Tough Topics: Family Separation

Parent bunny talking with child bunny

These stories address difficult topics around family separation. Many relate to immigrant stories (both historic and contemporary). These books can be a powerful tool in helping children talk about their feelings and experiences during or after a separation.

Related resources: Immigration and family separation

More related booklists

An Ellis Island Christmas

Illustrated by: Dennis Nolan
Age Level: Middle Grade

When Krysia is six, her family leaves Poland for America. The journey is difficult, as is the arrival at Ellis Island when the family is separated. While the family waits for Papa, Krysia sits down by the Christmas Tree of the Great Hall at Ellis Island and watches as other fellow travelers begin to sing and dance. The mood is festive, but Krysia begins to worry — will Papa ever return? Cultural details from Polish customs passed down through the author's family enhance the touching story of one family's Ellis Island experience.

Areli Is a Dreamer: A True Story

Areli Is a Dreamer: A True Story
Illustrated by: Luisa Uribe
Age Level: 6-9

When Areli was just a baby, her mama and papa moved from Mexico to New York with her brother, Alex, to make a better life for the family — and when she was in kindergarten, they sent for her, too. Everything in New York was different. Gone were the Saturdays at Abuela’s house, filled with cousins and sunshine. Instead, things were busy and fast and noisy. Areli’s limited English came out wrong, and schoolmates accused her of being illegal. But with time, America became her home.

Finally Seen

Illustration of a tween arriving at a house
Age Level: Middle Grade

When ten-year-old Lina Gao steps off the plane in Los Angeles, it's her first time in America and the first time seeing her parents and her little sister in five years! She's been waiting for this moment every day while she lived with her grandmother in Beijing, getting teased by kids at school who called her "left behind girl." Finally, her parents are ready for her to join their fabulous life in America!

Finding Papa

Mother carrying daughter on back through water
Illustrated by: Thi Bui
Age Level: 6-9

No one can make Mai laugh like her Papa! She loves playing their favorite game—the crocodile chomp chomp! But then Papa leaves Vietnam in search of a new home for their family in America and Mai misses him very much. Until one day Mama and Mai pack a small bag and say goodbye to the only home Mai has ever known. And so begins Mai and Mama’s long, perilous journey by foot and by boat, through dangers and darkness, to find Papa.

From North to South

Mom hugging son
Illustrated by: Joe Cepeda
Language: Spanish (Bilingual Eng/Sp)

When Mamá is sent to a detention center in Tijuana because she doesn't have the right immigration papers, José must get used to life without her. He and his father visit Mamá at the center, where they talk about the future in which they will be together. Based on the experiences of René Colato Laínez's students, both he and illustrator Joe Cepeda strike the right balance of honesty and hope in depicting this difficult yet common situation for families along the border.

Home of the Brave

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.

Land of the Cranes

Land of the Cranes
Age Level: Middle Grade

When nine-year-old Betita’s beloved father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico, Betita and her pregnant mother are left behind on their own. Soon they too are detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp outside of Los Angeles. Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged, but each day threatens to tear them down lower than they ever thought they could be.

Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca

Illustration of boy playing a trumpet.
Illustrated by: Anna López Real
Age Level: 6-9
Language: Spanish (Bilingual Eng/Sp)

Luca has never lived outside the U.S., but when his parents receive a letter in the mail, the family must pack up and leave home for a strange land. Together in their car, Luca, his brother Paco, and their parents head across the border to Mexico where his parents were born. Luca doesn’t understand why he must leave the only home he’s ever known, his friends, and his school. He struggles through lonely and disorienting times ― reflected both in Real’s delicate, symbolic illustrations and through Llanos’ description of his dreams ― and leans on music, memory, and familial love for support.

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.

Mango Moon

Illustrated by: Sue Cornelison
Age Level: 6-9

When a father is taken away from his family and facing deportation, his children are 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.

My Family Divided: One Girl's Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope

Picture of a girl with two cities behind her
Age Level: Middle Grade

Before becoming a successful actress and landing a spot on the megahit Netflix show Orange is the New Black, Diane Guerrero was a young girl living in Boston. One day, while Guerrero was at school, her undocumented immigrant parents were taken from their home, detained, and deported to their native country, Colombia. Guerrero's life, which had been full of the support of a loving family, was turned upside down.

My Freedom Trip

My Freedom Trip
Illustrated by: Steve Jenkins
Age Level: 6-9, 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.

My Shoes and I

Mario is leaving El Salvador with a new pair of shoes — and a good thing, too, because he has a long and difficult journey ahead of him to reach a new country. His shoes carry him through rain and across mountains, all the way to the river where his mother is waiting on the other side. Young readers may need some information explaining the context of the story, which is based on the author's journey from El Salvador in 1985. Painted illustrations on grainy wood backgrounds match the gritty but hopeful tone of the story.

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale

Rabbit and coyote
Age Level: 6-9
Language: English, Spanish vocabulary featured

When the rains don't come in the spring, Papá Rabbit sets out north to work in the carrot and lettuce fields. He doesn't return when expected, however, and his eldest son, Pancho Rabbit, embarks on a journey to find his father. He meets a coyote who agrees to show him a shortcut, but only in exchange for Pancho's food. After an exhausting journey, Pancho is left with nothing — except the hope of finding his father.

Soon, Annala

Illustrated by: Julie Downing
Age Level: 6-9

Annala lives with her family in New York — everyone, that is, except for her two little brothers. She misses them terribly, but whenever she asks her parents when they will come, they can only respond, "Soon, Annala." Annala can't help wonder, however, if that day will ever arrive. A touching depiction of the separation that so many immigrant families endure in search of a better life. Out of print but may be available in libraries.

Super Cilantro Girl/La Superniña del Cilantro

Illustration of Super Cilantro Girl flying
Illustrated by: Honorio Robleda Tapia
Age Level: 6-9
Language: Spanish (Bilingual Eng/Sp)

What happens when a small girl suddenly starts turning green, as green as a cilantro leaf, and grows to be fifty feet tall? She becomes Super Cilantro Girl, and can overcome all obstacles, that's what! Esmeralda Sinfronteras is the winning super-hero in this effervescent tale about a child who flies huge distances and scales tall walls in order to rescue her mom. Award-winning writer Juan Felipe Herrera taps into the wellsprings of his imagination to address and transform the concerns many first-generation children have about national borders and immigrant status.

The Sky at Our Feet

Reflection of children running in a puddle
Age Level: Middle Grade

Jason has just learned that his Afghan mother has been living illegally in the United States since his father was killed in Afghanistan. Although Jason was born in the US, it’s hard to feel American now when he’s terrified that his mother will be discovered — and that they will be separated.

When he sees his mother being escorted from her workplace by two officers, Jason feels completely alone. He boards a train with the hope of finding his aunt in New York City, but as soon as he arrives in Penn Station, the bustling city makes him wonder if he’s overestimated what he can do.

You Weren't with Me

Big bunny talking with small bunny
Illustrated by: Erich Ippen Jr.
Age Level: 3-6
Language: Spanish

Little Rabbit and Big Rabbit are together after a difficult separation, but even though they missed each other, Little Rabbit is not ready to cuddle up and receive Big Rabbit's love. Little Rabbit needs Big Rabbit to understand what it felt like when they were apart. "Sometimes I am very mad. I don't understand why you weren't with me," says Little Rabbit, "I worry you will go away again." Big Rabbit listens carefully and helps Little Rabbit to feel understood and loved.