Five Children's Books about Irish Immigration to America

The United States has been built largely by immigrants, from the first steps of those in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock to those who come here still today. Each of these people leave something behind, and come full of hopes and dreams. Immigrants from Ireland were some of the first to come to America, yet the majority of Irish came after the Great Potato Famine began in the 1840s, which devastated the island. During just a few short years, around one million people died from starvation, and a million more people left for America. Today there are tens of millions of people of Irish descent in America alone. And though many of the stories of those folk that came here out of poverty, starvation, and desperation have been lost and the names of their ancestors have been forgotten, many of those descendants have heard that they are Irish. And there is no time like the month of March and St. Patrick’s Day for those people, and all people for that matter, to remember the bravery of the Irish immigrants. They are a part of our history, they helped build our country, they are in fact a large part of our heritage, and we ought to remember them. Knowing our heritage, remembering our ancestors’ struggles, helps us understand who we are, who we come from, and it also helps us have compassion and empathy on those who are undergoing similar struggles today.

And so if we do not in fact have the luck of any family stories passed down to us, I have compiled a small list of children’s books that help tell the story of the Irish who left their homeland for a new one, those people often leaving behind sorrow with hopes for new opportunities. Let’s read their stories and remember those brave folk of Ireland so long ago.

Katie’s Wish by Barbara Shook Hazen

The first thing that stands out about this book are its absolutely beautiful illustrations, by Emily Arnold McCully, which depict the pastoral village life of old Ireland. Katie lives with her grandparents after her mother has died and her father has left for America. She struggles, and she is just plain sick of potatoes, the main part of their diet, and so during a dinner prayer one day she prays that the potatoes will go away. But not long after that the Potato Famine hits, and Katie believes it’s all her fault. Tragedy strikes Ireland and people are sick and starving. Finally Katie is sent to America to be with her father. The book does not shy away from the intense struggle of the times, it shows the desperation of the famine time, and what Katie had to go through in order to arrive in America. The illustrations are beautiful indeed, but haunting, and full of emotion and heart. This is a wonderful story for children to understand the plight of the Irish immigrant during the Famine, and would be a great read-aloud or for independent reading for a child in upper elementary.

Fiona’s Lace by Patricia Polacco

 

Fiona’s Lace shows a whimsical side of the people of Ireland – the heart for storytelling and tradition. It begins with a father telling his daughters the story of how he courted their mother, and though they’ve heard it time and time again, they love it every time. But hard times fall on their home, and they are forced to leave Ireland and come to work as indentured servants in Chicago. Fiona, the author’s great-great grandmother, has a talent for making fine Irish lace, and it is her lace that saves them, in more ways than one. This is yet another beautiful story of a family that came to America from Ireland, seeking hope and the promise of a new life. This would be a wonderful read-aloud to your children or in a classroom setting. I love it especially as it’s based on a true story, a family story and tradition that has been passed down through generations. Patricia Polacco has created her own “storybook ancestor”!

The St. Patrick’s Day Shillelagh by Janet Nolan

This book is unique because it follows the story of an immigrant as it is passed down through generations of his descendants. It begins with a little Irish boy named Fergus who is forced to leave Ireland with his family because of the Potato Famine. But before he leaves, he takes a branch from his favorite blackthorn tree and as he sails to America, he carves it into a shillelagh, an special kind of walking stick. The story follows Fergus as he grows up and eventually passes the shillelagh to his son, telling him to take it as a memory of Ireland. The shillelagh is passed down through many generations, and on every St. Patrick’s Day, the story of Fergus, their ancestor, is told in the family. Until one descendant puts it in a closet and forgets about it. But then one day, years later, his daughter, finds it, and asks about it. Her father had been too busy to think about telling the family story, and he tells her to go to her grandfather. Grandpa remembers, and tells the story. His words speak volumes about the importance of passing on family stories: “A good story never has to end as long as someone remembers to keep telling it.” This book, beautifully illustrated, reminds us of the importance of just that, sharing our family history with the next generation. This is a great book to curl up with your kids and read together, and then while you’re at it, share some of your own family stories.

Dear Old Donegal Words and Music by Steve Graham Illustrated by John O’Brien

This picture book is set to the lyrics of the 1940s American folk song, Dear Old Donegal, which depicts an idealized version of the Irish immigrant experience and life in Ireland. It tells the tale of a poor boy who sailed from Ireland to New York and made a fortune, and then returns back to his home in Donegal later to see his family to a grand welcome. The song was popularized by Bing Crosby, so look it up and sing along with your wee ones.

