I Is for Immigrants

When learning a new language, its alphabet is often the logical place to begin. Understanding the shapes, sounds, and functions of individual letters can help establish a critical foundation for speaking and reading the language and can increase overall comprehension. With I Is for Immigrants, Selina Alko uses the alphabet book format to catalog and celebrate some of the many elements of generations of immigrants’ experiences — and legacies — in the United States. Like an alphabet made up of letters, or a nation shaped by diverse cultures, traditions, and memories, Alko’s layered gouache and collage illustrations construct new meanings by combining discrete material elements and concepts. It’s an impressive response to a complex problem: how to present the people and things that make the U.S. unique, without a narrative anchor or fact-heavy text, to a picture-book audience. 

An ocean of saturated blues covers much of the front and back dust jacket, echoed in the turquoise case covers and solid, deeper blue endpapers that contain the pictures within, inviting comparisons between the book-as-entry-point and the physical entry point of Ellis Island, where over twelve million immigrants arrived in the US between 1892 and 1954. The iconic silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, repeated both within the titular “I” on the jacket as well as the spine (and on the “L” spread), further grounds this celebration of cultural distinctions and shared experiences within New York City (where Alko first lived before becoming an American citizen herself, as mentioned in the author's note). Alko’s awe and delight about the complex city and country she chose to join is palpable in her colorful, lushly textured illustrations.

While there is no one “correct” narrative to follow — no consistent figure to locate with every page-turn, no distinctly linear passage of time — the letters that unfurl across the pages (each surrounded by words and images beginning with that letter) carry an expectation of continued movement. This natural progression is bolstered by Alko’s vibrant, energetic style, in which words and phrases in playful hand-lettered text float atop full-bleed collaged papers: from specific traditions, languages, foods, and places (Chinatown, Day of the Dead, falafel, Japanese garden, pierogies, Yiddish) to words that reflect the universality of human experience (ambition, belonging, memories, mothers, neighbors). Some spreads depict fully formed, three-dimensional scenes (as in “F,” where “food trucks” are parked near “flea markets” and “fields”), while others, as in “W,” feature more abstract representations (of words like welcome, wishes, workers, and writers). And even more spreads are filled with faces in shades ranging from palest pink to deep brown (including, questionably, several blue and bright yellow faces): immigrantsrights, voices. The overall effect of these layers of words and meanings is akin to a patchwork quilt passed down, mended, and reworked over time — comforting and familiar. Yet these words and meanings, like a beloved family heirloom, also require continued care, maintenance, and (sometimes) re-evaluation. In some ways, the book also functions as an archive of words and ideas captured at a particular moment in time. While I do wish it included a glossary with additional context (perhaps even pronunciation guides) to support further learning and discussion, it does not feel incomplete without one.

Although there is precedent for an alphabet book being selected by the Caldecott committee, there’s still something radical about a narrative-less picture book that essentially presents readers with a curated list of words relating to immigrant experiences and contributions to American culture. And, of course, it’s not just a list of words: it’s an expansive, well-executed visual interpretation that exceeds the sum of its parts while maintaining its appropriateness for a child audience. The specificity with which certain elements are depicted makes this a perfect fit for group read-alouds, in which young readers can share what they recognize, learn from what’s unfamiliar, and suggest their own additions to each letter spread. Each richly textured, full-bleed spread provides opportunities for readers to find what Rudine Sims Bishop calls “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” in their own, or another’s, lived experience. And the artistic medium and techniques employed to depict these concepts and themes elevate the text and succeed in constructing a cohesive reading experience that invites close observation.

All told, it’s a visual and intellectual feast — an exuberant acknowledgment that the United States is not a monolith and a declaration of appreciation for the many ways in which generations of immigrants from all over the world have shaped it. Just as the letters of the alphabet are the building blocks of language, the pages of this book model an expansive, fundamentally joyful approach to cultural diversity. As with a family scrapbook, readers will want to pore over it, ask questions, and share stories in response. And, just like a family scrapbook, this only reflects one of many perspectives. Considering the other gorgeous 2021 picture books that examine immigration through a narrower lens, I’m very curious how the committee might respond to this book’s broad-spectrum approach.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of I Is for Immigrants here.]

Sabrina Montenigro
Sabrina Montenigro

Sabrina Montenigro holds an MA in Children's Literature from Simmons University and reviews for Kirkus. Formerly a bookseller at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, she now works at Scholastic.

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