Reagan; they eventually became citizens and were reunited with the rest of their family. This book provides a way to talk about crossing the border, about family separation, and about documentation, but during a time where there was more hope that things would turn out ok in the end.

Some of my favorite books about this topic, and the ones that are the least problematic for me, are those written by René Colato Laínez, himself an undocumented immigrant at the time he entered the US. Mentioned above, From North to South/Del Norte al Sur focuses on José’s excitement as he travels with Papá to visit Mamá who has been living in a shelter for women and children in Mexico since she was deported by the U.S. government. How the mother was taken is described gently: “She had been working at the factory when some men asked for her immigration papers. But Mamá was born in Mexico and didn’t have those papers.  The men put Mamá and other workers in a van. In a few hours, Mamá was in Tijuana, Mexico.” Through both pictures and texts, it is made clear how sad the family is when they are separated, but ICE raids are not described in graphic or scary terms. The shelter where the mother lives, a real one named Centro Madre Assunta, is a warm and loving place. In addition to visiting with Mamá, José gets to know the other children, many of whom are living there without their parents (since the shelter welcomes those who are trying to enter the U.S., as well as those who have been recently deported). Mamá has been working in the shelter’s garden and José helps her and the children to plant seeds. José asks his mother, “When these seeds grow, will you come home?” And another child asks, “Will we be with our parents too?” “I hope so,” Mama responds gently, “but no matter where they are, our loved ones are always with us because they are in our hearts.” The story ends with José’s dream: “I dreamt that Mamá had the right papers and we crossed the border together. Above our house, the sky filled with fireworks and I knew that all the other children would see their parents soon, too.” So there are no false promises offered, but dreams and hopes and love are very much alive in this book about family separation.

Another book by Colato Laínez that I would recommend is Mamá the Alien/Mamá La Extraterrestre. By reading and discussing this story, children can learn about some of the strange labels that are put on immigrants, such as the 18th century term “resident alien,” which is still used in both legal and everyday contexts. When Sofia accidentally knocks her mother’s purse on the floor, she sees a card with her mother’s name and picture that says “alien,” and she suddenly wonders if her mother also has a life on another planet! On one page there is a drawing of Sofia, the young protagonist in the story, as she imagines hereself once she finds out that her mother is “an alien” and her father is not. She depicts herself split down the middle—half of her human and half of her extraterrestrial. Discussing this picture would be a good way to help children understand the concept of “mixed status” families. Although it would be important to explain to children that many immigrants today are not able to become citizens -- like Sofia’s mother does in this story -- the author does a good job of explaining what the “papers” are that immigrant children hear so much about, and does so in a humorous way.

Lainez’s book My Shoes and I: Crossing Three Borders/ Mis Zapatos y Yo: Cruzando Tres Fronteras is based on the author’s own life. The young main character, Mario, receives a new pair of shoes from his mother (who is already living in the U.S.), to use in his journey with his father. The shoes play a major role in the narrative—they get dirty but can be cleaned, they get holes in them, they get filled with water. Together, Mario and his father make it across all the borders from El Salvador to the U.S., where they are finally met by his loving mother. In this book, Mario faces many obstacles in his journey with his father from Central America to the U.S., but no real danger--of criminals, coyotes, or Border Patrol.  Children, both those who live in immigrant families and those who don’t, can learn something about the journey and the process of crossing the border, without becoming overwhelmed by fear of what might happen to their families in the future.

The only book of Lainez’s that I would share with more caution is Waiting for Papa/Esperando a Papá, which was written about 15 years ago. The book includes many passages of great beauty, but my concern is that, like Mama's Nightingale, the child here is given unrealistic power to solve the problem of family separation. The young narrator, Beto, writes a letter to his father (who is still in El Salvador) and reads it aloud on a local radio show.  A few minutes after Beto reads his letter, an immigration lawyer calls and speaks with Mama, and then, within a couple of weeks, the father arrives in the U.S.  The letter, a testament to the child's great love for his father, would be wonderful to share with students. But in today’s world the ending of the story reads a bit too good to be true. Given the current reality for immigrant families, it could be too heavy a burden for children to believe that they can solve this kind of problem—or that they have the responsibility, or power and agency necessary, to do so. If sharing this title, I recommend a discussion about how the ending is what we wish could happen but isn’t realistic to expect.

Between Us and Abuela


by Mitali Perkins and Sara Palacios

It's nearly Christmas in California. María and her little brother, Juan, are headed south to the border with Mexico to visit their grandmother. They are excited to celebrate Las Posadas with her, honoring Mary and Joseph's journey to the inn at Bethlehem. María has knitted Abuela a scarf, and Juan has drawn her a picture. But when Juan's gift won't fit through the tiny spaces in the border fence - barely big enough for little fingers to touch - María launches a cunning plan, using creativity and hope. Mitali Perkins's debut picture book offers the best kind of Christmas story - one of love, family, travel, and miracles - with simple language and abundant feeling, Pura Belpré Honor illustrator Sara Palacios illuminates the heart of this story with her sun-soaked vistas and warm, smiling faces of excited families. Here is the perfect tribute to how little gifts of love can span great distances. --

Beautiful Life Oppression & Resilience

Additional books that explore these issues in a gentler way focus on separations between children and their grandparents. These books have the benefit of raising issues related to the border and family separation, without exacerbating children’s fears by focusing on children losing their primary caretakers. My current favorite of these is Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border (2019) written by Mitali Perkins and illustrated by Sara Palacios.

The story is based on a wonderful, hopeful community celebration that has been happening on the San Diego/Tijuana border since 1993 called La Posada Sin Fronteras. In the early years, people would gather on both sides of the border fence between San Diego and Tijuana to sing Christmas songs in Spanish and English, following the Latin American tradition of La Posada (where people go house to house, reenacting the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter and being turned away). Before 2010, people could touch their loved ones through the fence and pass candy, but in the more recent version (depicted in the story), border guards only let people on the U.S. side into a controlled area (between the primary and secondary fence) for 30 minutes at a time, and they are not allowed to pass anything across the border. At the real event, there is protest and sadness along with celebration, as the names of those who’ve died crossing the border are read aloud. However, in this book the emphasis is on the connection the children feel with their grandmother on the other side of the border, and the ingenuity of the little girl as she finds a way to get her brother’s special picture to their abuela, without actually passing it through the slats in the fence.

There are a number of other books, including excellent chapter books, that focus on crossing the border, documentation, or family separation. It is important that teachers demonstrate courage as they share these books with their students and discuss the issues raised. However, it is also important that teachers and counselors select and use books with sensitivity, recognizing the vulnerability of children who may have already faced family separation or who live in fear of their parents or other loved ones being ripped away from them by the U.S. government. I encourage teachers not to avoid these issues but to talk with colleagues, and especially with parents, about how best to use books that reflect the experience of our immigrant families, especially those without documentation. As teachers and counselors, it is important that we be courageous advocates who are not afraid to raise difficult issues in the classroom. However, we are also responsible for being loving caretakers and so we need, in these scary times, to proceed with thoughtfulness, intention and sensitivity.

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