The central importance of immigration to the American experience is evident in the heated and polarizing debates over immigration and refugee policy today. The complex issues behind such topics as the history of immigration, forced migration, the undocumented, human trafficking, citizenship, and assimilation continue to inform our understanding of American history and national identity.
PW spoke with several publishers about publishing titles on immigration and related issues. Those who weighed in were Wesley Adams, executive editor, FSG Books for Young Readers; Donna Bray, v-p, copublisher, Balzer + Bray; Mary Cash, v-p, editor-in-chief, Holiday House; Alicia Kroell, associate editor, Catapult; Karen Lotz, president and publisher, Candlewick; Amanda Maciel, executive editor, Scholastic; Tracy Mack, v-p, publisher, Scholastic; Andrea Davis Pinkney, v-p, executive editor, Scholastic; Kathy Pories, executive editor, Algonquin; Neal Porter, v-p, publisher, Neal Porter Books; Chloe Ramos-Peterson, book market and library sales manager, Image Comics; Kendall Storey, senior editor, Catapult; Liz Szabla, associate publisher, Feiwel and Friends; Olivia Valcarce, editor, Scholastic; Jeffrey West, assistant editor, Scholastic; Clarissa Wong, senior editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books; and Benjamin Woodward, editor, the New Press.
How does the subject of immigration and related topics fit within your acquisitions strategy?
Wong: As an Asian American, I am a child of immigrant parents and my family and past are intertwined with Asian diaspora. Given how immigration reflects my own family, I tend to look for stories that mirror or are similar to my family’s story. Growing up, there were hardly any children’s books about being Asian American; I’m working on filling that void and acquiring books that cover the full breadth of the Asian American experience.
Ramos-Peterson: As a comics and graphic novel publisher whose model is entirely creator owned, we work to foster a wider, more diverse range of storytelling. That lends itself naturally to passion projects and emerging voices. Many of those voices are dedicated to shining a light on the integral part immigrants play in the tapestry of America, and we’re excited to be a part of that.
Szabla: I look for stories in which kids might see themselves. Does this mean I believe only recent immigrants from Japan will connect with the debut Misako Rocks! graphic novel, Bounce Back? Not at all! The beauty of this and other stories that include immigration experiences is that they are journeys of self-discovery, belonging, and new adventures––elements of storytelling that speak to young readers of many different backgrounds.
Pinkney: Immigration-related stories are needed more than ever, because immigration is about resilience and trusting in a new future. By building a canon of immigration-related literature, we provide an important tapestry for kids learning in classrooms. One upcoming novel that I’m particularly proud of is Sonia Manzano’s Coming Up Cuban, set in 1959 at the height of Fidel Castro’s reign, which delves into the plights of four different children who rise past tyranny’s shadow.
Pories: For many years, Algonquin’s lists have been deeply international. Accordingly, we have published and continue to publish many immigration-related books: Julia Alvarez’s novels How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and her latest, Afterlife; National Book Award finalist Lisa Ko’s The Leavers; Shugri Said Salh’s The Last Nomad; Layla AlAmmar’s Silence Is a Sense; and Thrity Umrigar’s Honor. Forthcoming are Peace Adzo Medie’s Nightbloom; Nyugen Pha Quê´ Mai’s Dust Child; and Silas House’s Lark Ascending, which imagines a world where Americans will be the immigrants, fleeing their own country.
Lotz: At Candlewick, over the past few years we have seen an increase in immigration-related titles, although of course the topic is not new. With more than 82.4 million forcibly displaced peoples around the globe right now, per the UN Human Rights Council, including an estimated 35 million children under the age of 18, the status of refugees is an incredibly important subject for our times. We hope all our relevant titles, including the upcoming The Waiting Place by Dina Nayeri, help spread that critically important message to help communities come together and individuals to support each other.
Storey: Even though immigration is something that touches all our daily lives and family histories, immigrant stories are often shoved to the margins, published in their own genre and functionally ghettoized. We want to publish exciting new immigrant voices in fiction for the same reason we want to publish any great literature: to serve the needs and curiosities of a diverse and serious literary readership.
Bray: At Balzer + Bray, we are always looking for new voices in picture books, middle grade, and YA that reflect a variety of childhood experiences. Immigration is such a huge part of the story of America, past and present; it’s important that children of all ages see that reflected in their books.
