With the refugee crisis on the rise, these middle grade books about refugees can help kid and adult readers recognize that refugees are people just like them. For this list, I focused on books about people forced to leave their homeland — not those immigrating by choice (in search of greener pastures). If you’re looking for that, see our list of middle grade books about immigration and the immigrant experience.
Many stories on this list are about kids escaping tough situations and sometimes still running into prejudice and poor welcomes at the border of the nations to which they’ve run. Some of them show the joyful lives refugees enjoy before things turn bad in the countries of their birth. I hope this list can help readers build empathy for all kinds of refugees (from all areas of the world).
Best Middle Grade Books About Refugees
Here are 22 great middle grade books about refugees:
Published: July 25, 2017
JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.
The Only Road
Published: October 4, 2016
Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly, he knows: Miguel, his cousin and best friend, is dead.
Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed—like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice: accompanied by his cousin Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother in New Mexico.
Published: March 3, 2020
Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories, especially the legend Buelo tells him about a mythical gatekeeper who can guide brave travelers on a journey into tomorrow. If Max could see tomorrow, he would know if he’d make Santa Maria’s celebrated fútbol team and whether he’d ever meet his mother, who disappeared when he was a baby. He longs to know more about her, but Papá won’t talk. So when Max uncovers a buried family secret–involving an underground network of guardians who lead people fleeing a neighboring country to safety–he decides to seek answers on his own. With a treasured compass, a mysterious stone rubbing, and Buelo’s legend as his only guides, he sets out on a perilous quest to discover if he is true of heart and what the future holds. This timeless tale of struggle, hope, and the search for tomorrow has much to offer today about compassion and our shared humanity.
When Stars Are Scattered
Published: April 14, 2020
Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.
Land of Cranes
Published: September 15, 2020
Nine-year-old Betita knows she is a crane. Papi has told her the story, even before her family fled to Los Angeles to seek refuge from cartel wars in Mexico. The Aztecs came from a place called Aztlan, what is now the Southwest US, called the land of the cranes. They left Aztlan to establish their great city in the center of the universe-Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. It was prophesized that their people would one day return to live among the cranes in their promised land. Papi tells Betita that they are cranes that have come home.
Then one day, Betita’s beloved father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico. Betita and her pregnant mother are left behind on their own, but soon they too are detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp outside of Los Angeles. Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community, she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged, but each day threatens to tear them down lower than they ever thought they could be. Will Betita and her family ever be whole again?
Escape from Aleppo
Published: January 2, 2018
Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress.
Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have been harassing his business. Nadia frowns.
It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.
Published: April 20, 2021
What turns citizens into refugees and then immigrants? In this powerful middle-grade debut, Sami and his family embark on a harrowing journey to save themselves from the Syrian civil war.
Sami loves his life in Damascus, Syria. He hangs out with his best friend playing video games; he’s trying out for the football team; he adores his family and gets annoyed by them in equal measure. But his comfortable life gets sidetracked abruptly after a bombing in a nearby shopping mall. Knowing that the violence will only get worse, Sami’s parents decide they must flee their home for the safety of the UK.
Inside Out and Back Again
Published: February 22, 2011
Hà has only ever known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope—toward America.
Published: October 1, 2000
Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico–she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it.
Published: June 22, 2010
Fadi never imagined he’d start middle school in Fremont, California, thousands of miles away from home in Kabul. But, here he was, half a world apart from his missing six year old sister who’d been lost because of him, as they’d fled Afghanistan. Adjusting to life in the United States isn’t easy for Fadi’s family and as the events of September 11th unfold, the prospects of locating Mariam in a war torn Afghanistan seem slim — impossible. Desperate, Fadi tries every hare-brained scheme he can think of to find her. When a photography competition with a grand prize trip to India is announced, Fadi sees his chance to return to Afghanistan and find his sister. But can one photo really bring Mariam home?
The Night Diary
Published: March 6, 2018
It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.
Told through Nisha’s letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girl’s search for home, for her own identity…and for a hopeful future.
Related: 8 Books Like… The Night Diary
A Place to Belong
Published: May 14, 2019
World War II has ended, but while America has won the war, twelve-year-old Hanako feels lost. To her, the world, and her world, seems irrevocably broken.
