8 Important Contemporary Books About the Immigrant Experience in America


8 Important Contemporary Books About the Immigrant Experience in America

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Did you know the concept of “an immigrant” was invented in the United States? Yep—the word may have existed before, but America was the one to really create the concept of immigration, or at least to include it in a dicitonary in 1829. As we know, we are a nation of immigrants, born as a country through it. And lest we forget, taking said country from the Native people who were already here through years of violence.

That’s the way it’s been in our short, harried history: violence, force, and relocation.

History can be depressing, but there are some good things to look back on, too. We are a collection of amazing and unique people, with equally amazing and unique stories, perspectives, and experiences, all stemming from different places. The reasons for immigration are endless, but a dream for better futures is often one common factor throughout. It’s crazy and confusing, then, that after all this hard work and years of planning and struggling to move here, families arrive to find their dreams are not always the same as America’s reality. And one’s experience with immigration is influenced by a range of things, from one’s English language skills to skin color, from ethnicity to religion, and so much more.

Whether first or fourth generation, each immigrant story (like each human story) is unique in its own beautiful way, while also sharing some big, overarching similarities. We live in such a rich land composed of people from around the world, it would be a shame if we didn’t listen. Lucky for us, these authors were brave enough to share, and their books do just that and more.


The Immigrant Experience in America



1. The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe

What’s a smart-mouthed Black French Canadian kid to do when his mother moves him all the way from Montreal to Austin, Texas?

Norris Kaplan has seen enough films about the American high school experience to eagerly point out all the clichéd cliques: jocks, nerds, losers, etc. To Norris, high school is just a game of who’s “in” and who’s “out,” and Norris senses he’s notoriously “out” from the beginning. But as he slowly makes friends—and even, maybe, starts to share his love of hockey in this land of inhuman heat—he realizes that quick judgments rarely show the truth, and that sometimes opening yourself up to others is one of the bravest things.


2. A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Shirin knows she has it “better” than her parents did at her age, but growing up a hijab-wearing Muslim teenager in a post-9/11 world still sucks, a lot.

No one has tried getting to know her in all the different schools she’s been to, and Shirin has stopped trying, focusing solely on her breakdancing and getting from one day to the next. But when Ocean James notices her, and wants to get to know her, the walls she’s expertly built up slowly begin to crumble.


3. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

First of all, we need to mention that this book won the National Book Award.

And now that we’ve established that, we want you to meet Xiomara Batista. Xiomara is caught between her world, growing up the daughter of immigrants in Harlem, and the world of her strict mother, who just wants her daughter to be safe. The only way she knows how to speak her truth is to write it in the poetry she yearns to speak, even if she knows her mother would never approve.

But when slam poetry club continues knocking on her door, Xiomara realizes she has a whole lot to say—and a world that needs to hear her.


4. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

Leigh Chen Sanders knows she’s right, no matter what anyone else says: her mother is a bird, and she needs Leigh to find her.

So begins a cross-country journey, from America to Taiwan, to meet the maternal grandparents Leigh barely heard her mother mention when she was alive. But as Leigh learns more about her heritage and her mother’s storied past, the bird is vanishing, and in Leigh’s desperation to find her, secrets that have never been spoken may suddenly have to be faced. Prepare to have that complete emotional catharsis that only the best books can give.


5. Black Enough, edited by Ibi Zoboi

What does it mean to be enough?

Smart enough, nice enough, Black enough.

For anyone who’s ever felt undermined by someone else’s expectations of them, this powerhouse collection of seventeen superstar Black authors, writing about the plethora of experiences that come from being young and Black in America, offers the essential reminder that you do not have to be enough of anything to anyone. All you can be is you—and that is more than enough.


6. Pride by Ibi Zoboi

One of the issues we have with the typically declared classics is that too oftne, they don’t reflect the diversity the way they should. Ibi Zoboi gives us the upgrade we all desperately need in this modern Pride & Prejudice retelling, set in a gentrifying Brooklyn.

Headstrong Zuri Benitez has pride: in her neighborhood, in her family, in her Afro-Latina roots. She’s sure of who she is and where she comes from, but when Darius Darcy and his snooty family move in across the street, suddenly everything in Zuri’s life begins to change. Zuri hates that all these changes began with Darius, but will this modern-day Lizzy Bennet accidentally fall in love amidst the chaos?


7. The Closest I’ve Come by Fred Aceves

Marcos Rivas knows how to be tough—or at least appear that way—in order to get what he wants.

After all, where he’s from in Maestra, Florida, that’s how boys survive around here: by not showing their emotions. And Maestra isn’t the only place that this attitude is adopted.

But when Marcos is placed in an after-school program, he meets people with whom he can actually open up to about important stuff that doesn’t normally get said. Like his stepfather’s abuse and his dreams for the future. And maybe all these lines he’s put between himself and the world, both real and imagined, are about to blur.


8. Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen

“Our cousins have done this program,” Sophie whispers. “Best kept secret. Zero supervision.” And just like that, Ever Wong’s summer takes an unexpected turn. Gone is Chien Tan, the strict educational program in Taiwan that Ever was expecting. In its place, she finds Loveboat: a summer-long free-for-all where hookups abound, adults turn a blind eye, snake-blood sake flows abundantly, and the nightlife runs nonstop.

But not every student is quite what they seem: Ever is working toward becoming a doctor but nurses a secret passion for dance. Rick Woo is the Yale-bound child prodigy bane of Ever’s existence whose perfection hides a secret. Boy-crazy, fashion-obsessed Sophie Ha turns out to have more to her than meets the eye. And under sexy Xavier Yeh’s shell is buried a shameful truth he’ll never admit.

When these students’ lives collide, it’s guaranteed to be a summer Ever will never forget.

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