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The Immigration Experience


Understanding the immigrant experience is essential to understanding the history and culture of the present-day United States. In this country, almost all people can trace their ancestry to other lands, Four new books help youngsters explore the complexity and diversity of the role that immigration played -- and continues to play -- in the United States.

The United States is a country of immigrants. Almost all Americans trace their ancestry to other lands. Although their native languages, customs, and reasons for immigrating differ greatly, people's shared experiences of being outsiders, learning about a different culture, and trying to make a new life without losing the important elements of the old one are part of the American experience. Here are four books to help make the immigrant experience come to life for young readers.


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For middle school and high-school students, The Colors Of Freedom: Immigrant Stories (Franklin Watts), by Janet Bode, is a wonderful introduction to the American immigrant experience. Through personal interviews, poems, and essays, Bode presents the lives of young immigrants today. The contributors hail from Latin America, the Caribbean, eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. There is also a thought-provoking section on Native Americans. Some of the selections are humorous and light-hearted; others are full of fear and uncertainty. the following is an excerpt from an interview with a 12-year-old Albanian boy named Dyli.

Now I am an older brother with two little sisters. Because they were born in the United States that makes them American citizens. But me and my mom and my dad aren't. We still don't have the papers. We still have no green card.

My dad tells me, "I don't want to be illegal. I pay my taxes. I respect the laws. I went to a lawyer. He took $5,000 from me to help us get legal. He did nothing.

"Trust people, but don't trust too much."

In addition to the youngsters' stories, Bode includes some historical and cultural information on the countries of origin. A helpful section for teachers includes a sample citizenship test. With an index, a bibliography, and even representative recipes, The Colors Of Freedom: Immigrant Stories provides a comprehensive treatment of immigration through the voices of contemporary young immigrants themselves.


Her parents called her Ma-chan, which was short for Masako, and spoke to her in Japanese. Everyone else called her May and talked with her in English. At home she had rice and miso soup and plain green tea for breakfast. At her friends' houses she ate pancakes and muffins and drank tea with milk and sugar.

Book Cover Image In Tea with Milk (Houghton Mifflin Company), author and illustrator Allen Say has created a sweet, loving tribute to his mother. Born to Japanese immigrants and raised in California, the very American girl in this story becomes an outsider when her family moves back to Japan shortly after her high school graduation. There, Masako faces a lifestyle and a future very different from what she had envisioned for herself. Instead of attending college and living on her own, she has to repeat high school in order to become fluent in Japanese. Masako receives instruction at home in flower arranging, calligraphy, and the intricacies of the tea ceremony. She wears kimonos instead of the stylish American clothing she favors. She misses omelets and fried chicken and windows made of glass instead of paper.

Not until her parents hire a matchmaker to find her "a husband from a good family" does Masako rebel. The morning after her first "date" with a prospective husband, she dons the brightest of her California dresses and leaves home for the big city of Osaka.

She had not seen so many cars since leaving California. She felt as though the city noises were welcoming her -- the noises of trolley bells clanging, car horns blaring, trucks rumbling! And tall buildings with windows like mirrors! Everything seemed familiar, even though she had never been there before.

In Osaka, she finds work as a translator and tour guide for a department store. There she meets Joseph, a Chinese banker working in Japan. In him, she finds a kindred spirit. Joseph was born in China, educated in England, and prefers tea with milk and sugar. It is he who teaches her that "home isn't a place or building that's ready-made and waiting for you, in America or anywhere else" but something that individuals and families make for themselves.

At the end of the book, Say informs the readers that Masako and Joseph did indeed marry, made a home in Yokohama, and that he, their oldest child, always takes his tea with milk and sugar.

Say's subdued watercolor illustrations help convey the range of emotions that Masako experiences. The first picture, a sepia-toned portrait of Masako as a youngster, shows her standing outside her family's California home. In the doorway flies a sunlit American flag. The next page shows an older Masako, stiffly posing inside the family's Japanese home, wearing a kimono and a very unhappy expression on her face. Gradually, the pictures, mainly portraits, take on more and more touches of color; at the turning point of the story, when Masako leaves her parents' home for the city of Osaka, the bright red of her dress practically jumps off the page as staid passersby in brown and gray traditional clothing look at her in shock.

Tea with Milk examines the life of an immigrant from a different perspective, that of an American girl having to adjust to life in -- for her -- a foreign land. Say's simple, effective style and low-key artwork help make this story accessible to children, who will sympathize with Masako's sense of isolation and alienation and will cheer with her when she discovers that home is, in fact, anywhere you live with someone you love.


Book Cover Image The Memory Coat (Scholastic Press), written by Elvira Woodruff and illustrated by Michael Dooling, tells the story of Grisha, a Jewish orphan who lives with his extended family in a turn-of-the-century Russian shtetl, or town. Grisha is especially close to his cousin Rachel, and he often provides illustrations for the stories that Rachel loves to tell. Rachel understands Grisha's grief for his parents, who died during an epidemic.