Mack: Reflecting the immigrant experience in books that I acquire and edit has always been important to me. Twenty-one years ago, I published Pam Muñoz Ryan’s bestselling Esperanza Rising, inspired by her grandmother’s journey from Mexico to the United States in 1930, but it feels even more relevant today. We hear that repeatedly from teachers across the country, many of whom have students who relate personally to Esperanza’s story. I am looking forward to the release of Alina Chau and Aida Salazar’s In the Spirit of a Dream, which I inherited from Kait Feldmann, who is now at Harper, and which celebrates immigrants of color. It is essential that we tell all sides of this story to give young readers a full and honest picture of our complicated history.
Porter: I look for important stories that need to be told by people who have the authenticity and talent to tell them, verbally and visually. That was certainly the case with Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers and her new book, Bright Star.
Woodward: Publishing books on immigration-related issues has always been a fundamental part of the New Press’s mission to foreground social and racial justice issues and to give a platform to marginalized voices. Most of what we have published has been nonfiction by scholars, activists, and journalists, and some fiction anthologies.
Cash: Because we are a country that is continually replenished by immigrants from around the world, we are enriched by an abundance of diverse life experiences, gifts, traditions, perspectives, and insights that these newcomers bring with them. We are challenged to understand these differences, help incorporate newcomers into our society, and learn from them—so we need books for children that meet these challenges.
If you publish for children, what do you look for in prospective titles and authors?
Pinkney: Each author has a story to tell that often stems from their lived experience. And it’s not only what that story is, it’s how the story is told. Aida Salazar’s Land of the Cranes is a powerful example, mixing verse poems, mythology, cultural history, and the real-world realities faced by families torn apart by deportation laws. Readers will experience immigration from behind nine-year-old Betita’s eyes. This is what I look for in the novels I publish: being invited to inhabit a character’s deepest realities.
Cash: I look for authors, illustrators, manuscripts, stories, and ideas that can help illuminate the lives of all people, especially those from people whose experiences have not been widely told, including immigrants. I look for materials on this topic that are relatable and accessible to children, from which they can learn and be inspired.
Bray: We love to be surprised, enlightened, moved, and delighted by writers’ or illustrators’ storytelling and perspective on the world. We love it when a book shows us a new experience, or a new angle on an experience, that opens our minds and hearts. We’re looking for creators who want to engage with children and teens with great empathy.
Lotz: We look for writers with expressive writing styles from a diverse range of backgrounds who can tell a story that respects and engages young readers, while drawing from their own unique perspectives. We look for authenticity in voice, accurate social representation, and a strong emotional connection between the writer and the material, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.
West: I’m always on the lookout for talented writers who are unapologetic about the stories they want to tell and stories that show the complexity of the immigrant experience. In Zara Hossain Is Here, Sabina Khan draws on her own experience to inform the Hossain family’s sudden uncertainty when they’re at risk of losing their permanent residence status. With Freedom Swimmer, Wai Chim has written about choosing to leave the only life you’ve known behind in search for freedom, inspired by her father’s story of escaping mainland China in the early 1970s.
Ramos-Peterson: Regardless of the intended audience age range, a good book is a good bet. Julio Anta and Anna Wieszczyk’s teen title Home stood out as a story that needed to be told and that had wonderful crossover appeal in that it is an immigrant story told through the lens of the superhero’s journey.
Mack: I am looking for stories that have yet to be told, voices that are underrepresented, and unexplored angles on the stories we think we know. Within these stories, I look for a unique voice, exceptional writing on a sentence level, and multilayered characters who make me feel. I am drawn to authors and artists who create with passion and conviction for their subjects and who want to be true partners. For some, success may come quickly, but for the vast majority, building a career takes time. So patience, persistence, positivity, and openness to self-promotion are key.
Adams: I am eager to help amplify the voices of authors and visions of illustrators who lay waste to stereotypes of the immigrant experience in the United States and around the world.
Wong: I am typically drawn to picture books and graphic novels that are more lyrical in writing with a strong voice and themes of empowerment.
Porter: Authenticity, emotional honesty, and a willingness to tackle subjects not usually thought appropriate for young children.
Are new topics emerging under the broad subject of immigration? If so, why do you think this is happening?
Bray: In the YA space, we’re seeing more intersectionality: Laura Gao’s Messy Roots and Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story explore both immigrant and queer identities. We’re also starting to publish the work of immigrant authors from outside the U.S., such as Dean Atta and Rahma Rodaah. In picture books, we see more stories that feature intergenerational families, celebrate cultural traditions, and affirm the beauty of different races and ethnicities.
The work of organizations such as We Need Diverse Books—amplified by social media—has been an incredible force in showing that readers are hungry for these books. The embrace of immigration stories in libraries, awards lists, and retail promotions confirms the need for these titles in the market.
