Saturday, April 4, 2015

Ellis Island for Kids - historical fiction and memoirs

The history of the United States is a history of immigration and immigrants, stretching back tens of thousands of years. But one of the most well-known periods of immigration to the United States happened during the late 1800s and early 1900s and involved Ellis Island in the New York City harbor.

The first post in this series is about nonfiction resources for teaching about US immigration. This post provides a quick overview of some of my favorite historical fiction books and memoirs for teaching elementary students about Ellis Island and this period of US immigration. The next post in this series will cover modern immigration stories. (Even more posts: Picture Books by René Colato LaínezNew Immigration Books, part 1: Syrian and Central American immigrants, and part 2: picture books and anthologies.)

Historical Fiction and Memoir about Ellis Island: Picture Books

Klara's New World (1992) by Jeanette Winter. Klara and her family decide to leave their life of poverty in Sweden and immigrate to America. Much of the story focuses on the difficulties of the journey, from the boat across the Atlantic to the steamboats to Chicago and eventually on to Minnesota. Her family passes through Castle Garden, the official immigration depot of the mid-1800s.

Journey to Ellis Island: how my father came to America (1998) by Carol Bierman and Laurie McGaw. This story is based on the author's father's experiences coming to America from Russia in 1922. Chapters about their voyage and experiences at Ellis Island are interspersed with historic photographs and details illustrations. The final chapters bring the family's history up to today, including a trip the author took back to Ellis Island with her father on the 75th anniversary of his entrance into the United States. I have used this book as a read aloud before, but it is quite long and wordy, so you will need to commit a significant amount of time to it.

The Matchbox Diary (2013) by Paul Fleischmann and illustrated by the unparalled Bagram Ibatoulline. This wonderful narrative weaves together the modern interaction between the grandfather and his young granddaughter with the stories that he tells her about his immigration to the United States from Italy via Ellis Island. The illustrations are incredible, and the story contains a lot of wonderful historical detail. It might make any reader want to start his/her own "matchbox diary."

When Jessie Came across the Sea (2003) by Amy Hest. 13 year-old Jessie is an orphan but is chosen by the rabbi to take his ticket to America. She lives with a cousin and sews lace to earn a living, eventually earning enough to bring her grandmother to America with her. Though she travels through Ellis Island, it takes only a page in the book. Much of the story focuses on her life in America and her letters back to her grandmother.

At Ellis Island: a history in many voices (2007) by Louise Peacock and illustrated by Walter Lyon Krudop. This book mixes real quotations and photographs from immigrants with the fictionalized letters from a young girl, Sera, who arrives at Ellis Island. The story accounts for her time at Ellis Island only.

A Peddler's Dream (1992) by Janice Shefelman and illustrated by Tom Shefelman. This picture book tells the story of a young man from Lebanon who moves to the US and becomes a peddler then a clerk and finally opens his own store and has his own family.

Peppe the Lamplighter (1993) by Elisa Bartone and illustrated by Ted Lewin. Peppe, his father, and his many sisters live in Little Italy in New York City. When his father gets too sick to work, Peppe sets out to find his own job, much to his father's disappointment. The artwork in this book is incredible and gives you a great slice of life from this time period.

All the Way to America: the story of a big Italian family and a little shovel (2011) by Dan Yaccarino. This charming picture book is based on the story of the author's great-grandfather who immigrated to the United States from Sorrento, Italy. The subsequent generations are introduced as the little silver shovel is passed down through the family and serves different purposes.

Historical Fiction and Memoir about Ellis Island: chapter books

Letters from Rifka (1992) by Karen Hesse. This 150-page chapter book is based on the experiences of the author's grandmother and her family who had to flee Russia in 1919 due to anti-Jewish sentiments. Rifka and her family face many difficulties in their journey, and Rifka ends up in Belgium alone, recovering from ringworm, as her family goes ahead to America. Later detained at Ellis Island, Rifka tries to prove that she will not be a burden to the country. A dramatic, exciting, and engaging immigration story that also highlights many of the difficulties and hardships faced by immigrants at this time.

Doll Hospital: Tatiana comes to America, an Ellis Island story by Joan Holub. In this short, 99 page chapter book, sisters Rose and Lila go to stay at their Far Nana's house and find that she has a doll hospital there. She tells them the story of one doll, Tatiana, who immigrated with her owner, Anya, from Russia to the United States. The book alternates between grandmother's retelling of the story and the girls' own thoughts and actions. Eventually the girls realize that their own story intertwines with that of Tatiana and her owners through the years.

Modern Ellis Island: picture books

Abuela (1991) by Arthur Dorros. This fanciful picture book is told in the imaginative voice of the young narrator, Rosalba. Out on the town with her grandmother or Abuela, the girl imagines all the places they could see if they could fly. One stop includes a flight over the Statue of Liberty and references to her grandmother's own immigration to the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. The book also weaves in many Spanish phrases and expressions.

A Picnic in October (1999) by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter. In this modern-day story, a young boy and his family take a trip to the Statue of Liberty to celebrate her birthday. The boy doesn't understand the importance or the symbolism until later when he witnesses a family of new immigrants viewing the statue.

The last post in this series will explore great resources about modern immigration and immigrant stories. (Even more posts: Picture Books by René Colato LaínezNew Immigration Books, part 1: Syrian and Central American immigrants, and part 2: picture books and anthologies.)


  1. AnonymousMay 16, 2017

    Nice post.Thank you so much for sharing this post.

  2. Thank you for your recommendations & reviews!


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