The Refugee Experience: Books for Children

These books capture the triumphs and the resilience of children who are refugees. They also convey the hardships that refugees face as they flee war and persecution.

We encourage you to use these stories as a resource in informing yourself or your students about the challenges that refugees may face in their new lives.

For YA titles, see our Refugee Experiences booklist, and for recommendations on supporting refugee students, see these suggestions and video clips from veteran educators.

90 Miles to Havana

Age Level: 9-12

"Drawing on his own experience as a child refugee from Cuba, Flores-Galbis offers a gripping historical novel about children who were evacuated from Cuba to the U.S. during Operation Pedro Pan in 1961. Julian, a young Cuban boy, experiences the violent revolution and watches mobs throw out his family's furniture and move into their home. For his safety, his parents send him to a refugee camp in Miami, but life there is no sweet haven…(T)his is a seldom-told refugee story that will move readers." — Booklist

A Song for Cambodia

Illustrated by: Shino Arihara
Age Level: 6-9

In his Cambodian village, Arn's home was filled with music and laughter. But when the Khmer Rouge arrived, Arn's world was turned upside down and he never saw his family again. Arn worked in a labor camp for children for four long years, where he was chosen to play the khim, a traditional wooden stringed instrument. Today, Arn is recognized around the world for his efforts to bring healing to Cambodia and his commitment to preserving the Cambodian songs and instruments that saved his life.

A Time of Miracles

Age Level: 14-16

In what Kirkus called “a beautifully cadenced tribute to maternal love and the power of stories amid contemporary political chaos,” Bondoux tells Blaise Fortune’s story of survival and his five-year journey escaping the civil unrest in the Republic of Georgia and traveling through numerous refugee camps to France with Gloria, who has cared for Blaise since he was a baby.

Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan

Illustrated by: Gregory Christie
Age Level: 9-12

Garang is eight years old when war comes to his village in southern Sudan. He soon joins the thousands of other boys who must flee their country by walking hundreds of miles to Ethiopia and then Kenya. Along the way, the boys care for each other and help each other survive the hardships of famine, drought, and war. Based on the true stories of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Mary Williams and R. Gregory Christie have brought a powerful and unforgettable story to young readers.

Dia's Story Cloth: The Hmong People's Journey to Freedom

By: Dia Cha
Illustrated by: Chiie Thao Cha
Age Level: 9-12

Through a quiet text and a series of stunning images created from embroidered cloth, the author relates her family's often harrowing journey from China to Laos to Thailand, ultimately settling in the United States. An afterward provides additional history and ethnology.

Four Feet, Two Sandals

Illustrated by: Doug Chayka
Age Level: 6-9

Lina has not worn shoes for two years. On the day that new clothes are delivered to her refugee camp, she is excited to find a beautiful yellow sandal with a blue flower in the middle. She wonders where the other sandal might be — until she sees it on another girl. Evocative paintings capture the spirit of friendship that develops between these two survivors, as well as the dramatic setting of their story. Based on the lives of Afghan refugees living in the Peshawar Refugee Camp.

Girl of Kosovo

Age Level: 9-12

Even after her father and brothers are killed and her leg is gravely injured in a Serb attack, 11-year-old Zana, the narrator, struggles to heed her father's advice: "Don't let them fill your heart with hate. Whatever happens." Zana's friendship with a Serbian girl, Lena, and her trip behind enemy lines to a hospital in Belgrade provide Zana with evidence of kindness to weigh against the brutality in the Serb faction, while her cowardly KLA uncle Vizar illuminates weaknesses among the Albanians. Mead puts the war into a context that young readers will understand.

Home of the Brave

Age Level: 9-12

This novel, written in free verse, tells the story of Kek, an eleven-year-old boy from the Sudan who arrives as a refugee to Minnesota in the middle of winter. In moments both amusing and heartbreaking, it is possible to see through Kek's eyes what it is like for new immigrants who come to this country and to think about the scars that war leaves on its youngest victims. Teacher's Guide available.

How I Learned Geography

Age Level: 6-9

As a young boy in 1939, Uri Shulevitz and his family fled Poland for the Soviet Union. They lived for a time in Turkestan, where Uri's father returned from the market one day with a large world map. Initially, Uri and his mother couldn't believe that his father had bought a map instead of bread.

How Many Days to America?: A Thanksgiving Story

Illustrated by: Beth Peck
Age Level: 6-9

After the soldiers come, Papa tells his family that they must leave everything behind and set sail for America. The journey across the Caribbean is dangerous and long, and our narrator and his little sister keep asking — just how many days is it to America? Prolific children's author Eve Bunting, herself an immigrant from Ireland, shares the story of a new generation of pilgrims who are willing to risk their lives to look for freedom in America.