Woodward: The impact of climate change on migration is certainly receiving more widespread attention than it has previously, since it’s clear that climate change will only continue to displace more people in greater numbers in the not-too-distant future. But it isn’t so much that new topics have emerged under the subject of immigration as it is that there is a greater interest or awareness. Partly because of the appalling anti-immigration policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration, the sheer scale and cruelty of the immigration enforcement machine, and the growing number of refugees along the border, immigration is on people’s radar—and you can see that reflected in the number of people writing about immigration and the number of proposals that are being circulated on immigration-related issues. Alongside that, there are more writers, especially younger writers, writing about immigration and migrant identity, and questioning the ways in which immigrants are portrayed.
Lotz: Focusing specifically on the plight of refugee peoples is increasingly topical, unfortunately underscored by a shockingly broad lack of political, governmental, and social support for these individuals and families here in the U.S. and in some other countries.
Mack: I have noticed a richer array of cultural representation in both the books being published and the submissions I am receiving. I also see more sensitivity around differentiating specific Hispanic cultural experiences—Mexican, Cuban, Honduran, etc.—from the umbrella of Latine, as one example.
Maciel: The children’s book industry has been working for years to diversify and expand its own borders—to debatable success, of course—and the nationwide conversation about immigration policy has absolutely influenced what people want to write and read about. Books about moving to the U.S. provide insight that many readers need, and just as crucially, they can serve as validating mirrors for readers who have lived those stories. Novels like Room to Dream by Kelly Yang keep the conversation going even further, showing readers what happens once a family has established roots in America, and how they still must work to feel American and fulfill their dreams. We owe readers a look at what it takes to come here, and also what it means to stay and thrive.
Ramos-Peterson: New stories about the immigration experience, particularly in comics, are always emerging. You might occasionally see some trepidation in the market toward certain genre takes for certain topics, but sometimes opening the door to more creative and unique approaches is as simple as one success. The more that books like Chuck Brown, David Walker, and Sanford Greene’s Bitter Root; Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi’s The Good Asian; Jeremy Holt and George Schall’s Made in Korea; and Julio Anta and Anna Wieszczyk’s Home gain critical acclaim and industry attention, the more it’ll inspire new stories from different perspectives to come forward, and motivate more publishers to take them on.
Adams: With the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, immigrant communities are under threat as never before—in this country and elsewhere. But in response, these communities are defending and defining themselves in ever more vocal, creative, and norm-challenging ways, including publishing stories peopled with representative characters and filled with authentic experiences.
Wong: We’re starting to realize that the immigrant story isn’t siloed to only a group of people but rather to everyone. Lately, stories of immigration have become more prominent in the media largely due to the last presidential administration. Joanna Ho was inspired to write Playing at the Border after seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform at the Rio Grande in April 2019 at the U.S.-Mexico border. Yes, it’s a picture book biography of Yo-Yo Ma, but the larger story is about building bridges to unite people between communities and cultures rather than walls. Two years later, we see a similar story with what is happening in Afghanistan and the influx of refugees.
Cash: As the places from which immigrants come—as well as the circumstances under which they come—change, so do the topics and needs. Topics such as the history and culture of Mexico, Chinese holidays and traditions, growing up Dominican in the U.S., having a parent from the Philippines, arriving from Pakistan, and others are partly a result of recent changing demographics. Amira’s Picture Day by Reem Faruqui, about the Muslim holiday Eid, and Sunday Is Funday in Koreatown by Aram Kim are two newer titles we’ve published to celebrate these changes.
Porter: People are looking at the subject of immigration from a vast array of perspectives. There are books that deal with the specific immigration experience of today, either directly or obliquely, like Dreamers or Bright Star; books that highlight the experience of children of immigrants and the complexities of those relationships, such as Andrea Wang and Jason Chin’s Watercress; and books that look at the subject from both a personal and historical perspective, like Terry Catasús Jennings’s forthcoming The Little House of Hope—also publishing in Spanish as La casita de esperanza—based on her memories of emigrating from Cuba as a child in the 1960s but still just as relevant today. Howard Schwartz’s All You Need, which we’re publishing next spring; it wasn’t conceived of as an “immigration story,” but the gifted Chinese artist Jasu Hu chose to interpret it visually as her own experience of coming to New York and emerging as an artist.