So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl by Barry Denenberg

This book is for older independent readers, and is a part of the Dear America series, fictionalized diaries of girls during different times in American history. It gives an intricate look into the experience of the Irish during the Potato Famine and those who left out of desperation. It follows Mary in her diary from the village of Skibbereen in County Cork in 1847, across the ocean, to the port of Boston, and eventually to Lowell, Massachusetts where she becomes a mill girl, one among many Irish to work in the Lowell mills. The book is written in Mary’s voice in Irish dialect and tells a real and raw story of the Potato Famine, the difficult journey across the Atlantic, and the Lowell mills. The book is beautifully written, and if your kids want a true to life story of the Irish immigrant experience in America, this is the one for them. Just like each Dear America book, it also has a historical note at the end for further study.

These books range from happy to sad, to idealized to authentic, as diverse as the immigration experience of millions of Irish to America. Every story is different, and every story is worth telling.

Do you have an immigration story in your family history? Share it with your kids. Write it down together, pass it on, lest we forget our ancestors' struggles and triumphs, the stories of their lives. To get started writing family history with your kids, subscribe to our newsletter for your free e-book Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide. If you have a special family story you want to remember and pass on to your kids, this workbook is a great way to do just that. Let us never forget.

In the words of the grandfather in The St. Patrick’s Day Shillelagh, “A good story never has to end as long as someone remembers to keep telling it.”

Let’s keep telling the stories! 

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Book Review: The Name Quilt

The Name Quilt
By Phyllis Root

Do you ever have a book that just wraps you up like a warm blanket? It draws you in and tells you a sweet story and leaves you feeling like someone just wrapped you in a blanket and gave you a mug of hot chocolate. That’s what the book The Name Quilt by Phyllis Root did for me. Ironically, it’s about a quilt, and maybe that’s why I felt so warm and fuzzy after reading it. 

The Quilt and Grandma's Stories

The Name Quilt tells the story of a little girl and her grandma. Grandma has a quilt where she has sewed names of family members into each square. In many squares are scraps of fabric that have special meaning for these family members, such as fabric from the grandma’s wedding dress. But it’s more than just a quilt, it’s a quilt full of family history, and all the family stories the grandma remembers. And every night when the little girl, Sadie, is visiting, her grandma tells her a story of someone in the quilt.

The stories are everything you’d want to hear curled up under a quilt with your grandma at your side. They’re full of humor and detail and make you feel like you were there. You can see the little boy getting stung by all the hornets and the bear in the walnut tree. It made me fall in love with family stories all over again.

Making Your Own Name Quilt

So Ellie and I made our own name quilts out of construction paper. We divided each paper into squares and wrote down names of people important to us in the squares and decorated them with designs that went with each person. I noticed in the book that she even had a square for a dog so I included my childhood pets in my quilt. Ellie made one with her brother and all her cousins. While we worked, we shared stories and I told Ellie about my pets when I was a child. We can pull them out later and I can tell Ellie all about how my cat Ariel followed me around everywhere and how she sat on my dad’s shoulder when she was a kitten. I could tell her about my memories of the day my little brother was born and how I remember playing in snow forts at recess but I don’t actually remember the moment I met him in the hospital. I could tell her about how my sister and I would build chalk cities on the driveway and put all our Beanie Babies in the tree in the front yard. Later, we may make a real name quilt and Ellie can tell stories later on about how she and her cousins would play with her kitten and how she and her brother loved to play in their sandbox together. The name quilt serves as a jumpstart for all the stories you remember about special people.

Your Turn! 

Want to make your own name quilt? Download a free printable template here, and make sure you make one too! The whole family can share stories as you draw out the names and decorate the squares. Jumpstart your own storytelling name quilt and share your stories with us too in the comments!

Want to learn more about family history for kids? Check out this post about ways to turn your family history into creative writing, and don’t forget to subscribe to receive your free e-book Writing Family History for Kids: A Workbook & Guide.

Happy storytelling!

 

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

Book Review: My Two Blankets

This painting was done by a young girl who is here as a refugee from Nepal 

This painting was done by a young girl who is here as a refugee from Nepal 

Many of our ancestors came to new lands not knowing the language of their new country. I’m sure they felt out of place to begin with, but not being able to navigate their new home through the spoken or written word must have been incredibly hard. New immigrants and refugees, like many of our ancestors, struggle with the same thing today.

Ellie and I found a children’s book that illustrates this struggle in a way children who have never experienced it can understand. My Two Blankets, written by Irena Kobald, and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, describes a friendship between two girls, that is based on one of Irena’s daughter’s friendships. It is told from the point of view of a refugee fleeing her country due to war, and a girl who befriends her in her new country.

The beginning of the book shows the new girl, who is called Cartwheel by her auntie, in her old home before the war. After the war came, she was no longer called Cartwheel by her auntie - the hard times had begun. Cartwheel and her auntie were able to flee their home to come to a new country to safety. But Cartwheel felt out of place – “strange.” And she didn’t feel like herself here.

