Books and Reading

Immigrant Song: YA fiction on teens and immigration

“Immigration” is a charged word, never more so than in this current political climate. Like it or not, we all have associations on hearing the word. Some of us see rule-breakers, workplace usurpers, even terrorist threats. Some of us see hardworking people seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. We see day-workers, restaurant kitchens, “help”. We see former doctors, lawyers, teachers making due with menial jobs in the U.S. We see children who struggle in school due to language limitations—and as an educator, I can say that while this inspires compassion and action in some teachers, for others it’s chiefly an annoyance. Sometimes we see success stories. We try to imagine how newly-arrived adults and young children cope with an unfamiliar world. What doesn’t come first to mind, though, is the teenage experience.

The high school years aren’t all puppies and rainbows for any teen. A recent article in The Guardian ( contends that it’s harder these days to navigate the high school years than ever. The Internet and social media, with their attendant body-shaming, cyber-bullying, violence and political battling, is a constant barrage. The pressure to achieve academically is skyrocketing, along with college entrance requirements and tuition prices. A high number of immigrant teens work to help support their families. And the pressures that were always there—to make friends, to fit in, to figure out what you want to do and simply who you are, aren’t going anywhere. Imagine adding to that language barriers, cultural complexities, separation from family and friends, hostility from many of your new compatriots, and the fear of possible deportment. The stresses on immigrant teens are legion, and largely invisible to most of us. Luckily, YA authors are taking to the page on this.

Ibi Zoboi’s American Street follows 16-year-old Fabiola on her journey from Port-au-Prince to Michigan, where she and her mother plan to move in with her aunt and cousins and seek une belle vie—the good life. Things get off to a dismal start when Fabiola’s mother is detained at Kennedy airport and sent back to Haiti, and Fabiola must make the rest of the trip alone. The scenes of a girl who’s never left her country or even flown and has no idea what’s happened to her parent, trying to navigate an American airport alone, are positively gut-wrenching. Things don’t get easier when she arrives at her destination—her American cousins are brash and self-involved, Detroit’s west side is no less violent than Haiti, the weather, the food, and her new school assault her sensibilities. She learns that some of her family is involved in the drug trade, and an undercover cop offers to assist with her mother’s release if she’ll provide information. On top of that, she meets a cute boy (this is a YA novel, after all). Fabiola’s trials are nearly overwhelming, but Zoboi’s language and her weaving through the story of Haitian lore and Vodou faith make American Street a gorgeous read.

Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star examines the flip-side of the immigration coin. 17-year-old Natasha and her family have been in the states for ten years—she’s a thoroughly American girl with a head for science and a bright future ahead of her. Only her family is about to be deported back to Jamaica, due to her father’s inability to maintain his status as a working actor. Natasha, having taken on the adult role in her household, is on a one-day mission to try to gain them a stay of execution. In her travels across Brooklyn she meets Daniel, himself the son of South Korean immigrants, on his way to a Yale admissions interview solely to please his parents. They make an instant connection, sharing their thoughts and feelings about fate, physics, family, and societal expectations. Their falling in love in one day is made almost believable by the fact that (spoiler alert) there’s not an entirely happy ending. My sport is handicapping literary prizes, and I thought Yoon was a shoe-in for the 2017 Michael L. Printz award (the prize went to the third volume of John Lewis’ graphic novel March, though Sun was chosen as an honor book, and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature). I loved that it played with stereotypical assumptions (the black girl is a scientist who scorns her father’s dreams of fame and adulation; the Asian boy whose perfect brother washed out of Harvard would rather be a poet than a doctor), and that (without giving too much away) a chance occurrence in a minor character’s life serves to thwart Natasha’s mission.

These are just two of many recent novels on immigrant/refugee teens–for more, visit my booklist on teens and the immigrant/refugee experience. But they are doozies—complex and enlightening. Plus, cute boys.


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