Elementary Books with a Conscience

By Kelley Dawson Salas

I have used the following books in my 4th-grade classroom to help students explore common themes in immigrant children’s lives. I find that students who have immigrated to the United States benefit from seeing some of their experiences reflected in books. These stories help all students learn about immigrants’ experiences and about xenophobia.

— Kelley Dawson Salas, La Escuela Fratney, Milwaukee

América Is Her Name/La llaman América
By Luis Rodríguez; illustrated by Carlos Vázquez
(Curbstone Press, 1997. Spanish version: 1998)

América is a girl from Oaxaca, Mexico, who has moved to Chicago and is floundering in school. She hears her teacher tell another teacher she’s “illegal,” and gets the idea that she doesn’t belong in the United States. After a guest poet visits América’s class, she begins to find her voice by writing about her experiences back home; but her father ridicules her work, telling her it’s no use since she’ll spend her life cleaning, working, and raising kids. América continues to write anyway, and eventually achieves academic success and a sense of belonging. I find this story useful for helping students question immigrant stereotypes and encouraging children to think broadly about their possibilities in life.

My Name Is Jorge on Both Sides of the River
By Jane Medina; illustrated by Fabricio Vanden Broeck
(Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, 1999)

This bilingual poetry book shares common themes in immigrant children’s lives through the experiences of the narrator, Jorge. Jorge makes friends with English- and Spanish-speaking kids at his new school, tries new foods offered to him by his Anglo peers, and feels proud when he recites poetry to his class. He also wonders why his grades are worse in the United States than in Mexico, feels insulted when a classmate calls his English as a second language class “Mexican dummy time,” and leaves the public library without a library card after the librarian insults his mom for being illiterate. A funny, moving, and engaging book that helps students explore the joys and difficulties in the lives of immigrant children.

Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del otro lado
By Gloria Anzaldúa; illustrated by Consuelo Méndez.
(Children’s Book Press, 1993)

In this bilingual book, a Mexican-American girl named Prietita befriends a recent Mexican immigrant named Joaquín. She stands up to her cousin and his friends when they tell Joaquín to “Go back where you came from.” When the Border Patrol comes looking for “illegals,” she hides Joaquín and his mom so they won’t get caught. I use this book to help students learn about xenophobia and how to be an ally.

The Magic Shell/El regalo mágico
By Nicholasa Mohr; illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez
(Scholastic, 1995. Spanish version:1996)

When Jaime’s family decides to move to New York from the Dominican Republic, his uncle gives him a magic shell that he can use to remember his home. At first Jaime uses the shell often. He is bored in his apartment building and reluctant to make friends with English speakers. Eventually he makes friends at school and in his neighborhood, and starts to enjoy life in New York. At the end of the book he visits the Dominican Republic and uses the shell to recall New York. Although I find this book to be a bit slow-paced, the themes hold students’ interest.