Looking for summer reading suggestions? In every genre from fiction to memoir, poetry to graphic novels, immigrant writers are publishing exciting, award-winning works. Check out our recommended list of books by or about immigrants and first-generation Americans!
Under the Udala Trees — In Nigerian-born Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, 11-year-old Ijeoma, a Christian Igbo, is sent to the countryside at the start of Nigeria’s civil war in 1967. There, she encounters a star-crossed lover—Amina, a Muslim Hausa, and a girl, to boot. When they are discovered together, it sets into motion a lifelong negotiation with living and loving openly in a country where LGBTQ relationships are stigmatized. Chinelo’s novel has been hailed as an important voice for Nigeria’s LGBTQ community.
The Leavers — When 11-year-old Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, goes missing, he is removed from his home in the Bronx, adopted by a white couple in upstate New York, and renamed Daniel. Told from the perspectives of both Deming and Polly, Lisa Ko’s debut novel explores the alienation of assimilation and the heart-wrenching choices that undocumented immigrants face. The Leavers received the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for fiction that addresses issues of social justice.
Thirteen Ways of Looking — This collection of short fiction is the first released in over a decade from Irish-born National Book Award winner Colum McCann. The acclaimed collection includes the headlining novella, which tells of an elderly judge’s last day in Brooklyn, and three short stories that take on a wide variety of perspectives—from a nun who resolves to confront her assaulter, to a mother searching for a deaf son who has gone missing while on vacation in Ireland.
Here Comes the Sun — This debut by Jamaican-born Nicole Dennis-Benn has been called “the ultimate antibeach novel.” Set in Montego Bay, it concerns itself not with vacationing beachgoers, but with those who live year-round in the poverty of post-colonial Jamaica. The novel centers on Margot, a ruthless hotel receptionist and escort to the wealthy, who will do anything to shield her younger sister Thandi from the same fate, and to find a home with her lover, Verdene, where they won’t be terrorized for being gay.
Sad Girl Poems — The debut chapbook from Christopher Soto, AKA Loma, dives intimately into issues of domestic violence, queer youth homelessness, and suicide; Eileen Myles called it “revolutionary, sad, and finely wrought.” The child of El Salvadorian immigrants, Christopher is also the editor of Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color and a founder of the Undocupoets Campaign, which lobbied poetry publishers to remove a proof of citizen requirement from first-book contests, allowing undocumented poets to participate.
Look — Drawing from words and phrases found in the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Solmaz Sharif shifts the kaleidoscope of language to examine the realities of war and its many unbearable human costs. Born in Turkey to Iranian parents, Solmaz assembles her family’s fragmented narratives in the aftermath of war in this collection, examining the repercussions of the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ways that those repercussions are obscured through language.
Matters of the Sea / Cosas del mar — Born in Spain to Cuban exiles, Richard Blanco has published several prize-winning collections. He was named Barack Obama’s inaugural poet in 2013, making him the first Latino, immigrant, and openly gay writer to hold the honor, and in 2015, he was invited by President Obama to present a poem upon the historic reopening of the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba. Matters of the Sea / Cosas del mar reproduces the poem in a bilingual chapbook commemorating the opening.
In the Country We Love: My Family Divided — Born in the US to undocumented immigrants from Colombia, television actress Diane Guerrero—known for her roles on Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin—came home from school one day to find her family had been deported. This heartbreaking memoir sheds light on the daily struggles of undocumented residents and families split by deportation, while telling Diane’s bittersweet story of growing up and pursuing a career without the support of her family.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life — In her first memoir, MacArthur “Genius” Yiyun Li reflects on her life through the lens of the literature that has always been meaningful to her. Yiyun weaves in accounts of her childhood in China, her bouts with debilitating depression, and her experiences as a mother, wife, and writer with reflections on the writers who carried her through those times, such as Katherine Mansfield, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Hardy, and Marianne Moore.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood — Trevor Noah might be best-known for his witticisms on American news and politics, but the Daily Show comedian’s memoir is a deeply personal reminiscence on his childhood as a half-white, half-black person in the twilight of South Africa’s apartheid reign. Trevor was born during a time when interracial families were unlawful, and his memoir is as much a recounting of the horrors and injustices of the era as it is a love letter to his mother.
American Gypsy — This funny coming-of-age memoir details Oksana Marafioti’s journey from Siberia to Hollywood. A self-described Gypsy of Armenian and Russian descent, Oksana writes about the intense racism her family faced as a part of a traveling performance troupe in the USSR, as well as the culture shock she encountered as an immigrant in the US, adjusting to a new language, a new sense of identity, and the new social hierarchy of American high schools.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions — Drawing from her work as an interpreter for Central American child migrants, Valeria Luiselli’s essay mimics the form of the forty questions she must ask on behalf of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Born in Mexico City to an Italian family, Valeria intersperses the essay with a recounting of her family’s own process of applying for American residency, as well as reflections on dislocation and national identity.