America, the only home she’s ever known, imprisoned then rejected her and her family–and thousands of other innocent Americans–because of their Japanese heritage, because Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Japan, the country they’ve been forced to move to, the country they hope will be the family’s saving grace, where they were supposed to start new and better lives, is in shambles because America dropped bombs of their own–one on Hiroshima unlike any other in history. And Hanako’s grandparents live in a small village just outside the ravaged city.
The country is starving, the black markets run rampant, and countless orphans beg for food on the streets, but how can Hanako help them when there is not even enough food for her own brother?
Hanako feels she could crack under the pressure, but just because something is broken doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. Cracks can make room for gold, her grandfather explains when he tells her about the tradition of kintsukuroi–fixing broken objects with gold lacquer, making them stronger and more beautiful than ever. As she struggles to adjust to find her place in a new world, Hanako will find that the gold can come in many forms, and family may be hers.
The Boy at the Back of the Class
Published: August 6, 2019
There used to be an empty chair at the back of Mrs. Khan’s classroom, but on the third Tuesday of the school year a new kid fills it: nine-year-old Ahmet, a Syrian refugee.
The whole class is curious about this new boy–he doesn’t seem to smile, and he doesn’t talk much. But after learning that Ahmet fled a Very Real War and was separated from his family along the way, a determined group of his classmates bands together to concoct the Greatest Idea in the World–a magnificent plan to reunite Ahmet with his loved ones.
Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna
Published: September 14, 2021
It is 1913, and twelve-year-old Petra Luna’s mama has died while the Revolution rages in Mexico. Before her papa is dragged away by soldiers, Petra vows to him that she will care for the family she has left—her abuelita, little sister Amelia, and baby brother Luisito—until they can be reunited. They flee north through the unforgiving desert as their town burns, searching for safe harbor in a world that offers none.
Each night when Petra closes her eyes, she holds her dreams close, especially her long-held desire to learn to read. Abuelita calls these barefoot dreams: “They’re like us barefoot peasants and indios—they’re not meant to go far.” But Petra refuses to listen. Through battlefields and deserts, hunger and fear, Petra will stop at nothing to keep her family safe and lead them to a better life across the U.S. border—a life where her barefoot dreams could finally become reality.
Santiago’s Road Home
Published: May 5, 2020
The bed creaks under Santiago’s shivering body. They say a person’s life flashes by before dying. But it’s not his whole life. Just the events that led to this. The important ones, and the ones Santiago would rather forget.
The coins in Santiago’s hand are meant for the bus fare back to his abusive abuela’s house. Except he refuses to return; he won’t be missed. His future is uncertain until he meets the kind, maternal María Dolores and her young daughter, Alegría, who help Santiago decide what comes next: He will accompany them to el otro lado, the United States of America. They embark with little, just backpacks with water and a bit of food. To travel together will require trust from all parties, and Santiago is used to going it alone. None of the three travelers realizes that the journey through Mexico to the border is just the beginning of their story.
Published: July 21, 2020
North Korea. December, 1950.
Twelve-year-old Sora and her family live under an iron set of rules: No travel without a permit. No criticism of the government. No absences from Communist meetings. Wear red. Hang pictures of the Great Leader. Don’t trust your neighbors. Don’t speak your mind. You are being watched.
But war is coming, war between North and South Korea, between the Soviets and the Americans. War causes chaos–and war is the perfect time to escape. The plan is simple: Sora and her family will walk hundreds of miles to the South Korean city of Busan from their tiny mountain village. They just need to avoid napalm, frostbite, border guards, and enemy soldiers.
But they can’t. And when an incendiary bombing changes everything, Sora and her little brother Young will have to get to Busan on their own. Can a twelve-year-old girl and her eight-year-old brother survive three hundred miles of warzone in winter?
Haunting, timely, and beautiful, this harrowing novel from a searing new talent offers readers a glimpse into a vanished time and a closed nation.