Cartwheel describes the new sounds of the strange language in this new country with images. She feels like she’s under a “cold waterfall” when she hears it spoken. It shows no written words here, only shapes and figures falling on Cartwheel. She doesn’t understand any of it.

But her old language – the old words and sounds – they are like a warm blanket to her. It shows her curled up under her blanket of familiar sounds and images of her old home. She wants to stay there forever.

Then one day she meets a new girl. The new girl waves, and smiles. But Cartwheel doesn’t know what to do. Later, she comes to know her. The new girl plays with her – the universal language of children – and she teaches her new words. Cartwheel slowly begins to weave a new “blanket.”

“What does the new blanket represent?” I asked Ellie. She knew – Cartwheel is learning a new language.

Now when Ellie spends time with her friends, many of them immigrants and refugees learning English for the first time, she knows she is helping them weave a new blanket. And of course, they play together – the universal language of children. 

 

Ellie playing with her friends 

Ellie playing with her friends 

My Two Blankets
By Irena Kobald

To read My Two Blankets, click the button to purchase to read aloud to your children. This book not only helps native speakers understand what non-native speakers go through, I imagine it would help new language learners feel more at home. Like a warm blanket. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

Book Review: Who was Harriet Tubman?

“With rare courage, she led over three hundred Negroes up from slavery to freedom.”

-         Auburn, New York Courthouse plaque honoring Harriet Tubman

[Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair] Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

[Harriet Tubman, full-length portrait, standing with hands on back of a chair] Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

Most kids know who Harriet Tubman is – the “Moses” of the Underground Railroad, the fearless former slave who continuously journeyed down into the South and led other slaves to Canada to freedom. Yes, Harriet did all that, but in her long life she did so much more.

My daughter Ellie and I, always the bookworms, read the book Who was Harriet Tubman? by Yona Zeldis McDonough together, and so we are reviewing the book together.

Why was Harriet called “Moses”? Because like Moses of the Hebrew Bible, she led her people to freedom. As she led them she often sang old spirituals about Moses, as she led her “passengers” on the Underground Railroad to Canada, to the “Promised Land”.

Who Was Harriet Tubman?
By Yona Zeldis McDonough

How did Harriet get started helping runaways? Known as Minty as a girl, she earned the name Harriet, after her mother, after she stood up to an overseer and protected a runaway slave when she was only thirteen or fourteen. 

Harriet had always dreamed of freedom. She finally set off on her own when she was in her twenties, and made it to the free state of Pennsylvania. But she was not content in her freedom when so many others still lived in slavery. For ten long years, she made journeys into the South and led people through the Underground Railroad to freedom. She even brought her aging parents to the North on a cart she built herself. Harriet became a legend, and her story of courage still lives to this day.

This is the part of Harriet’s life that most people know. But Harriet lived till 1913 and lived a life of service until she died. She served as a Union spy during the Civil War, and also as a nurse where she used her mother’s herbal medicine to heal wounds and diseases such as dysentery. She again became a legend, this time as a healer.   

Harriet was a warrior, before, during, and after the war. She fought for freedom in so many ways, and this didn’t stop after the slaves were freed and the Civil War was ended. She went to Auburn, New York to live and spent her days taking care of Blacks in need. She never turned anyone away. Yet taking care of needy folks cost money – money she didn’t have. But Harriet was a storyteller. Imagine sitting at her feet and listening to the tales she had to tell, tales of narrow escapes and tales of healing wounded soldiers. It was her stories that brought Harriet the money she needed to care for the people who came to her.

Harriet told her stories to a woman named Sarah Bradford, who collected them and published them in two books. One, her biography, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, was published in 1869, and the second, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People, was published in 1886. These books brought her an income, but she still worked as a speaker and even sold vegetables she raised in her garden door to door, all to the care for people in need. Harriet never stopped working for others. She died at the age of 93, finally reaching her Promised Land.

Many people are famous for one thing, and we never know about how much more they did within their lifetime. Harriet Tubman is famous mainly for her work on the Underground Railroad, but this comprised only ten years of her life. Reading her biography, especially one such as Who was Harriet Tubman? which tells her story with rich narrative, tells of all the other self-sacrificing work she did in her lifetime. Reading biographies of courageous and hardworking people who dedicated their lives to others sets an example for our kids to live lives of service. Historical figures our kids can look up to as role models come to life when we read their biographies. Ellie loved the book we read about Harriet Tubman so much she started picking up the books I have on the Underground Railroad to find out more about her and the work she did. Now we are planning a trip to the Levi Coffin home to visit an actual site on the Underground Railroad so we can see what it was like with our own eyes. The life of Harriet Tubman inspired Ellie to learn, and to serve others in need. 

