As an ESL teacher, I am always looking for books about immigrants in America that I can recommend to my students and fellow ESL teachers. While some of my students were born outside the United States, many of them were actually born here and are second-generation immigrants.
These young people often feel alone in their quest to fit in to both of their worlds: the world of home where parents expect them to speak their native language and cling to their native customs, and the world of school where they are expected to speak English, be knowledgeable about American pop culture, and “act American.”
One thing that can help second-generation immigrants feel supported and understood is reading the experiences of kids just like them. These five YA books tell the stories of second-generation immigrant teens with nuance and authenticity.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
Julia Reyes lives in a seedy Chicago neighborhood with her parents and her perfect sister Olga. When Olga is killed in an accident, Julia finds out that her sister was not the perfect daughter everyone thought she was. Julia spirals into depression and attempts suicide. Afterwards, her mother sends her to Mexico to spend time with family that Julia barely knows. Julia has to wrestle with her sense of identity, her grief, and her relationship with her parents. This is the perfect book for teens who feel caught between who their parents want them to be and who they want to be.
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
Margot Sanchez lives in the South Bronx but attends Somerset Prep, a ritzy private school. She’s a master of code-switching depending on which neighborhood she’s in. Margot is furious when she has to work a summer job at her dad’s convenience store in the Bronx instead of spending time with her school friends in the Hamptons. Over the summer, though, a young community activist named Moises helps Margot see past the neighborhood problems of drug dealing and theft to find a thriving community of people who just want a good life. This is a great book for teens who find themselves at odds with their home culture.
The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
This sweeping love story focuses on two teens: Natasha, a science-minded, first-generation immigrant from Jamaica whose family is about to be deported, and Daniel, a second-generation Korean immigrant who writes poetry even though his father wants him to be a doctor. Daniel’s parents are typical first-generation immigrants: they moved here to give their children a better life, and since Daniel’s brother is a screw-up, it’s up to Daniel to carry the weight of his parents’ expectations. Natasha is desperately trying to reach a lawyer who might be able to help her family. As both characters deal with the challenges of immigrant life, they meet and fall for each other, but their relationship is most likely doomed due to events beyond their control. This beautiful narrative is sure to capture the hearts of immigrant teens, who will find themselves in Natasha and Daniel.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
Magical realism meets coming-of-age story meets immigrant experience in this book. Leigh Sanders is half Taiwanese and half white, and after her mother commits suicide, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. She wants to figure out what her mother, who has appeared to her as a bird, is trying to tell her. Things with her grandparents are awkward at first, as Leigh doesn’t speak much Chinese and they are strangers to her, but slowly, Leigh begins to understand her mother’s past and discover her own Taiwanese identity. Teens who feel like their heritage is foreign will appreciate this book.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This is a delightful graphic novel that alternates between three different narratives. In the first, Jin Wang is the only Chinese American at his school and has to deal with bullying, stereotypes, and loneliness. The second story is a fable about the Monkey King, who is the most powerful monkey on earth, but that is not enough for him. He wants to be a god. In the third narrative, a boy named Danny’s Chinese cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit and constantly embarrasses Danny with his cultural and linguistic mis-steps. In a brilliant move, Yang pulls the three narratives together in a way that fearlessly and hilariously deconstructs Asian American stereotypes. This is the perfect book for second-generation immigrant teens who want an easier read that still has an important message.