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Immigration Novels for Teens

By Naomi Leslie

When teaching middle and high school students, they’ve often asked for books about “real stuff,” or “important issues.” Sure, a few students will always hold out for high fantasy or science fiction, but many teenagers crave discussion of topics they perceive as being important, both to their own lives and to the world at large.

Consequently, there is a teenage “problem novel” for almost every topic from divorce to teenage pregnancy to drug addiction to discovery of homosexuality. Adults often groan about the heavy-handedness and the “bad writing” of some of these novels. Don’t. It’s not that teen and preteen readers don’t recognize that some books are better written than others; it’s just that for many readers (adults as well as teens), the power of the content is enough to pull them through a book. And what’s wrong with that? Part of the joy of reading should be the joy of discussion afterward, and there’s no rule that says the discussion must be confined to symbolism. Why not read along with your teenager and talk about current events and issues?

Not surprisingly, a theme found in young adult novels in recent years is immigration. Within the last ten years, several books for young adults have been published which explore immigration from different angles and perspectives. Some of these are fairly typical “problem novels,” including political and policy information under cover of plot, inviting teen readers to ponder the complexity of the immigration debate. Others are more personal literary accounts - novels that happen to be about immigrant characters rather than novels about the issues or policies of immigration. Following are recommendations four novels which represent a range of the current immigration-themed offerings.

Return to SenderReturn to Sender
By Julia Alvarez
New York: Alfred A. Knopf
© 2009, $16.99 US/$18.99 CAN.

In many ways, this is a classic “problem novel” about illegal immigration, with several sympathetic characters who have opposite perspectives, and a clear-cut problem with no easy solution. The book switches between the narratives of two preteen characters. Tyler, a Vermont farm boy, is worried that, after his father suffered a bad accident , his family will lose their farm. Although he is pleased when a family of laborers is hired to help, he begins to suspect that they are in the U.S. without documentation. Tyler has been raised with a clear-cut notion of what “patriotism” means, so he is understandably conflicted that his parents are lying to the government, until he gets to know twelve-year old Mari and learns about the difficulties her family is facing. Mari, the other narrator, writes long letters to her mother, who is making her way across the U.S-Mexican border (and is possibly lost or dead). Through these letters, the reader learns that Mari’s sisters are American citizens, with no ties to Mexico, and about how her mother has suffered at the hands of unscrupulous coyotes, the smugglers who traffic immigrants across the border.

Throughout the course of the novel, readers are asked to consider various points of view, such as the farmers who need less expensive immigrant laborers in order to stay in business, and various policy issues, such as the deportation of children who are American citizens. While the plot is a bit heavy-handed, the book is still an enjoyable read, and will provide interest for kids who like talking about current events.

By Paul Volponi
New York: Simon Schuster
© 2009, $16.99

If Return to Sender is a carefully balanced and sympathetic view of both pro- and anti-immigration perspectives, Homestretch is an intentionally off-putting portrait of a racist, intolerant boy who blames his family problems on the influx of immigrants into their Texas town. Sixteen-year-old Gas is running away from a lot of things. His mother was killed by a policeman chasing an undocumented immigrant, and his depressed father has become so abusive that Gas can’t take it anymore. As luck would have it, he ends up hitching a ride in a truck with three recent arrivals from Mexico, brothers who find him work he desperately needs. Gas’s attitude does not improve when he discovers that the brothers’ skill with horses makes them much more useful to employers than he is. Despite the brothers’ kindness to him, Gas can’t shake the idea his father drilled into him: that his mother was killed by an immigrant (even though she was really killed by the cop). It takes a while for Gas to recognize that his crooked employer is exploiting him just as much as he’s exploiting the Mexican workers.

Teens who like hard-knock books will be engaged in Gas’s struggle to pull himself out of his bad situation and his prejudice. Gas is not, however, a politically correct narrator, and both adults and teens may be shocked and upset by his use of derogatory racial slurs. I’d suggest bearing with it; for one thing, Gas does change, and for another, the book focuses on how people develop racist views in the first place.

Downtown BoyDowntown Boy
By Juan Felipe Herrera
New York: Scholastic Press
© 2005

This is one of my favorite books, on any topic, published for young adults in recent years. Juanito, the narrator, is always moving. His Papi is always traveling somewhere, searching for a cure for his diabetes. And he and his Mami are always waiting for el carton, the welfare check, which takes a while to catch up with their frequent moves. Although Juanito is tall and strong-looking he doesn’t want to be a boxer, like his cousin Chacho tells him to be. What he really wants is to stay at one school and in one neighborhood, for his Papi to be home, and for people to learn to correctly pronounce his name.

Unlike the previous two books in this list, Downtown Boy deals with a family of legal immigrants, and also unlike the other two, it is autobiographical. I have included the novel in this list of immigration-themed books largely because Juanito is constantly confronted with questions of where he is “from,” and because he deals with some of the strains of being a first-generation citizen. However, the book is not about immigration; it is about Juanito and how he tries to find a place in the world.

Kiffe Kiffe TomorrowKiffe Kiffe Tomorrow
By Faiza Guene, Translated by Sarah Adams
New York: Harcourt, Inc.
© 2004. $13.00

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is about a teenaged Moroccan immigrant girl living outside of Paris. Doria, a smart, appealing first-person narrator, gives a witty and defensive account of the problems in her life: how her father took off to Morocco to find a wife who could give him sons, how she and her mother have to shop at the charity store, how her mother (whose name is Yasmina) gets called Fatma just like all the other Arabs where she works, and how she (Doria) is supposed to talk to all these smug social workers who are probably patting themselves on the back for working with “at-risk youth” in the projects. With all this, Doria doesn’t see the point in exerting herself in school. What do poor Arabs in France get to do anyway?

Despite its setting in France, many of Doria’s problems will ring true to American teenagers. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow follows some familiar formulas of young adult fiction, like the sassy narrator and her gradual maturation into adult responsibilities; but it’s a satisfying formula, and in this case, well-written and effective. This novel is a good read, and also a good reminder that the United States is not the only country dealing with immigration issues. In my work, I’ve found that many teens are interested in cross-cultural conflict abroad; this book is a good place to start addressing that interest.



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