Immigrant Stories
in early American history

Teaching about early American immigrant experiences is certainly not one of the core standards for the younger grades. However, there are times when a book on this topic is just what is needed. If you have a new student in your class who is an immigrant, perhaps the entire class could benefit from learning that America is actually made up of immigrants and their descendants! Certain national holidays are also great times to squeeze one of these meaningful books into your busy curriculum. Actually, any day is a good day for a story about immigrant experiences, since the characters in these books embody hope, sacrifice and determination--character traits we'd like to see all our students embrace.

The following children's books are great resources for your immigration lesson plans. Some would make for great read alouds, others would be perfect for required student reading lists. Either way, we think this selection of books will help bring the immigrant experience to life for your students.

Note: The interest age of the book increases as you move down the page.

best picture books for
immigration lesson plans

Tattered Sails
(family's 1653 journey to the
New World; cute bouncy text)

by Verla Kay
Kindergarten - 2nd grade

Peppe the Lamplighter
(a young immigrant boy
a job as a lamplighter)
by Elisa Bartone
2nd grade - 5th grade

Grandfather's Journey
(Caldecott winning account of
Say's grandfather's immigration)

by Allen Say
Preschool - 2nd grade

All the Way to America
The Story of a Big Italian
and a Little Shovel
(about the
great grandfather)

by Dan Yaccarino
Kindergarten - 4th grade

Naming Liberty
(tells the story of a Russian
family emigrating to
America and the artist who
created the Statue of Liberty)

by Jane Yolen
1st grade - 3rd grade

A Picnic in October
(cute story about Tony,
who learns why his family
visits the Statue of Liberty
for a picnic each year)

by Eve Bunting
Kindergarten - 2nd grade

The Matchbox Diary
(keepsakes help a grandfather
share his immigration story)
by Paul Fleishman
2nd grade - 5th grade

When I First Came
to This Land

(a cumulative tale about a
recent immigrant cheerfully
facing adversity)

by Harriet Zieffert
Preschool - 2nd grade

When Jessie Came
Across the Sea

(beautifully illustrated story of
a girl's immigration in the 1910s)

2nd grade - 4th grade

At Ellis Island
A History in Many Voices
(paired w/ beautiful paintings)
by Louise Peacock
2nd grade - 5th grade

Journey to Ellis Island
How My Father Came to
America--a true story)

by Carol Bierman
3rd grade - 8th grade

(story of immigration in
the 1880s, incl the Chinese
Exclusion Act)
by Milly Lee
3rd grade - 5th grade

chapter books about
early U.S. immigration stories

Below are some good chapter books sharing fictional or real immigrant stories from previous centuries. If any of these books seem like a good fit for you, click the link below.  Some of these connect to review pages by us and others connect directly to Amazon. Please note that if you purchase an item from Amazon, they give us a small referral fee. This helps pay for site hosting costs, thus allowing us to keep everything free for site visitors!

Sofia's Immigrant Diary  (My America series)
Sofia is a nine year old Italian girl who writes in a journal about her family's experiences
as they immigrate to America. There are three books
in this My America series that tell her story. 
(Grades 2-5)

American Girl -- Rebecca, 1914
Nine-year-old Rebecca Rubin and her family have recently immigrated to America from Russia
and live on the Lower East Side of New York City.
This six book series depicts Rebecca's life in her
new community, with
windows into her Jewish culture as well as the challenges and joys that
faced early immigrants at the turn of the century in America.

(Grades 3-5)

Under Copp's Hill (History Mysteries series)
In 1908 Boston, many immigrants live in tenement housing in the North End, including 11 year old Innie who belongs to a club that help immigrants adapt to life in America. Then items start disappearing and Innie and her cousin see a strange light in the basement. Is it a ghost or is it a thief? The mystery will keep students reading, and in the process they will learn a great deal about early immigrant life.  (Grades 3-6)

The Journal of Finn Reardon: A Newsie, New York City (My Name is America series)
Finn and his family struggle to get by, just like the other immigrants in their New York neighborhood. To earn money, Finn works as a newsie hawking newspapers, but when the publishers raise the prices newsies must pay, the boys join together and strike. Full of Irish slang and "characters [that] leap off the pages... For fans of the series, this title will be a highlight." (School Library Journal)  (Grades 4-7)

Letters from Rifka
Based on the author's own family history, this novel-through-letters makes a great classroom read aloud to accompany immigration lesson plans! The book tells the story of a Ukranian family bound for America who must leave a daughter, Rifka, behind because she contracts ringworm and is denied passage. Rifka eventually recovers, makes the hard journey alone, and reunites with her family at last.  (Grades 4-7)

Beyond the Western Sea Series
A family of poor Irish immigrants prepare to sail to the New World from England in the mid- 19th century, along with a runaway son of an English lord. This series records their life before departure, their adventures on board, and their struggles in their new country.

The Escape From Home (Book 1)--Patrick, 12, and his sister, Maura, prepare to reunite with their father in America alongside a new friend named Laurence.

Lord Kirkle's Money (Book 2)--The journey continues in book 2, beginning on board the ship to America, and then continues upon arrival in the New World. "Will keep most readers on the edge of their seats." (Publisher's Weekly)

This book is appropriate for Grades 4-8.

Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman
This Dear America series book tells the story of young Zipporah and her family, who have just recently arrived in New York City. In her journal, she writes about her frustrations with her mother's unwillingness to shed some of their traditional Jewish traditions, about the family's experiences at Ellis Island, and even about a friend of hers who died in the Triangle Factory fire. (Grade 4-8)

Immigrant Kids
Written by award winning children's non fiction author Russell Freedman, this is "a refreshingly un-woeful introduction" (Kirkus Reviews) to the lives of immigrant children living in New York City around the turn of the century. Fascinating photographs are paired with personal recollections of work, play, school and family life. This is a very handy resource for immigration lesson plans.  (Grades 5-8)

The Journal of Otto Peltonen: A Finnish Immigrant
This My Name is America series book is 'written' by a Finnish-American teenager named Otto who describes his life at the turn of the century in a small Minnesota mining community. America is nothing like he expected; the conditions for poor immigrants are harsh, and the work is hard. In his journal, Otto records his thought and observations life as a poor immigrant in America, the miner's strike his father participates in, and his mother's struggle for women's suffrage.  (Grades 5-10)

Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York 1880-1924
Hopkinson transports the reader back to the turn of the century New York City tenements in this brilliant and moving history of early immigration in America. Balancing broad discussions with five personal stories, this is a book that will make young people "want to know more and to research their own family roots." (School Library Journal, starred review)  (Grades 5-12)

The King of Mulberry Street
The King of Mulberry Street is a tale of an exceptional young Jewish Italian stowaway with a determination to succeed. Alone at Ellis Island, young Beniamino renames himself 'Dom' and survives alone on the streets until he finally meets a few friends and together they start a profitable sandwich business. "A richly imagined tale, based loosely on the author's family history." (School Library Journal)  (Grades 6-8)

Ashes of Roses
Sixteen year old Rose and her sister are alone in New York City. Their entire family sailed to America, but when her brother failed the health inspection, he and their father return to Ireland, and soon thereafter, their mother returns as well. But Rose and Maureen stay, and together they must make a way for them- selves in this strange new city. Rose finds a job at a factory making blouses and soon is caught up in one of the country's worst industrial disasters.  (Grades 6-9)

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