Explaining immigration to children is a challenge. I want my children to have an understanding of the things they hear and the world around them, good and bad. That being said, I also want to protect my child from the most gruesome elements if possible. I turn to books. I have found two recent picture books to address the issue admirably: Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago and We are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta.
Both are authors who have written widely and won numerous awards. Jorge Argueta, a native Salvadoran and Pipil Nahua Indian, is known for poetry books of recipes about iconic Latino dishes, each illustrated by a different artist. Jairo Buitrago, a Colombian, writes books that, to me, tell a simple story that can be interpreted to apply to wider social issues.
Such is the case with Two White Rabbits. It tells the story of a father and daughter on a trip. The story begins, “When we travel, I count what I see.” It goes on to tell the story, through sparse words and illustrations of the journey many take to get to the United States. The girl describes what she sees, with little commentary. The pictures tell a slightly different story, of avoiding soldiers, finding passage however possible, and the people who aren’t so lucky on their trip. There is no explicit mention of the dangers people face while immigrating. The girl says, “the people who are taking us don’t always take us where we are going.” Or, “sometimes I see soldiers, but I don’t count them anymore.”
The story is relatable to a child who has traveled, to the ways we entertain ourselves, and the inconveniences, like trying to sleep while traveling, or feeling frustrated when people don’t do what they say. For a parent and child reading together, there are ample opportunities to talk about what they see in the pictures, and discuss their interpretations. To talk about not only the shapes we see in the clouds, but also why people would travel in this way, and why we think they are traveling. The story does not provide us a clear-cut answer of whether the family makes it across the border, or what lies on the other side for them. In that way, Buitrago leaves the door open to interpretation and conversation.
We are Like the Clouds is a collection of poetry that tells the stories of many children traveling in search of a better life. Argueta begins the book by telling of his experience meeting children in El Salvador as well as in the United States and using their stories as the basis of this book. Some travel with parents, and others alone, confronting similar challenges as Two White Rabbits, as well as others. These poems delve more into the details of immigration: before the journey, we see their home towns, and the sights and people that populate them. Some good, like the man who sells paletas (popsicles), some bad, like the painted ones and the leader of these gangs. Though there is mention of the specific reasons for leaving a place, readers are still left with room to interpret. Take these lines for example:
Their arms, faces,
chests and backs
I’m afraid of those snakes.
They might bite me.
This book also deals in universal themes. While people are traveling from different places, with different stories and goals, they are all traveling together. All searching for a safer place, a place with better opportunities, or to be reunited with their family. We are Like the Clouds frames everything from the perspective of a child, with attention to small details that grownups may not pick up on. Both books show children studying the clouds, and in this book, relating to the clouds in their transient nature. In these poems, children will be introduced to coyotes and the migra, to minutemen and the talker. The door is open for further discussion, and curious children will no doubt wish to know why is the train called Bestia? Why do they sleep outside, and why do some children travel without their parents? It is up to the reader to decide how to answer those questions, how much detail to go into.
Even facing difficult issues, it is easy to get lost in the lyrical writing, with poems like this:
In the desert, crickets sing.
I cuddle at my mother’s chest.
I hear her cricket heart
leap and sing.
The book ends with more closure than Two White Rabbits, but still room for imagining. The children make it to the United States. Here they can still dream, eat paletas, here there are even clouds.
by Claire Bartlett, Youth Outreach Librarian at Mount Prospect Public Library