Flying Over Water
Published: October 20, 2020
Twelve-year-old Noura Alwan’s family is granted asylum in the United States, after spending two years in a Turkish refugee camp, having fled war-torn Aleppo. They land in Tampa, Florida, on January 30, 2017, just days after the president restricted entry into the US from nations with a Muslim majority population. Twelve-year-old Jordyn Johnson is a record-breaking swimmer but hasn’t swum well since her mom had a miscarriage during one of her meets. Her family has volunteered to help the Alwan family through their church. She knows very few people of Arab descent or who practice Islam. The girls’ lives intersect at Bayshore Middle School where Jordyn serves as the Alwan children’s school ambassador. Noura knows that her family is safe from the civil unrest in her home country, but is not prepared for the adversity she now faces on American soil. Jordyn is sympathetic to Noura’s situation, but there are other members of their Florida community who see the refugees’ presence to be a threat to their way of life. While the president’s Muslim ban tests the resolve and faith of many, it is friendship that stands strong against fear and hatred.
Kiki and Jacques
Published: July 1, 2015
Eleven-year-old Jacques’s mother has passed away, his father is jobless and drinking again and his grandmother’s bridal store is on the verge of going out of business. Plus he’s under pressure from an older boy to join in some illegal activities. At least Jacques can look forward to the soccer season. After all, he’s a shoe-in for captain. But the arrival of Somali refugees shakes up nearly everything in Jacques’s Maine town, including the soccer team. So Jacques is surprised to find himself becoming friends with Kiki, a cheerful and strong-minded Somali immigrant. Despite their many differences they are able to help one another triumph over problems with friends, family and growing up.
Everything Sad is Untrue
Published: August 25, 2020
At the front of a middle-school classroom in Oklahoma, a boy named Khosrou (whom everyone calls “Daniel”) stands, trying to tell a story. His story. But no one believes a word he says. To them he is a dark-skinned, hairy-armed boy with a big butt whose lunch smells funny; who makes things up and talks about poop too much.
But Khosrou’s stories, stretching back years, and decades, and centuries, are beautiful, and terrifying, from the moment his family fled Iran in the middle of the night with the secret police moments behind them, back to the sad, cement refugee camps of Italy…and further back to the fields near the river Aras, where rain-soaked flowers bled red like the yolk of the sunset had burst over everything, and further back still to the jasmine-scented city of Isfahan.
Like Scheherazade in a hostile classroom, Daniel weaves a tale to save his own life: to stake his claim to the truth. And it is (a true story).
Orange for the Sunsets
Published: April 2, 2019
Asha and her best friend, Yesofu, never cared about the differences between them: Indian. African. Girl. Boy. Short. Tall.
But when Idi Amin announces that Indians have ninety days to leave the country, suddenly those differences are the only things that people in Entebbe can see—not the shared after-school samosas or Asha cheering for Yesofu at every cricket game.
Determined for her life to stay the same, Asha clings to her world tighter than ever before. But Yesofu is torn, pulled between his friends, his family, and a promise of a better future. Now as neighbors leave and soldiers line the streets, the two friends find that nothing seems sure—not even their friendship.
Tensions between Indians and Africans intensify and the deadline to leave is fast approaching. Could the bravest thing of all be to let each other go?
The Year the Maps Changed
Published: October 18, 2022
‘I was eleven when everything started and twelve by the end. But that’s another way maps lie, because it felt like the distance travelled was a whole lot further than that.’
Sorrento, Victoria – 1999
Fred’s family is a mess. Fred’s mother died when she was six and she’s been raised by her Pop and adoptive father, Luca, ever since. But now Pop is at the Rye Rehabilitation Centre recovering from a fall; Luca’s girlfriend, Anika, has moved in; and Fred’s just found out that Anika and Luca are having a baby of their own. More and more it feels like a land-grab for family and Fred is the one being left off the map.
But even as the world feels like it’s spinning out of control, a crisis from the other side of it comes crashing in. When 400 Kosovar-Albanian refugees arrive in the middle of the night to be housed at one of Australia’s ‘safe havens’ on an isolated headland not far from Sorrento, their fate becomes intertwined with the lives of Fred and her family, as she navigates one extraordinary year that will change them all.
Published: June 29, 2021
Samira thinks of her life as before and after: before the burning and violence in her village in Burma, when she and her best friend would play in the fields, and after, when her family was forced to flee. There’s before the uncertain journey to Bangladesh by river, and after, when the river swallowed her nana and nani whole. And now, months after rebuilding a life in Bangladesh with her mama, baba, and brother, there’s before Samira saw the Bengali surfer girls of Cox’s Bazar, and after, when she decides she’ll become one.
There they are: 22 of the best middle grade books about refugees. Which ones did you love? What did I miss?
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