What's Life Like For Immigrant Kids? 2 Teen Novels Paint A Sober Picture

Feb 1, 2017
Originally published on February 2, 2017 8:00 am

The Trump administration's executive order on immigration is heightening awareness of the challenges immigrants face getting into this country. Once here, children and teenagers can find themselves in circumstances completely out of their control, and those circumstances are now at the center of two recent young adult novels.

Melissa de la Cruz's Something in Between follows an overachieving Filipino high schooler who came to the U.S. when she was 9. De la Cruz herself moved here from the Philippines when she was a freshman in high school. She says it was hard at first to adjust to a new culture, but it didn't take long to feel at home. "I remember feeling — like, after being here for about two years — that I was an American. Like, I really felt like I was part of it."

Her family came to the U.S. on her father's business visa, fully expecting they would all get Green Cards. But things didn't go as planned; it took many years for de la Cruz get her American citizenship. So when her publisher asked if she wanted to write a Y.A. novel about immigration, she hesitated.

"I knew it would be hard," she says, "and I didn't know if I really wanted to go there and feel those feelings again, of feeling like I didn't belong and feeling so confused."

De la Cruz's protagonist, Jasmine, is devastated when learns that she and her family are living in the U.S. illegally: "I'm breaking apart, shattering," she thinks to herself. "Who am I? Where do I belong? I'm not American. I'm not a legal resident. I don't even have a Green Card. I'm nothing. Nobody. Illegal."

The truth comes out after Jasmine, a classic overachiever, wins a prestigious scholarship. Like a lot of immigrant kids, de la Cruz says, Jasmine works hard to prove she can succeed in this country. "I wanted to, you know, put this all-American girl who happened to be Filipino ... through the ringer. Like, what if you're head cheerleader, class president, valedictorian — but then, all of a sudden, you're not that special anymore because of how you came to this country?"

Then, to thicken the plot, de la Cruz wrote in a star-crossed romance. "I love first romances," she says. "When everything is the first time, it's just so memorable, it's so exciting. You know, I just love the optimism and the idealism of kids that age."

Marie Marquardt's Y.A. novel The Radius of Us also has a love story in it. Marquardt is an academic who has worked with immigrants for two decades. Over the years, she's written essays and articles about immigration issues, but more recently she's turned to fiction.

"It helps to bring out how deeply interconnected we are, and I love writing fiction," she says. "I love writing love stories because I want to delve into those connections and help us all to have the opportunity to dwell for a while in the experience of another person."

The Radius of Us follows two teenagers: Gretchen, who has led a comfortable life in suburban Atlanta, and Phoenix, an asylum seeker who Gretchen's neighbors have taken in. Phoenix and his younger brother, Ari, fled El Salvador after a gang threatened to kill them. When they finally got to the U.S., Phoenix was separated from his brother and sent to a detention center. Ari is so traumatized that he stops talking and communicates only through drawings, which are scattered throughout the book.

Carlos Morataya is the book's illustrator. He's a young Guatemalan immigrant and orphan, and he remembers being threatened by gangs in Guatemala. "Before I moved to the orphanage, I was pretty much in the street," he says. And kids on the street need to "find someone that will protect them, which in this case are the gangs."

Morataya eventually moved to a Christian orphanage, which helped him come to U.S. as a student. He expects to get a Green Card and believes his story will end happily, much like the stories in both these books. But Marquardt says these stories rarely ever end the way her book does. "What I tried to do in this story is to give a happy ending, but to also ensure that my readers knew that this was a very, very unusual — a possible, but certainly not a probable — outcome."

Both Marquardt and de la Cruz say their books are meant for everybody, especially those who may not know what life is like for an immigrant.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've heard a lot lately about the challenges immigrants face when they come into this country and how once they're here, children and teenagers can find themselves in circumstances beyond their control. Two new young adult novels focus on these challenges. NPR's Lynn Neary has more.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Melissa de la Cruz moved to this country from the Philippines when she was a freshman in high school. It was hard at first to adjust to a new culture, but it didn't take long to feel at home.

