Over the weekend, as a simple introduction to the subject, I read them a book entitled Watch the Stars Come Out by Riki Levinson, illustrated by Diane Goode, published by Puffin. The book tells the story of a young girl and her brother who travel across the ocean to America, where their mother, father and older sister are already living.
When I finished reading it to my daughter, I told her, "My grandma came on a boat like this when she was a little girl. She was Italian and from a country called Italy." My daughter then asked me if she came to visit me, and I told her she came a long time before I was born. Time and thinking of events in the distant past are SUCH difficult concepts to get little kids to understand, so her questions were normal for her age, I think. Interestingly, my husband later asked her if she knew where our family came from and she said, "So Italian." So Italian is the name of a local restaurant that we sometimes eat at. I got a good chuckle out of that, but it also means that she actually listened to at least part of what I was talking to her about.
Obviously, my older son was better able to understand the story and could read a little more into some of the hardships that the book introduced. The children in the story traveled without their parents, only an 'old lady' who was asked to watch over them. (The old lady later falls ill and dies on the trip. We talk about death pretty openly in our house, but if you don't think your child is ready for that much realism, you can just say that she gets sick and can no longer care for them.) I asked my son, "Do you think you'd like to travel that far without your mom and dad?" Of course he said no, but I pointed out that some children had to do that. The story mentioned how long it took to make the voyage (23 days), and we actually looked at his calendar and counted out the days. He definitely had a better sense of time than my three year old. There is a scene where the immigrant children are being examined by a nurse, and I told him that they made the sick people stay in special buildings until they got better. He also recognized the Statue of Liberty in one of the illustrations and told me that they had talked about it in school (he is in Kindergarten).
One question my kids did NOT ask was WHY people came to America. I find this incredibly ironic because they typically ask 'Why?' when it comes to nearly every other aspect of life. Anyway, I think even little kids can understand reasons like, "They needed to find a job," or "There wasn't enough to eat," or "They already knew people who lived here." Next time we read this book, I will address the subject with my kids, if they don't ask again.
The next step in this investigation is to pull out the maps. If you are ambitious and think your child could handle it, you could probably use an atlas while reading this book and talk more specifically where YOUR family emigrated from. I have decided to go in smaller steps and just read the story first. So, look for at least one (probably more) map-related blog post from me in the near future. :-)
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