“The Bravest Thing a Person Can Do”: Three Immigrant Stories
July 12, 2019 § Leave a comment
I’m starting to think,
might be the bravest thing a person can do.
These provocative words hail from Jasmine Warga’s Other Words from Home, one of three new books with a unique, powerful presentation of the immigrant experience for a different age group. Whether set in the past or present, these stories have never been more relevant to share with our children. If our kids are someday to have a hand in the creation of fair, just, compassionate policy, they should spend some time in the shoes of the very people whose lives these policies aim to impact.
What does it mean to arrive in this country with hope in your heart? What does it mean to walk away from family, from the familiar, from foods you’ve eaten all your life, and step into the Unknown? Each of the below books explores these questions, while posing another of its own.
What happens when you have to make the journey alone?
For most of our children, the first time they walk to school by themselves, bid goodbye to us at sleepaway camp, feels monumental. And yet, they’ve had time to consider these choices. To be reassured that we are close by, that they are surrounded by caring adults whose job it is to protect them. What happens when you have to part from a parent in unforeseen, unpredictable, potentially catastrophic ways?
My daughter—mesmerized by the unimaginable reality of a girl her same age being put by herself on a massive ship to the other side of the world—has not been able to get enough of Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, by Lesléa Newman, illustrated Amy June Bates (Ages 6-9). A nod to the approximately three million Eastern European Jews who fled violence in the early 1900s, the story is based specifically on two stories from the author’s own childhood. As if the circumstances weren’t mind-blowing enough, the mixed-media illustrations are exquisite, inviting the reader to step back in time and see the at once familiar and changing world through Gittel’s eyes.
Nine-year-old Gittel is already struggling with leaving her best friend, her pet goat, and a home filled with the warm glow of the Sabbath light, but at least her mother will be with her. And then, about to board the ship, her mother is denied passage by the health inspector for an eye infection. Gittel is told by her mother that she must go on alone: “Home is not safe for us. You are going to America to have a better life.” Gittel steps onto the boat with only an address of her mother’s cousin written on a scrap of paper, her mother’s precious Shabbos candlesticks wrapped in cloth, and a rag doll peeking out of her pocket.
This is what heartbreak looks like: watching your mother fade into the distance and knowing that you are alone. “What if Mama’s cousin Mendel doesn’t like me?[…]What if my new teacher doesn’t like me? What if English is too hard to learn? What if I never see Mama again?” Gittel huddles in the underbelly of the ship, voicing her fears to her doll.
This is what bravery looks like: re-engaging with a world that has upended you. Gittel claps along to men singing on the ship; she joins in a card game with other children. She allows her heart to lift at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. Even when she arrives on Ellis Island and discovers her cousin’s address is smeared beyond legibility, Gittel charms a Yiddish interpreter into devising a clever plan to help her.
What happens when everyone around you may as well be speaking Martian?
Remy Lai’s Pie in the Sky (Ages 8-12)—a funny and touching illustrated novel about an eleven-year-old boy who immigrates to Australia with his mother and younger brother—does an especially compelling job of giving the reader a taste of what it’s like to navigate a new life when you can’t understand what anyone is saying. Jingwen may have taken English classes back home, but now that he is surrounded by native speakers, he can hardly distinguish one word from another. Australia “might as well be Mars because to me English still sounds like an alien language even though we’ve been here for two months…”
Hearing about his experiences firsthand, we are treated to Jingwen’s infectious sense of humor and insightful mind; but these qualities are invisible to nearly everyone else. Jingwen’s disorientation affects every aspect of his daily life. He can’t show off how smart he is in school (resorting to eenie-meenie-miny-mo for multiple choice quizzes). He doesn’t have an effective comeback when other kids tease him (heck, he can’t always tell when they are teasing him). Even his relationship with his younger brother becomes increasingly charged (the latter being much quicker to pick up the new language). To complicate matters, Jingwen is grieving his father, who died in an accident shortly before their move and for which Jingwen blames himself.
Not able to count on the obvious channels of communication but still craving connection, Jingwen finds himself compelled to take up an activity which reminds him of his father. Each afternoon after school, against his mother’s strict order never to operate the oven while home alone, Jingwen attempts to construct each of the gourmet cakes he and his father once aspired to sell in their “Pie in the Sky” bakery. In baking these cakes, Jingwen dares to hope.
Surprisingly, my son’s favorite part of this novel wasn’t the funny Wimpy Kid-style comics or the spot-on sibling banter. It was these cakes. Red velvet cake, triple cookie cake, Nutella cream cake…all the way to the pièce de résistance, the Rainbow Cake (recipe included). Witnessing these cakes come together is, for us, almost as fun as we imagine tasting them would be. These cakes may bring about messes and meltdowns and mis-communications, but creating and sharing them also becomes a way for Jingwen to take back some of the agency he has lost in the move. Baking is a lifeline of sorts, something Jingwen can put out into the world to begin to make sense of the Martians around him.
What happens when you’re judged, feared, and shamed before you open your mouth?
In Jasmine Warga’s lovely middle-grade novel in verse, Other Words for Home (Ages 10-14), Jude is a Syrian girl, forced during wartime to move to Cincinnati with her pregnant mother, leaving behind her beloved father, brother, seaside home, and a vibrant culture her new surroundings seem to want her to forget.
America, Jude quickly realizes, is a country of labels. In Syria, she was just a girl, gossiping about movie stars with her best friend. Here, she is a Middle Eastern girl. A Syrian girl. A Muslim girl. A girl with a hijab. A girl who hails from a place of “violence/ sadness/ war.”
Americans love labels.
They help them know what to expect.
I think labels stop them from
Here again, we get Jude’s story from her perspective, and this access to her interior world allows us to peel back the layers of these labels. Not just the stereotypes associated with Jude’s cultural heritage, but also of being the “new girl”: the girl with the broken English, the girl living in the shadow of her popular American cousin, the girl with no one to sit with at lunch. Jude refuses to let others define her. For Jude, bravery is daring to hope for the same things her classmates do. Bravery is hoping for a role in the school play.
I sometimes worry that there is something
wrong with me that
I so badly want to know that other people
But then I think about all the other people,
all the other people who are in this room right now
for the exact same reason,
and realize my want,
is as big and real
and valid as theirs.
Watching Jude break out of her initial shyness and hesitancy to become the same girl she was back home—one who relished the limelight, who believed herself entitled to dreams, who is full of “punch/ liters of it”—is one of the more satisfying reading experiences of the year.
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Books published by Henry N. Abrams (thanks for review copy), Henry Holt & Co., and Balzer & Bey (respectively). All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!