5 Great Immigrant Narratives in YA

It has been said a billion times, especially in the past few months: the United States is a nation comprised largely of immigrants. If your ancestors weren’t Native and/or brought over against their will, at some point they made their way here on the promise of an escape from persecution and/or the pursuit of the American dream. For teens, being minors poised on the edges of their majority futures and generally not being among their families’ decision makers, these stories’ representation in fiction has rapidly increasing relevance, especially as the nation’s laws are shifting. Here are five great tributes to the journey made from different corners of the globe, written by authors who either came over themselves from the countries represented in these stories or work very closely with those who do. (Please note: this list focuses on American immigration stories. For a great one set in Australia, check out Alice Pung’s Lucy and Linh.)

American Street, by Ibi Zoboi
Fabiola and her mother are finally getting out of Haiti for good, reuniting with family in Detroit, and getting started on their American dream. At least, that’s the plan. Then Fabiola’s mother gets detained, and Fabiola herself—born in the U.S.—is forced to move forward alone. As she awaits the day she and her mother will finally be reunited, Fabiola does her best to settle in with her mysterious aunt and her three strong-minded cousins. But adjusting isn’t easy…especially when she’s surrounded by dangerous secrets. Just how far Fabiola will go to get her mother back is anyone’s guess, and emotional support comes in the most unexpected of places in this vibrant, high-stakes debut infused with Haitian vodou.

The Secret Side of Empty, by Maria Andreu
M.T.’s done just fine in school and in life as an undocumented immigrant from Argentina, but now that she’s a senior and all talk has turned to the future, it’s impossible for her to ignore the fact that her plans don’t look anything like her friends’. In fact, she doesn’t really have any plans at all—how can she when everything seems dependent on having pieces of paper she can’t get? While M.T. slowly recedes from her social and academic lives in order to avoid explaining why she can’t go on an international trip, get her license, or apply to college, she’s also dealing with the fact that her abusive father wants the family to return to Argentina, a future M.T. can picture even less. Without support from those around her, she’ll have to rely on herself to find a way forward, and that may mean putting a whole lot of trust in people, including herself, to make the seemingly impossible happen. This raw and touching first novel draws heavily on the author’s own experiences.

The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
Yoon’s sophomore novel has been holding steady as a New York Times bestseller, has been listed for pretty much every award imaginable, and, in my personal opinion, deserves every single accolade. It’s the story of Natasha, on a last-minute mission to save her family from deportation back to Jamaica, and the guy she fiercely connects with on what might be her final day in New York: Daniel, who is himself the son of Korean immigrants. The story alternates between their points of view as they fall for each other while Natasha races around the city in order to accomplish her goal, while also interspersing brief chapters narrated by secondary characters sharing their own experiences with immigration and the U.S.

Something in Between, by Melissa de la Cruz
Jasmine has worked her butt off for years to achieve academic excellence, and it pays off in a major way when she gets a huge scholarship that guarantees a free ride to the college of her choice. She can’t wait to share the good news with her parents, but they’re not quite as excited as she is—they’re the ones who have to break the news to her that they’re undocumented, and thus she can’t keep the scholarship. But when it turns out her new boyfriend is the son of the very congressman fighting to send her family back to the Philippines, saving them all becomes a very real fight, hinging on Jasmine’s stellar achievement record. With the threat of everything she has being ripped out from under her and nothing left to lose, Jasmine won’t give up without a fight.

The Radius of Us, by Marie Marquardt
Phoenix and his brother Ari came to the States from El Salvador to escape gang violence, but while Phoenix is living fairly freely with the women who took him in as a foster kid while he awaits his asylum hearing, Ari remains stuck at a juvenile detention facility, rendered selectively mute as a result of the atrocities they witnessed on their journey across the Mexican border. It’s during this waiting period that Phoenix meets Gretchen, a girl suffering from her own PTSD after an attack, who wants to make good after a bad first impression. As the two get closer, their unlikely friendship turns into more, with perfect timing…because Phoenix is being threatened with deportation and needs all the support he can get.

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