by Emily Francis
It doesn’t happen as often as it should, but when it does, it is the most amazing feeling one can experience. That moment when you’re reading a book and you see your life and family experiences reflected on every single page. That moment when you see text and images intertwine on a page to bring forth cultural validation and acceptance. That moment when you close the book and cry tears of happiness because you realize that stories are so much deeper than you ever thought.
I experienced all this and so much more the day I read Sometimes… by Hugo Ibarra and John Seidlitz. (Here’s a video of me reading the book aloud for International Children’s Book Day.)
Sometimes… is just the book we need right now. Ibarra and Seidlitz share with us a story in which immigrants’ experiences are legitimized, one that opens doors for connections and much-needed conversations. It is a story that made me think about how experiences and family stories don’t have to be forgotten. And about how significant it is when stories are shared, because they validate what is core in our existence and our hopes for what is to come.
Sometimes… is a story of hope. A story of courage and strength. A story of a family who worked together through difficult circumstances to make their dreams come true. And even though sometimes things don’t go as planned and changes need to happen along the way, we see the characters rising through it all. We see Andrés and Clara holding tight to the hope offered by their mother and teachers. A hope that helps them get through every situation that comes their way.
The International Children’s Book Day theme for 2020 was “A Hunger for Words”, and as much as I identify with this phrase, I also believe there’s a hunger for cultural understanding — a hunger for identity and individual acceptance.
Children all over our nation deserve to open a book and see their families’ experiences and languages heard and represented.
Through the lens of an unaccompanied and undocumented immigrant, an English language learner, and an educator, I closely analyzed each page of Sometimes… and wrote down a few essential points at which the book authentically reflects many of our students’ experiences.
The Immigrant Experience
Sometimes… is a fascinating story of the immigrant experience. Through this story, readers can understand what some people must go through when moving to a new country and starting a new life. This story builds compassion among readers, highlighting not only immigrants’ struggles but also their triumphs.
Something I’d like to highlight based on the story is that children (on most occasions) are not asked for their opinion about leaving their home country and moving to a new one to start a new life. For many children, this tough decision is left for parents to plan and decide. We (I say we because I lived it) wholeheartedly trust our parents and know without a doubt their decision to leave all we know and love behind is for our own good and in service of a much better future.
It is uncertain whether the characters in the story traveled to the U.S. undocumented or not. The children were given blue passports as they crossed the border, so maybe they were born in the U.S. or maybe they received false documents to be able to cross the border. Regardless of their documentation status, we see the children being welcomed in school and allowed an education. This is the way it should be.
Was Mom undocumented? Did she cross the border to get to the U.S.? Maybe — maybe not. Again, what’s important to highlight here is the effort Mom made to be reunited with her children. “She looked very tired and a little older,” the book says on page 40. It took over a year for this immigrant family to come together and be a family again. This is what’s important to take from their experience.
So, should immigration and/or undocumented immigration be highlighted in children’s books?!? Yes. In fact, it is not highlighted enough.
Readers need stories like this to understand and share compassion toward families whose lives could be turned upside down in a country where everything is unfamiliar.
It hurts. It’s hard. It’s confusing. Family separation is not an easy decision to make, but it’s something many of our students have experienced. It is not easy for parents, and it is not easy for children. However, when families find themselves in situations in which separating the family is what is best to survive and continue strengthening the family, then the decision is made. Sometimes there are tears — sometimes there are not. Sometimes there are explanations — sometimes there are not. From a child’s perspective, you know that mom and dad are doing what is best. You trust them. You hold on to their promise … but you also miss them.
This was the case for our character Andrés and his sister. The children were content with the money Dad was sending from the U.S., but at the same time they were wondering and wishing for Dad to be home with them.
We see the children’s mom crying in the desperation from the lack of food because she no longer has her husband’s financial support. The need to protect and to provide safety and security for her children leads her to make the biggest decision of her life … sending her children away to the U.S.. Andrés does not cry. Mom does not cry. Both of them understand that change has to happen and that they need to stay strong for what is to come.
This is without a doubt trauma — a trauma many of our students have experienced. Stories can serve as an effective catalyst for discussions with students who have experienced a similar trauma.
Through authentic stories such as Sometimes…, readers can understand how immigrant families often engage and support each other. We don’t necessarily see Mom or Aunt reading with their kids or working out math problems; what we do frequently see is a mother and an aunt who go above and beyond to ensure security and safety for the children. All through this story, we see the children well-dressed and cleaned, fed, and with the necessary resources to be in school. We see Mom making sure the kids get a good night’s rest so they are not tired at school the next day. We see Mom making a great breakfast and making sure they go to school with happy stomachs.
This, my friends, is parental/familial support. This is a family working together and contributing what they know best to support their children’s education.
As teachers, from the moment they enter our classrooms to the moment we no longer see them, we can instill courage, strength, and hope in our students. Mr. Trevor, a teacher introduced in the story, approaches Andrés in a way that reflects how many newcomers in our schools are welcomed. We see “terrified” children who are starting school not understanding the language and not knowing anyone on campus. However, Mr. Trevor quickly gets on one knee, looks Andrés in the eye, and welcomes him in Andrés’ own language. He reassures him that he will be taken care of. We read and see how Andrés immediately feels at ease. Later, Mr Trevor begins to paint a picture of a bigger future and educational goals, even when Andrés doesn’t think he will ever accomplish such dreams.
There’s so much that makes us who we are: culture, language, background, food, celebrations, and holidays. Our families and how we interact with our families build our identity. An identity that must be protected, respected, and validated wherever we go.
Sadly, this is not the case in many classrooms, schools, and communities. Students enter environments where the dominant culture dictates how they should dress, act, talk, and be. In many classrooms, schools, and communities, there’s nothing around to validate and highlight students’ culture and language, so they choose to blend into the dominant culture instead of maintaining their own.
We see this in the story when Andrés and Clara enter their new school. They quickly notice that everything looks different and everyone is speaking English. We see their sad faces as they sit on a bench all alone, without anyone speaking to them and with nothing around them that reaffirms who they are.
It doesn’t take much to culturize our campus to make our new students feel welcome and let them know that they belong. Remember, it’s a whole-school approach — not just a classroom approach.
I hope you get a chance to read Sometimes… and be as inspired as I am to read more and understand more about our English learners and their families, and to keep searching for books that reflect our English learners’ experiences. Books like Sometimes… can play an important role in helping us reflect and respect our students’ experiences in our classrooms and keep their stories alive.
- Celebrating success and failure
- Building Partnership with Immigrant Families
- Guide to build culturally responsive schools
- Books to Help Kids Understand the Immigrant Experience
- Handouts to accompany class reading of Sometimes…
Emily Francis is an ESL teacher at Concord High School in Concord, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @emilyfranESL.