Inside Out and Back Again

Age Level: 9-12

Shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Hà's family flees war-torn Vietnam. When they arrive in Alabama more than 3 months later as refugees, they struggle to adapt to a new life. Yet slowly Hà and her family begin to find their way, making friends in unexpected places and helping each other survive. Based on the childhood experiences of the author, this compelling novel won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush's Incredible Journey

Illustrated by: Sue Cornelison
Age Level: 6-9

Lost and Found Cat follows an Iraqi family’s escape from Mosul — by car, by foot, and by boat — all with their beloved pet, Kunkush, in tow ... until Kunkush escapes his carrier. The family is heartbroken, but Kunkush fortunately ends up in the hands of Amy, a woman volunteering with refugees in Greece, who grows determined to reunite the cat with his original family. This moving true story will inspire discussions with young readers about what it means to be a refugee, the unexpected consequences of being displaced, and the importance of kindness.

Mai Ya's Long Journey

Age Level: 9-12

Mai Ya's Long Journey follows Mai Ya Xiong, a young Hmong woman, from her childhood in Thailand's Ban Vinai Refugee Camp to her current home in Wisconsin. Mai Ya's parents fled Laos during the Vietnam War and were refugees in Thailand for several years before reaching the United States. But the story does not end there. Students will read the challenges Mai Ya faces in balancing her Hmong heritage and her adopted American culture as she grows into adulthood.

Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation

Illustrated by: Leslie Staub
Age Level: 6-9

Danticat’s celebration of storytelling and the bond between mother and child is an empowering one. Saya, whose mother is being detained, writes a story inspired by her mother’s experience. When her father sends Saya’s story to a newspaper, she learns firsthand that one voice, one story, can make a difference.

My Freedom Trip

Illustrated by: Steve Jenkins
Age Level: 9-12

In this intense and moving book, Frances and Ginger Park share the story of their mother's escape from North Korea as a young girl. On the night that Soo prepares for her freedom trip, she bids her mother a tearful farewell and begins a journey during which she will travel by train and foot to reach the border with South Korea. Filled with suspense and heartache, the story is a tribute to those who set out for freedom — and those who stay behind.

Once They Had a Country: Two Teenage Refugees in the Second World War

Age Level: 14-16

Gillick uses historical documents such as letters, telegrams, and police records to weave a compelling narrative of two teen refugees — her own parents — during World War II. Once They Had a Country also offers readers context for the development of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1951.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings

Illustrated by: Mark Siegel
Age Level: 9-12

A refugee seeking sanctuary from the horrors of Kristallnacht, Oskar arrives by ship in New York City with only a photograph and an address for an aunt he has never met. It is both the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. As Oskar walks the length of Manhattan, from the Battery to his new home in the north of the city, he passes experiences the city's many holiday sights, and encounters it various residents. Each offers Oskar a small act of kindness, welcoming him to the city and helping him on his way to a new life in the new world.

Out of Iraq: Refugees' Stories in Words, Paintings and Music

Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees have fled to other countries. This book provides, in words and pictures, a glimpse of what life was like in Iraq before they left, why they were forced to flee, and how they feel about life as a refugee. Their stories are set against background information about Iraq, Saddam Hussain's rule, the invasion, and the subsequent civil war. The role of the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees (UNHCR) is outlined, and ideas for using the book in the classroom are also included.

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Young Readers Edition)

Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: This young people's version of the adult bestseller, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference, is a complex and inspirational story about the Fugees, a youth soccer team in Clarkson, Georgia made up of diverse refugees from around the world, and their formidable female coach, Luma Mufleh. The author explores how the community changed with the influx of refugees and how the dedication of Lumah Mufleh and the entire Fugees soccer team inspired an entire community.

Playing War

Illustrated by: Lea Lyon
Age Level: 6-9

On a summer day when no one can think of anything to do, "playing war" seems like the perfect way to spend the day to Luke and his friends — until they realize that their new friend, Sameer, has had more experience with war than any of his friends can imagine. Beckwith and Lyon offer a poignant look at real and imagined war from a child's point of view. Teachers with refugees may find this an effective bridge for discussion.

Red Midnight

Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: When guerrilla soldiers strike Santiago's Guatemalan village, they destroy everything in their path — including his home and family. Santiago and his four-year-old sister escape, running for their lives. They set sail in a sea kayak their Uncle Ramos built while dreaming of his own escape. Sailing through narrow channels guarded by soldiers, shark-infested waters, and days of painful heat and raging storms, Santiago and Angelina face an almost impossible voyage hundreds of miles across the open ocean, heading for the hope of a new life in the United States.

Serafina's Promise

Age Level: 9-12

11-year-old Serafina lives in the rural mountains of Haiti, helping her mother and grandmother with chores and hauling water up to the house each day. Secretly, however, Serafina wishes to go to school and become a doctor. Yet when the rains wash away their house and the 2010 earthquake strikes in Port-au-Prince, where her father works, the possibility of attending school seem even more tenuous — but Serafina isn't ready to give her dreams up yet. Ann Burg's lyrical, award-winning story is told in free verse with Haitian proverbs and French and Creole phrases woven throughout.