The Gene: An Intimate History — Pulitzer Prizewinner Siddhartha Mukherjee, originally from India, weaves science, social history, and personal narrative to create a deft biography of the gene—one of the most important conceptual breakthroughs of modern times. Lining up scientific discovery and shifting public attitudes alongside his own family’s history of hereditary mental illness, Siddhartha creates a compelling look at how the gene influences our lives, personalities, identities, fates, and choices.
The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island — Long before the local food movement took hold, Kathleen Alcalá remembered planting and harvesting fresh food alongside her parents, Mexican immigrants raised during the Depression. She explores the concept on Bainbridge Island, illuminating how the island’s food heritage has been shaped by diverse peoples and practices, from the immigrant Croatian fishing community, to the Japanese Americans interned during World War II, to the Bainbridge “Indopino” culture, a blended Filipino and First Nation community.
Graphic Novels & Comics
The Best We Could Do — Thi Bui’s graphic memoir is set in two different timelines—the present, in which the author is pregnant with her first child, and the 1970s, when her parents escaped war-torn South Vietnam and immigrated to the US. It is, ultimately, a story about the evolving relationships between parents and children, and the rippling effects of displacement and war throughout generations. Thi is also an educator and a founder of Oakland International High School, California’s first public high school for immigrants.
Ms. Marvel Omnibus, Vol. 1 — Kamala Khan, the first-generation daughter of Pakistani immigrants, is a teenager from Jersey City. When she discovers her shape-shifting abilities, she takes on the mantle of Ms. Marvel, teaming up with Wolverine and Spider-Man, and even meeting her idol, Captain Marvel—all while facing the typical travails of teenage life. This omnibus collects the first season of Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, and it received the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story.
Threads: From the Refugee Crisis — In Calais, a French town famous for its historic lace industry, a city within a city arose. Known as the Jungle, the squalid shantytown is home to thousands of refugees, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, who hope to immigrate to the UK. During a volunteer mission, artist and activist Kate Evans documented her observations of life in the Jungle, along with the reactionary, nativist politics it has inspired.
Saints and Misfits — Saints and Misfits—one of the most anticipated releases from Salaam Reads, a new imprint for young readers featuring Muslim characters—introduces Janna, an average Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager obsessed with Flannery O’Connor. This debut from S.K. Ali combines cultural specificity with universal teenage angst as Janna sorts through her parents’ divorce; an assault by Farooq, a boy from her mosque; and her crush on Jeremy, a white, non-Muslim classmate.
The Arsonist — Three memorable teen narrators come together in this Cold War thriller from Stephanie Oakes: Pepper, an epileptic Kuwaiti immigrant with a useless seizure pug; Molly, a white Californian whose arsonist father will soon be executed; and Ava, a long-dead resistance fighter from the former East Germany, whose diaries bring Molly and Pepper together to find her killer in this intricate page-turner.
The Dragon King Chronicles (Prophecy, Warrior, and King) — Binge-read this fantasy trilogy by Ellen Oh, set within an alternate history of feudal Korea. Kira, a dragon slayer and the only woman in the king’s army, goes on the run with the young prince to escape a demon invasion; the prince may be the savior predicted by the Dragon King Prophecy, and Kira must fight demon soldiers and evil shamans to protect him—all while raising the young boy. Ellen is the founder of We Need Diverse Books, an organization that advocates for diversity in literature for young people.
I’m New Here — Starting a new school can be scary—especially when adjusting to a new country as well. Anne Sibley O’Brien conveys the fear and apprehension felt by Maria, Jin, and Fatimah—newly arrived from Guatemala, Korea, and Somalia—but with self-determination and encouragement, the children become confident and comfortable at their new school. Anne is a founder of I’m Your Neighbor, a project promoting children’s literature that builds bridges between “new arrival” cultures and “long-term communities.”
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation — When Saya’s mother is sent to an immigration detention center, Mama sends Saya bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore on cassette tapes. Moved by her mother’s tales and her father’s attempt to reunite them, Saya writes a story of her own—one that might bring her mother home again. This tale, loosely based on the childhood experiences of Haitian-born National Book Award winner Edwidge Danticat, is accompanied by illustrations inspired by Caribbean folk art.
All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel — Dan Yaccarino charmingly illustrates a family history that goes back four generations, to his great-grandfather Michele Iaccarino, who emigrated from Italy with a little shovel and some sound advice from his parents: Work hard, enjoy life, and love your family. Dan traces how both the shovel and advice have been passed on through the generations to his own children, and the book is a great vehicle to encourage young readers to discover their own family migration stories.