A Book About a Refugee Experience: Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge

March 29, 2022 | Rathees

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TPL Reading Challenge 2022

Since 1980, Canada has become home to over 1 million refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlights achievements made by refugees in Canada over the years. In 2019 alone, 30, 087 were resettled, the most out of any country that year. The refugee crisis is as topical as ever as wars and persecutions continue to displace millions around the world.

These recommended books selected by staff give readers an understanding of the struggles faced by refugees. They range from stories of Vietnam War survivors fleeing their homeland to a graphic novel on growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

After the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, just over 500 Tamil refugees arrived in Vancouver on a boat seeking asylum. Although they survived the war and the months-long journey at sea, they now face the threat of deportation. The story is told through three characters: Mahindan, who is detained and separated from his son; Priya, a law student who at first is reluctant to help defend the refugees; and Grace, whose personal history as a third-generation Japanese-Canadian conflicts with her job as an adjudicator. These different perspectives give a deeper understanding of the refugee crisis and the people involved.

— Rathees, Librarian 


When Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed

When Stars Are Scattered by Omar Mohamed

This nonfiction graphic novel tells the story of Omar’s experience growing up in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Omar spends most of his time taking care of his younger nonverbal brother Hassan. But when he gets the opportunity to attend school, Omar begins to see the possibility of a different future for them even if it means leaving his brother behind everyday. A touching and inspiring book about hope, resilience, family, and community. Omar’s story will stay with readers for a long time!

— Rumman, Librarian


How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Deceptively simple and spare short stories that hit like a punch to the gut. They demonstrate what a powerful form the short story can be. With minimal description and no excess words, the stories give the reader insights into the refugee and immigrant experience from multiple points of view. Heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time.

Other categories:

  • A book by an author from Toronto

— Maureen, Librarian


The Paper Boat by Thao Lam

The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam

This Advanced Picture Book reflects the author's own experiences but, since it is wordless, there are the opportunities to read thousands of stories in it. After all, isn't each refugee's story both the same and very different than everyone else's? Specific details of this author's own journey/story can are in the must-read "Author's Note" at the back.

— Katherine, Library Assistant


Peace by Chocolate by Jon Tattrie

Peace by Chocolate by Jon Tattrie

I love this book because after all the Hadhad family went through – from escaping Syrian civil war and staying in Lebanon as refugees and to arriving in a small town in Nova Scotia – they never gave up. This is a story of hope, community and peace.

— Elsa, Senior Services Specialist


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Booker Prize nominated Exit West tells the story of headstrong Nadia and gentle Saeed who embark on a secret love affair in an unnamed country that is on the brink of civil war. As bomb blasts escalate and checkpoints appear everywhere, whispers begin to circulate about doors – doors that can whisk people away to safety, though perilously and for a heavy price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they must leave their homeland and their old lives behind.

Hamid shows readers how swiftly ordinary life can change into life in a war zone, and turn citizens into refugees who must cross oceans and borders in search of safe haven.

— Saima, Librarian


The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

A beekeeper who loves his job in Aleppo, Syria, is suddenly upended by war. His wife refuses to leave because their son who died in Aleppo but the war gets worse and it becomes impossible for them to stay. He finally convinces her to go and the book describes their journey through Turkey, Greece, and then their final destination, England. This book is a reminder of how anyone's life can change in an instant, as we see what is happening in most recent times.

— Despina, Branch Head 


Wishes by Muon Van

Wishes by Muon Van

One of my favourite children's titles at the moment, this picture book is both enchanting and devastating. I get something new out of the illustrations and simple words every time I revisit this book. The perspective is completely original, and it will resonate with adults as much as children.

— Kate, Librarian


The Free World by David Bezmozgia

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Set in the 1970s during the Cold War, this novel is about a Jewish family escaping the USSR. The novel explores each generation of the family as they struggle to navigate the uncertainty ahead and cope with the people and lives they left behind. The characters breathe vitality and personality into recent Eastern European history.

Other categories:

  • An author from Toronto 
  • A story about a family

— Kieran, Page


Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran

Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran.

This graphic novel follows three generations of a family that escaped Saigon in 1975. The story spans between the post-World War 2 struggle with French colonizers to modern day America. A beautiful and moving story of survival, lost and found cultural identity, remembrance and forgiveness.

Other category:

  • A story about a family

— Anna, Librarian


Year of the rabbit

Year of the Rabbit by Tian

This adult graphic novel is about one extended family's experience during the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. It details the raw heartbreak and devastating consequences from seemingly mundane decisions made in these unreal situations.

— Kayla, Senior Public Service Assistant


American dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

This is the story of a woman and her son who are forced to flee the drug cartels in Mexico after her husband publishes an exposé on a local drug kingpin. Their trials and desperation along with those of other migrants trying to escape gives you a new insight into the horrors of those fleeing persecution for the freedom of the U.S.

— Vicki, Librarian


The best we can do

The Best That We Could Do by Thi Bui

This is a graphic format memoir from a few years back about a family escaping at the end of the Vietnam War and building a new life in America.

— Alice Moore, Senior Collections Specialist


More Staff Recommendations


Recommendations from the Facebook Group 

We received over 40 comments for this category from our Facebook TPL Reading Challenge 2022 discussion group. Here are a few of those recommendations, and you can read all of the responses in the original post. You do not need a Facebook account to read the suggestions.


French Recommendations 

If you like to read in French, check out the list of recommended books for "l'expérience des réfugiés" - there's a mix of books, ebooks and digital audiobooks to try!


Library Services for Newcomers

Visit Toronto Public Library's New to Canada page for information on services that the library offers to newcomers.

What would you recommend for "a book about a refugee experience”? Add your suggestions in the comments section below.