Szabla: In Watch Me: A Story of Immigration and Inspiration, author Doyin Richards recounts his father’s journey from Sierra Leone to the U.S. by bringing readers right into the experience. Immigration isn’t a “new” topic in picture books, but Doyin’s voice is powerful and refreshing, encouraging readers to put themselves into the journey. Along with the empathic and poignant paintings by Joe Cepeda, this is an immersive experience that transcends the politics and vitriol of recent headlines.
What have you heard from your publishing partners—agents, distributors, retailers—about demand for titles on immigration and related topics?
Cash: We hear regularly from distributors—and from our educator partners—that there is a need for more bilingual titles, stories about immigration, and books that reflect the changing diversity of our country.
Pinkney: Whether immigration has touched your own life or not, the topic is front and center in the minds and hearts of kids today. My colleagues and I have talked about the importance of illuminating a range of immigration stories across cultural lines––and keeping those stories in the forefront.
Porter: I’ve certainly seen an uptick in submissions that deal in some way with the immigrant experience, as well as other books that embrace diversity and inclusion. The need for such books is apparent, and retailers and distributors are responding to that need. The fact that we’ve sold a quarter of a million copies of Dreamers in English and Spanish editions is testament to that.
Ramos-Peterson: Immigration and related topics as a focus has been growing for several years, but in 2020 and 2021 we’ve really seen a significant uptick in demand from publishing partners, particularly in the library and educator market, where immigration stories specifically and stories focused on BIPOC voices generally are being used increasingly in programming, curricula, and civic engagement projects.
Wong: There has been a rise in immigrant stories written by BIPOC creators. I’ve seen an increase in Asian American immigration stories since the hate crime in Atlanta that took eight lives back in March. Though it’s sad that such a horrific event must happen first before people take note, the silver lining is that our stories are gaining more prominence.
Kroell: The titles we publish at Catapult are often worldly in focus, and I think many of our editors naturally gravitate toward stories that address immigration and class issues. With The Four Humors, there’s been a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for this blend of a disaffected millennial narrative and sweeping family saga that Mina Seckin has pulled off in a seemingly effortless way.
Bray: I think the best measure is the increasing number of submissions we’re receiving on the subject and the enthusiasm we see in terms of buy-in and sell-through on these books. Thanks to proven successes in the industry, retailers have recognized that there is a need and a market for these stories, and they have responded by promoting diverse authors more aggressively.
What are your plans for acquiring immigration-related titles in the future?
Valcarce: I’m looking for entertaining books that authentically reflect today’s world back to our readers. In kids’ books, hope is an especially crucial ingredient as well. Something that I particularly love about Wish upon a Stray as an immigration story is that it encompasses the anxieties, difficulties, and complexities of immigration, while also being a heartwarming and fun book. It’s important to me not to reduce any topic down to a single experience—or to my own expectations—as I look for books that I believe will resonate with kids.
Ramos-Peterson: We’re always on the lookout for comics that provide a fresh perspective or innovative style, and with the publication of titles like Bitter Root, The Good Asian, Home, and Made in Korea, the circle of talent we hope to work with in the future is only continuing to grow.
Cash: We are actively and enthusiastically pursuing authors, illustrators, and projects that will shed light on immigrant experiences and inspire all young readers. We have several outreach efforts in place to help us find talented creators among these newcomers.
Wong: My goal is to uplift voices from BIPOC and marginalized communities. I’m trying to find a balance of immigration-related titles that are not only about surviving but also thriving.
Bray: I’d love to see more humorous middle grade from the point of view of an immigrant child or a first-generation American. But I’m always open to anything fresh and exciting across category and genre.
Kroell: I’m continuing to look for works with a sense of political and cultural urgency while being grounded in a personal narrative.
Woodward: We will continue to publish on immigration-related issues. I would like to see a greater diversity of people writing about the current immigration system and more nuanced portrayals of migrants that moves away from the standard narratives of passive victims or overachieving good immigrants. I’d like to see books that highlight what immigration advocates and migrant activists have been doing and continue to do, and to see more books that don’t focus exclusively on the border region. Anything that can illuminate how the complex immigration enforcement system operates would be great to see, as would anything that makes readers question their basic assumptions about migrants, migration, and borders.
Pories: As the daughter of an immigrant who fled his country as a child with only the clothes he was wearing, I cannot fathom what would have been my father and his family’s fate if they had not been accepted here. But I don’t think someone has to have immigrant parents to want to understand and connect to the strangeness of arriving in a country that has little to no connection to your own culture. Ultimately, those stories are about empathy, the strangeness of life in a different country, the sorrow for what you had to leave behind, the divided self you often become. So yes, we will continue to seek out and publish stories that can capture this complicated experience.