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Teens Coming to America

Asian girlThanksgiving offers the perfect opportunity to appreciate the experiences of young people who have immigrated to the United States. Like the Pilgrims, who came to America in search of freedoms they did not have at home, families from every part of the world have sought safety on American soil. Some of these families were welcomed, like the Pilgrims. Others have faced language barriers,  poverty,  and prejudice to make their homes in America.

All of the books below have appeared on select YALSA lists as noted. They are true accounts; memoirs, biographies, and third person accounts.  There are also many great YA novels that explore the difficulty teens face when first encountering American culture. For some great suggestions, check out YALSA’s 2013 Popular Paperback list, I’m New Here Myself.


The Other Side of the Sky by Farah Ahmedi

The Other Side of the Sky: A Memoir by Farah Ahmedi
(Popular Paperbacks, 2007)

Born in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, Farah Ahmedi had a child’s knowledge of danger. Rockets were a familiar sight in the night sky; bombs a familiar noise in the countryside. Nevertheless, she was excited to be going to school and loved her teacher. One day, however, Farah took a shortcut to school that cut across a field…and stepped on a mine, losing her leg. Assimilating to a new culture is always difficult, but when Farah finally gets to the United States she has more than her share of obstacles.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael BeahA Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
(Alex Award, 2008; Best Books for Young Adults, 2008)

Ishmael was fond of entertaining his friends with his interpretations of American rap songs, even as the civil war in Sierra Leone grew increasingly violent around them. At twelve, he was captured and forced to become a child soldier. Ishmael spares no details as he describes killing people while drugged up with “bang bang.” It was no small effort for this boy to make his way back to humanity, both physically and psychologically. In the end, Ishmael arrives in New York City to start again.

Bound Feet and Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Bound Feet & Western Dress: A Memoir by Pang-Mei Chang. (Best Books for Young Adults, 1998; Popular Paperbacks, 2003)

Chang Yu-i was born in China in 1900, a time when great traditions were clashing with Western influence. At the age of three, Yu-i refused to allow her mother to bind her feet, thus asserting her own opinion, and not for the last time.  Yu-i tells the story of her long and eventful life to her great niece, the author Pang-Mei Chang. As Pang-Mei relates the story of her aunt’s life, she inserts her own experiences as a first generation Chinese-American.

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang

The Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang. (Best Books for Young Adults, 1998; Popular Paperbacks, 2003)

China’s Cultural Revolution turned society upside down; those who were respected as landowners and business leaders were now subjected to power of the working people. For twelve year-old Ji-li, whose grandfather had owned land, it meant that her family and her past must be eradicated. Ji-li’s story puts a face on the millions of Chinese affected by Chairman Mao’s bloodthirsty drive to create a Communist nation.


First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung. (Best Books for Young Adults, 2001; Popular Paperbacks, 2003)

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge Communist Party took control of Cambodia. Over the next four years, this regime killed an estimated 1.7 million people, leading some to refer to this time period as the Cambodian genocide.  This is where Loung spent her childhood before finally escaping and making it to the United States.


The New Kids by Brooke Hauser

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at High School for Immigrant Teens
by Brooke Hauser. (Alex Award, 2012; Popular Paperbacks, 2012)

If you’ve just arrived in the United States, and are very fortunate, you might attend the Internationsl High School at Prospect Point in Brooklyn. Journalist Brooke Hauser dives into the daily triumphs and struggles of kids who have left behind familiar languages, customs, and possibly years of living in a war zone.

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakasuki Houston

Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of the Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II  Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and John D. Houston. (Popular Paperbacks, 1997)

Houston’s tale about her years in an interment camp during World War II is as engaging today as when it was first published in 1973. Although the Wakasuki family was living in the United States prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered that all persons of Japanese descent be imprisoned in the camps.


Houston’s powerful book is often read as a school assignment. To this end, a teacher from California, Chimene Ovalle, produced the following video introducing students to Farewell to Manzanar.  Not only is it a beautiful introduction to the book, it’s also a reflection of the prejudice that confronts many young immigrants.

-Diane Colson, currently listening to Storm Kings: The Untold History of America’s First Tornado Chasers by Lee Sandin, narrated by Garman

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Diane Colson

I have been a librarian working with youth since 1998, beginning at the Alachua County Library District, and later at Palm Harbor Library and Nashville Public Library. Possibly because of the edgy nature of teen literature, or possibly because my maturation process crashed at the age of fifteen years-old, I love YA books. And I enjoy working with YAs as well, although I'm just as happy doing Toddler Time. By some good fortune, I have served on a number of YALSA selection committees (Outstanding Books for the College Bound, Popular Paperbacks, Alex Award, Odyssey Award, Nonfiction Award, Morris Award, and Printz) as well as a smattering of process committees. Currently I am serving on the YALSA Board. .I also review books for VOYA, School Library Journal's Adult4Teen Blog, BookPage, and Booklist.