Book Review: I is for Immigrants

I’m a sucker for alphabet books, especially ones that explore different words than your standard apple/banana/cow. Concept books – books that teach about things like letters, numbers, and colors – are one of my favorite type of picture book when done correctly. There’s always more room for alphabet books in my review pile.

Cover of I is for Immigrants by Selina Alko.

Selina Alko is the creator of I is for Immigrants, but calling Alko just an author or just an illustrator would gloss over the best part of this book. Alko’s art is a colorful blend of mixed media collages, featuring paint, stamps, newsprint, and hand-lettered inked script. Each letter’s art becomes a game of I Spy, bringing a great deal of detail to the page without overwhelming the reader’s attention.

Something I adore about the art are all the unique characters Alko paints throughout the book. They have such style and definition that I swear I’ve seen all of them in my library at some point, or shared a bus stop with them. There are so many New York books that focus exclusively on Manhattan, but I is for Immigrants features scenes that would be familiar to families in any burrough.

I’m also a fan of the words chosen for this alphabet book. We start off with some great vocabulary: A is for Ancestors (and abuelita, art, ambition, and aspire); G is for Genealogy (and gardens, games, goals, and guacamole). Beyond letter recognition, Alko also supports cultural literacy by showcasing a wide swath of languages in her book. Spanish, Yiddish, Korean, Arabic, Polish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, German, Vietnamese, and Japanese are all present, along with perhaps a dozen more on the L-is-for-Languages page.

One final point in this book’s favor is a celebration of diversity, not homogeneity. Alko is the child of immigrants and herself moved to the United States. This story honors the legacy of immigrant families, both the ties that bind them together and the differences that make each one unique.

All that said, there are a few issues with this book. First, most importantly, are some images that I found questionable: some characters have been given yellow skin paired with slanted eyes. I was surprised that of the three professional review sites I use, only Publisher’s Weekly had a review mention this fact. Other Asian-coded characters don’t look like this in Alko’s art, including those a lavish two-page spread featuring Chinatown. None of those characters are given literally yellow skin, and yet in the background of other pages you find snippets like these:

My hope is that adults review picture books before sharing them with children, especially those of us in positions of reading stories to many kids at once. Only you can decide if a book is right for your family. No book is perfect and there are ways to use books to bring attention to big issues like race and stereotyping. It would be wrong of me though to review this book without bringing this topic, and these images, to my readers’ attention.

On a much less important note, I is for Immigrants is a fantastic book that speaks specifically to urban places, especially New York City. However, it will resonate differently for kids from suburbs or more rural areas of the country. Everything from Ellis Island to bodegas advertising Boar’s Head products paints a picture of a very particular environment. I don’t think that’s good or bad, but I’d use it alongside other books about immigration to show a more complete picture.

I is for Immigrant is available from Bookshop, IndieBound, Amazon, and at your local library through WorldCat.

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