 

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

 

Book Review: Number the Stars

My daughter Ellie and I read the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry together. I chose to read this book with her because I believe children need good examples of bravery right now. Because our children need to learn about other children, even fictional ones, showing what true bravery is, to show them that they, too, can be brave, even in their young age. This story is the story of a brave young girl named Annemarie, and though fictional, her story is based on true events and a real girl who lived in Denmark during World War II.

Number the Stars
By Lois Lowry

Since my daughter and I read this book together, we are writing this review together. When I asked her to describe what the book was about, her first response was, “Number the Stars is about two friends helping each other.” I knew she had gotten one of the points the author was making – and that is that true friends help each other, and again, true friends are brave for each other. One of the girls, Ellen, is Jewish and Annemarie, who tells the story, is from a Christian family. The two families live in Copenhagen in 1943, when the Nazis take over Denmark. At first everything is almost as normal as it has been throughout the war, but then they hear that the Nazis want to “relocate” the Jewish people. Having read about Anne Frank with my daughter, I explained that this relocation was to a concentration camp like the one Anne had been in, so she was familiar with what that meant and connected the story to a real person. This connection made the story much more real and relevant. And so because of this threat of this “relocation” of Danish Jews, people like Annemarie’s family decide to help them escape to Sweden, a free country, where they can be safe from the Nazis.

This fictional novel is based on the real movement in Denmark where almost 7,000 Danish Jews were smuggled to Sweden as the Nazi threats grew. It is a story of a young girl learning how to be brave in the face of unspeakable danger. The book personalizes the story with Annemarie and her friend Ellen, but it tells more of the Danish Resistance and the broader movement as well. Annemarie knows her family knows more about what’s going on than she does, but they don’t tell her in order to keep her safe. But even as she begins to understand the real danger she and others are in, she shows incredible bravery. There’s a part near the end that really had us on the edge of our seat. We generally read one chapter of a book a day, but the last four chapters we read all at once because we couldn’t put it down.

My daughter says, “The book was inspiring because Annemarie was so brave. Annemarie was very thoughtful.”

We all need stories of bravery right now, and Number the Stars is a beautiful one to read with your children. It’s heavy, yes, but it tells an important story, one we all must learn. Ellie said she learned that a lot of people didn’t like some people, but other people helped others no matter how dangerous it was. Yes. That’s what we need.

What stories will you be reading your children to teach them to be brave? 

I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website. Your purchase helps support my work in providing you with the best resources for your children in their pursuit of history and genealogy. 

 

Mother Daughter Book Reviews

Ellie & Katie "reading together" 

Ellie & Katie "reading together" 

I love books. Of course I love books. They’re full of stories! So it is here where I will post book reviews of books historical in nature. Books about family history, historical fiction, books written “back then”, family memoirs, and more. And because my daughter Ellie and I read so many books together, many of these reviews will be written by both of us. Some will be written by only me, and some will be written by only Ellie. Our first book review we wrote together, is about the historical fiction novel, Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, and that will be posted next week. We have a pile of books to read next, and she (and my 3 year old son) have literal piles of books in their beds that they read as they go to sleep. We have several bookshelves, and my husband Ben just built us three more. Basically,  we can’t get enough of books. And then, the other day, my daughter tells me she “doesn’t like silent reading.” I informed her that she does this all the time, and she looked at me and said, “Oh, yeah.” She does, too. She reads all the time. We go to the library and she stocks up. Many of the books she’ll be reviewing are the time travel historical novels from The Magic Treehouse series. The books we’ll review here will be for children and young adults, since this blog is about bringing history and genealogy to children, and helping parents and teachers do just that.

Why are we reviewing books here? Because of my firm belief that stories build our lives. And to learn to pay attention to our life stories, and the life stories of others, we must learn to immerse ourselves in stories. And good writers are dedicated readers. We learn to tell stories by reading them. We learn to tell stories by listening to them. We learn to tell stories by learning from those who have told stories before us. 

I’m also a firm believer that we can best learn about history through reading stories. The real reason I became so interested in history in the first place was because I read a fictional story set on the Oregon Trail when I was in middle school. It was one of the Dear America series (which we will be reviewing here), and after that first one, I couldn’t get enough of those books, and the bits of history they told.

We’ll be taking suggestions, and we’ll also be taking submissions from authors to review for a small fee starting in March. Keep an eye on our blog, and if you’re an avid reader with your kiddos, subscribe to our newsletter for updates – and check back later this week for our review of Number the Stars.

Happy reading, y’all! 

Ellie engrossed in a book at the library 

Ellie engrossed in a book at the library