Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” still gives me the goose bumps every time I read it aloud to my kids. I never underestimate the effect children’s picture books can have on us adults. They can hugely influence our moods and values, like Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” Audrey Penn’s “The Kissing Hand,” or Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” As a book packaged to tell an engaging story, capture emotions and also visually stimulate, I see a picture book as a strong medium that takes me to the core of my sensibilities.
Well-written picture books also uproot, transport and make us part of an experience far away or from another time. This is particularly true with multicultural literature as we travel into homes and lives quite different from our own. And most often stories of family, migration, war, adoption, poverty, separation and friendship from around the world affect us and move us to tears. Here is a list of 10 multicultural children’s books that have the power to make even adults cry.
1. Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman
Seeking safety and sanity, Hassan’s family begins to lay roots in a new country in the West. Hassan tries very hard and ultimately manages to find cheer and color in his new home. However, to see him get there, deeply missing all things familiar while still struggling with flashing images of blood and violence he witnessed back home in war-torn Somalia, definitely makes us want to weep.
2. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
In this intergenerational story, the warmth of home and family love is savored in a hand-sewn quilt that traces its roots to the author’s great grandmother in Eastern Europe. The treasured quilt makes it through many memorable events in the family and finally ends up in Polacco’s hands. But by this time, the joys of births, weddings and holiday traditions, as well the sorrows of death and separation have already brought us to tears.
3. Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
Allen Say’s narration of his grandfather’s travels and his consequent dilemma draws us to make a personal connection. Say’s grandfather has one foot in California and the other in Japan all his life, with a deep love for the people and landscapes in both countries. The story particularly strikes a chord with those of us who want to call two different and distant places our home. The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other. I think I know my grandfather now. I miss him very much. With these closing lines, we are consumed by nostalgia and a longing that chokes us up just a little bit.
4. The Wall (Reading Rainbow Books) by Eve Bunting
As we begin the read, This is the wall, my grandfather’s wall. On it are the names of those killed in a war, long ago, we also begin to feel gray, just like the color and mood in the images. But we feel compelled to read further, maybe even cry, as we find ourselves at the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C with a little boy and his dad, trying to find the name of the grandfather who was killed fighting the Vietnam War.
5. Mrs. Katz and Tush (Reading Rainbow Book) by Patricia Polacco
We read about the friendship between a lonely yet chatty Jewish widow from Poland and a curious little African-American boy. The two share stories—stories of fear and discrimination their families have in common. They also spend many dinner nights and holidays together with Tush, the cat, for extra company and adventure. The years roll by and one day Mrs. Katz passes away. But her words live on, making this touching story a teary read.
6. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter
In this true story, the Talibans take away Nasreen’s family and her education. This leaves Nasreen silent and lonely in her home in Herat, Afghanistan. But her grandmother tries to get Nasreen back in school—to smile and to speak out. The ending is both optimistic and empowering giving way to tears, while reinforcing that education is a privilege for many of us.
7. Goyangi Means Cat by Christine McDonnell
Little Soo Min has just been adopted, spending her first week with a new set of parents in America, away from her home in Korea. Unable to speak English and communicate, she finds company in a cat that she believes mirrors her own sense of silence and alienation. We sympathize with her hopeful parents and soon feel a sense of triumph as Soo Min finally utters her first word in English—”home.” It’s a poignant story that moves us to tears.
8. Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light by Tim Tingle
This book throws light on the tough times endured by the indigenous people in the U.S. This also happens to be about the author’s own Choctaw family, specifically of his grandmother’s life, and all the challenges she faced as their Native American family tried to assimilate with modern society several decades ago in Texas. But as the story unfolds (and we find out what “saltypie” means), the rawness of the incidents leaves us with a huge lump in the throat.
9. A Chair for My Mother 25th Anniversary Edition (Reading Rainbow Books) by Vera B. Williams
A small family that has lost a house in a fire is starting over with help from friends and relatives. It’s still not quite the same, and penny by penny they are saving up to buy a chair. And as Rosa, the little girl in the story later tells us—a chair is all she wants so her hardworking mother can put her feet up when she comes home after a long day’s work. We finally feel like they’re home, and that just does it! This moving story of what seems like the struggles of an urban Latino family in the U.S. makes our eyes well with tears, with its simple and honest ending.
10. Irena’s Jars of Secrets by Marcia Vaughan
Irena Sandler lives in Poland risking her life to smuggle babies, only to take them away from the Nazis to safer non-Jewish homes, during the early phases of World War II. Irena even goes a step further and maintains name-lists of the children so they can later be reunited with their families. This book, which is the story of her life and services, makes it in this list because a true story of compassion and courage always tugs at your heart.