MELISSA DE LA CRUZ: And I remember feeling like after being here for about two years that I was an American. Like, I really felt like I was part of it.

NEARY: Her family came to the U.S. on her father's business visa fully expecting they would all get green cards. Things did not go as planned, and it would be many years before de la Cruz got her American citizenship. So when her publisher asked if she wanted to write a young adult novel about immigration, she hesitated.

DE LA CRUZ: I knew it'd hard. And I didn't know if I really wanted to go there and feel those feelings again, feeling like I didn't belong and feeling so confused.

NEARY: Jasmine, the young girl at the center of de la Cruz's novel, "Something In Between," is also from the Philippines. She has no idea that her parents are in the United States illegally. When she finds out, she's devastated.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "SOMETHING IN BETWEEN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) I'm breaking apart, shattering. Who am I? Where do I belong? I'm not American. I'm not a legal resident. I don't even have a green card. I'm nothing. Nobody. Illegal.

NEARY: Jasmine learns of her status after she wins a prestigious scholarship. A classic overachiever, Jasmine is like a lot of kids who are immigrants, says de la Cruz. They work hard to prove they can succeed in this country.

DE LA CRUZ: So I wanted to, you know, put this all-American girl who happened to be Filipino and, you know, kind of put her through the wringer. Like, what if you're head cheerleader, class president, valedictorian, but then all of a sudden, you know, you're not that special anymore because of how you came to this country?

NEARY: De la Cruz loves writing love stories and her fans love to read them, so she thickens her plot with a star-crossed romance.

DE LA CRUZ: I love first romances. When everything is the first time, it's just so memorable. It's so exciting. You know, I just love the optimism and the idealism of kids that age.

MARIE MARQUARDT: I firmly believe that when we enter into seeing complicated issues through the eyes of love, it changes everything.

NEARY: A love story is also at the center of Marie Marquardt's YA novel, "The Radius Of Us." Marquardt is an academic who has worked with immigrants for two decades. Over the years, she's written essays and articles about immigration issues. But more recently, she's turned to fiction.

MARQUARDT: It helps to bring out how deeply interconnected we are. And I love writing fiction, I love writing love stories because I want to delve into those connections and help us all to have the opportunity to dwell for a while in the experience of another person.

NEARY: "The Radius Of Us" is the story of two teenagers. Gretchen has led a comfortable life in suburban Atlanta. Phoenix is an asylum seeker who has been taken in by her neighbors. He and his younger brother fled El Salvador because a gang threatened to kill them.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE RADIUS OF US")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) He had ordered us dead, and soon everyone who had ever pledged loyalty to that gang would know. And they would follow Delgado's orders because Mara siempre. The gang is forever. When Ari and I rounded the corner, I threw the gun into the lake and we ran all the way to the Guatemalan border.

NEARY: When they finally got to the U.S. Phoenix was sent to a detention center. He was separated from his younger brother, who is so traumatized that he stops talking and communicates only through drawings.

CARLOS MORATAYA: I just have to put myself on his shoes and see it from his perspective.

NEARY: Carlos Morataya, young Guatemalan immigrant, did the drawings for the book. An orphan, Morataya says he also remembers being threatened by gangs.

MORATAYA: Before I moved to the orphanage, I was pretty much in the street. And that's lot of the last resource of the kids. You know, they - that's their last option to go find someone that will protect them, which in this case are, like, the gangs.

NEARY: Morataya was in a Christian orphanage, which helped him move to the States as a student. He expects to get a green card and believes his story will end happily, as do the stories in both these books. But Marquardt says that's not the way most of these stories end.

MARQUARDT: I think that would be an understatement. They rarely ever end in the way that my story ends. So what I tried to do in this story is to give a happy ending, but to also ensure that my readers knew that this was a very, very unusual - a possible, but certainly not probable outcome.

NEARY: Both Marquardt and de la Cruz say their books are meant for everybody, especially those who may not know what life is like for an immigrant. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.