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey

Illustrated by: Nizar Badr
Age Level: 6-9

Nizar Ali Badr’s striking stone art inspired Ruurs to create a narrative about a family in Syria who attempts to walk to safety and freedom in Europe with only what they can carry on their backs. Booklist called this free-verse tale “a unique offering that will open eyes and soften hearts.”

Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina

Age Level: 14-16

eens may have seen Michaela DePrince in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” and young dance fans might know her as the youngest principal dancer ever to be a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Taking Flight takes readers from her birth in conflict-ridden Sierra Leone, to her life with vitiligo at an orphanage and refugee camp, then to her being adopted by an American family and fulfilling her long-held dreams of being a ballerina. DePrince’s story of overcoming challenges throughout her life, from war and displacement to discrimination in the dance world, is sure to inspire.

Teacup

Illustrated by: Matt Ottley
Age Level: 6-9

Readers of all ages will find much to connect with in this simple and lovely tale of a boy who must leave his home and find another. He sets off alone in a rowboat, with only a book, a blanket, and some earth from his homeland in a teacup. Young’s story doesn’t shy away from the loneliness and uncertainty the boy experiences, but the story ends on a hopeful note when he finds land and a much-needed friend.

The Cat from Kosovo

Illustrated by: Tamara Thiébaux-Heikalo
Age Level: 6-9

Product Description: One day Olsa and Bashkim opened their doors to a small brown-and-white striped cat, they opened their hearts too. But the rather ordinary happiness of their lives was threatened as the war in Kosovo grew nearer. Forced to leave their home, they gathered all their courage and the few things they simply could not leave behind, journeying first to Macedonia and then to Canada.

The Color of Home

Illustrated by: Karin Littlewood
Age Level: 9-12

Product Description: First-grader Hassan has only recently arrived in the United States after he and his family were forced to flee Somalia, and he deeply misses the colorful landscape of his former home in Africa. But with the help of his parents, an understanding teacher, and a school art project, Hassan finds that by painting a picture of his old home and sharing his story, his homesickness and the trauma of leaving a war-torn country are lessened.

The Journey

Age Level: 3-6

The Journey recounts a refugee boy's story as he travels from his war-torn country to a new home. Sanna writes that the book began when she met two young girls at an Italian refugee center, then "began collecting more stories of migration and interviewing many people from many different countries." The striking result, in a setting that is not specified, is a simple yet powerful illustration of the anxiety, exhaustion, and heartbreak a family faces when displaced by war and conflict, as well as the courage and hope of their journey. 2017 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award honor winner.

The Memory Coat

Illustrated by: Michael Dooling
Age Level: 6-9

Meet Rachel and her cousin, Grisha, two Jewish children living in a small town in Russia. When soldiers begin to attack their town, the family decides that they must set sail for America and their grandmother offers Grisha a new coat instead of his old, tattered coat so that the family will make a good impression at Ellis Island. Grisha insists, however, on keeping the coat that is so special to him — a decision that ultimately helps keep the family together in America.

The Red Pencil

Illustrated by: Shane Evans
Age Level: 9-12

Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala — Amira's one true dream. But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey on foot to safety at a refugee camp.

The Whispering Cloth

Illustrated by: Anita Riggio
Age Level: 9-12

After much practice, Mai is finally ready to make her own pa'dau, or embroidered story cloth. Listening to the stories of her grandmother and the other women at the refugee camp, however, she feels that there are no stories left for her to stitch. Can she find a story of her own? This moving tribute to the Hmong people is richly enhanced by a breathtaking, intricate story cloth woven for the book by pa'ndau artist You Yang.

When I Get Older: The Story behind "Wavin' Flag"

By: K'NAAN
Illustrated by: Rudy Gutiérrez
Age Level: 6-9

Product Description: In his first book for children, Somali-Canadian poet, rapper, singer, and songwriter K'NAAN tells his own story. Born Keinan Abdi Warsame in Somalia, he grew up in Mogadishu. His grandfather was a renowned poet who passed on his love of words to his grandson. When the Somali Civil War began in 1991, K'NAAN was just thirteen. His mother made the difficult decision to move her family so that they could grow up in safety.

Ziba Came on a Boat

Illustrated by: Robert Ingpen
Age Level: 6-9

Ziba has left the war-torn Afghanistan to come to a place that is safer and warmer — Australia. As the tiny fishing boat rises and falls on the sea, Ziba remembers all that she left behind, and dreams of the freedom that awaits her in her new life. Haunting illustrations convey both the pain and hope that consumes Ziba on her journey. Based on the stories of the Hazara refugees living in Australia.