Author Alexandra Villasante is used to hearing readers remark on how “timely” her debut novel is.
After all, “The Grief Keeper” — which was released earlier this summer — is about two teen sisters from El Salvador who cross the U.S.-Mexico border in the hopes of applying for asylum. Villasante likes to stress to readers that migration to the United States is nothing new. In fact, she had been thinking of writing a story about siblings crossing the border for years.
“I’d love to be able to say that this is a timely story but immigration and issues of immigration have been happening forever,” said Villasante, who was born in New Jersey to parents who immigrated from Uruguay.
In her novel, her main character Marisol had taught herself English through streaming her favorite television show in El Salvador and carefully prepared for common questions asked during asylum interviews, all while shielding her sister from the worst of the process.
The literary world has always responded to current events and Villasante is just one of several authors of children’s and young adult books who are telling the stories of undocumented children and teens in their work. While there are currently about 1.09 million undocumented kids and teens under 18 in the United States, their stories are rarely told in popular culture.
“When I was in school, I never read a book that had a Latina protagonist that had a Latino story at the center of it, much less so that had an undocumented Mexican Latina protagonist at the center of it,” she noted. “That made me feel lonely.”
Though Mitali Perkins never explicitly states the immigration status of the family at the center of her upcoming picture book “Between Us and Abuela,” she told NBC News that “in my imagination, they don’t have papers, they are undocumented.”
Perkins’s story follows two small children named Maria and Juan as they head to the California-Tijuana border with their mother to celebrate La Posada Sin Fronteras, a nine-day festival that is celebrated just before Christmas in many Latin American countries. The holiday is the only time all year that the children can see their grandmother, who lives on the Tijuana side of the border.
As the little family heads to Friendship Park, a historic area that crosses both the U.S. and Mexico border, they dream of a brief reunion through the border fence with their grandmother. Juan and Maria have made special gifts for her and are hoping that the Border Patrol agents at the fence will allow them to pass them through.
Perkins visited the park last December for the La Posada Sin Fronteras celebrations and the experience stayed with her. She based her characters on many of the families she met during her trip. While families have been gathering at Friendship Park to meet across the border since the 1970s, changes in immigration policies mean that rules often change yearly.
“At different times, they were able to meet and hug and come together and they could actually touch each other,” said Perkins. “But now the rules are such that they can only pinky touch if that.”
While her picture book is set to be released on Sept. 10, Perkins has already read it to several schools and community groups. “Children will ask, ‘Why can’t Maria cross and help her grandmother,” Perkins recalled, noting that early in the history of Friendship Park, crossing the border was common. “They are just longing for the grandmother and grandchild to be together.”
Authors who write about undocumented children have to contend with accurately portraying immigration policies though they are constantly changing.
While Villasante began writing “The Grief Keeper” in 2015, she found herself revising several key passages describing Marisol’s asylum application process once the book was purchased by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
“I had to tweak something because up until now the law hasn’t changed that much but the way the law is enforced has changed,” Villasante explained, adding that she spoke to several immigration lawyers in order to capture what the process is like for unaccompanied teens today.
Ultimately, all three authors say they hope that the children and teens reading their work come away with a new understanding of the choices families — undocumented or not — make to provide the best lives possible for their children.
“I think people reading my book can think ‘what would it have been like for me?’” Arce said, adding that she also hoped readers would better empathize with her parents choices as well. “Hopefully by showing them in the most authentic and honest way, it resonates with people.”