When Cossack raiders begin to threaten the safety of the shtetl, the family decides to leave Russia for the United States. New fears begin to surface: the long journey overland, the hard ocean voyage that follows. Most frightening, however, is the prospect of arriving finally, after much danger and self-sacrifice, in New York City, only to be turned back at Ellis Island. Will the raggedy coat that Grisha wears ruin the family's chance of making a good impression at Ellis Island? To Grisha's grandmother and the other adults, it is just a tattered piece of cloth, but Rachel knows why the coat is so important to Grisha:

"... we'll have to do something about Grisha's coat," Bubba decided. "Look how torn and tattered it's become. If we're to make a good impression, he will have to have new one. Come, Grisha, let me measure your arms."

"No!" Grisha cried. He grabbed the coat and ran to the attic to hide.

" Tsk, tsk, tsk," his aunts and uncles clucked and shook their heads. "What can he see in such an old coat?"

"He sees the inside," Rachel whispered. "It's lined with beautiful wool from his very own mother's coat. Inside, he can still feel his mama's touch."

When they finally do arrive in Ellis Island, Grisha falls, sustaining a nasty-looking scratch on his eye, and the doctor marks his coat, indicating that he has eye trouble. The family is frantic that Grisha will be sent back to Russia -- until Rachel has an idea: She turns Grisha's coat inside out, hiding the mark and exposing the beautiful wool lining, and Grisha goes through a different line. This time, a more observant doctor notices that the scratch is only superficial, and Grisha gets through with the rest of the family.

In a long but interesting author's note, Woodruff discusses life for Jewish people living in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the harrowing journey taken by many to immigrate to the United States, and Ellis Island. Dooling's oil paintings nicely capture the feel of shtetl life, the horror of the systematic persecution of the Jews, and the uncertainty that goes along with leaving everything familiar to live in a strange new land.

Teachers might use The Memory Coat to introduce such topics as immigration, persecution, and the importance of family. The book might prompt discussion of the importance of an individual's personal history and memories and it is what's inside a person that counts.


It's not that I don't love Nanaji -- I do. It's just that he's always at me. Be aware, know who you really are. Aware is his favorite word. And productive. He used to be a philosophy professor in India. I don't care that he still reads those heavy, old Indian books, the Vedas, but why does he have to try and get me interested? ...

There's a messy knot in the middle of my chest. It feels kind of awful thinking about Nanaji like this. When I was little, it was so easy -- I loved being around him.

But now, I wish ... I wish he'd never moved here. There. I've said it.

Book Cover Image Eleven-year old Mina had really looked forward to her grandfather's move from India to live with her family. But now that Nanaji is here, she often finds herself wishing he had not come at all. He disapproves of her choices of TV shows and hobbies. Nanaji takes over the cooking to help Mina's busy parents, so she has to eat the same Indian dishes again and again. Most annoying of all is his constant harping about Indian philosophy and religion. He's just so different from everyone else!

In Mina's Spring of Colors (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Limited), author Rachna Gilmore effectively explores what happens when a young girl's loyalty and love for her grandfather conflict with her desire to fit in with her friends. At the school open house, Mina overhears Ashley, a new classmate, cruelly mocking Nanaji's accent. Mina turns her anger at Ashley into a vendetta. She plans to exact her revenge at her family's annual spring bash, the celebration of Holi, the festival of colors.

In the northern part of India, the annual festival of Holi is celebrated enthusiastically to mark the passage of winter and the onset of spring. Men, women, and children revel in the streets, throwing brightly colored powders and water at one another. Holi is also a time to forgive, to forget, and to mend broken relationships.

Mina's family's annual Holi bash is extremely popular among all their friends and acquaintances, including Mina's classmates. This year, Mina thinks of it only as an opportunity to get even with Ashley, to embarrass and humiliate her, until her wise grandfather intervenes to bring her to a finer awareness of herself and the true meaning of Holi.

Gilmore, through the use of a very believable first-person narrative, elicits real sympathy for Mina, even when it becomes clear that her all-consuming wish for revenge actually masks the guilt she feels at her own embarrassment at -- and impatience with -- her grandfather.

In addition to introducing Holi to readers not already familiar with this intriguing Indian festival, Mina's Spring of Color would work well with upper elementary and middle schoolers to examine how the twin desires to both fit in and remain true to one's ethnic heritage can affect a youngster's sense of self and familial relationships.

The books highlighted this week are available in most bookstores. If you are unable to locate a book, ask your bookseller to order it for you or contact the publisher directly:

  • The Colors of Freedom: Immigrant Stories, written by Janet Bode, is published by Franklin Watts, a division of Grolier Publishing, 90 Sherman Turnpike, Danbury, CT 06816.
  • Tea with Milk, written and illustrated by Allen Say, is published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
  • The Memory Coat, written by Elvira Woodruff and illustrated by Michael Dooling, is published by Scholastic Press. Call (800) SCHOLASTIC.
  • Mina's Spring of Colors, by Rachna Gilmore, is published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 195 Allstate Parkway, Markham, Ontario L3R 4T8.
  • Lauren P. Gattilia
    Education World®
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