Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Edwidge Danticat

Mama’s Nightingale tells a serious but hopeful story about Saya, who is separated from her mother. Stirring illustrations and a tender tale show the human side of immigration in this picture book by Edwidge Danticat, who herself grew up in a family that was separated for years by immigration. Danticat’s book is dedicated to those young people like her main character, Saya, who are dreaming of the day when their family will be reunited.

For Saya, the reason for her mother not being home is that she doesn’t have the right papers to stay in the United States and so she is being held in an immigration detention center. Every night, Saya’s father writes to the mayor and to other politicians, as well as to judges and to reporters about their situation. No one ever replies. Every time, Saya and her father visit the detention center, the question arises as to when her mother can come home. No one has any idea. After one particularly emotional visit, Saya’s mother begins to mail tapes with stories she reads or makes up for Saya to hear. In response, Saya writes her own story. Her story changes the family’s future.

On the serious side, through her honest storytelling, Danticat provides real faces to the debate over immigration. While Saya’s story is fictional, it is inspired by real events. The author herself and her brother were separated from their parents for most of their childhood due to not having the right papers. She is not alone in her experience. According to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed and deported. In Mama’s Nightingale, Danticat has painted a poignant portrait of the difficult situation in which immigrant families often find themselves and given them a voice.

On the hopeful side, Saya finds comfort in the bedtime stories her mother records on cassette tapes and sends her. Saya and her father even listen to them together. In addition, her father faithfully cares for her, offers her advice, and tucks her in at night. Although his sadness is readily apparent, he never allows it to hinder him from his important role as a parent to Saya. When Saya responds to her mother with her own story, she also discovers the power of words. Readers will appreciate reading of how Saya’s story results in her mother being released. Finally, artist Leslie Staub tempers the upsetting circumstances with bright of colors and whimsical objects from the stories Saya’s mother tells.

Mama’s Nightingale is a powerful story. Young people in a similar situation will take comfort in Saya’s story. For those young people not impacted by immigration, Mama’s Nightingale makes a great discussion starting point. So many questions can be addressed such as: What are the right papers? Why doesn’t Saya’s mom have them? How can the proper papers be obtained? Why do immigrants need papers in the first place? Mama’s Nightingale is a tale that will make a difference in everyone who reads it.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

When Saya’s mother is sent to an immigration detention center, Saya finds comfort in listening to her mother’s warm greeting on their answering machine. To ease the distance between them, Mama begins sending Saya bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore on cassette tape.

The above description comes from the inside jacket flap of Mama’s Nightingale, subtitled a Story of Immigration and Separation. This multicultural story is written by Edwidge Danicat, whose books have been selected for Oprah’s Book Club, as well as twice been nominated for the National Book Award. The picture book is illustrated by Leslie Straub, a children’s author and illustrator from Louisiana. Tomorrow I’ll review Mama’s Nightingale. Save the date: December 2!


Author Edwidge Danticat draws on her own background to bring authenticity to Mama’s Nightingale, having herself grown up in a family that was separated, in part, by immigration. Born in Haiti, when she was two years old, her father André to New York, to be followed two years later by her mother. This left Danticat and her younger brother to be raised by her aunt and uncle back in Haiti.

Eventually, at the age of 12, Danticat moved to New York to join her parents in a heavily Haitian American neighborhood. As an immigrant teenager, Danticat’s disorientation in her new surroundings was a source of discomfort for her, and she turned to literature for solace. Only two years later, she published her first writing in English for a citywide magazine written by teenagers, followed shortly thereafter by a second story about her immigration experience. In the introduction to the anthology of stories from the magazine, Danticat wrote, “When I was done with the [immigration] piece, I felt that my story was unfinished, so I wrote a short story, which later became a book, my first novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory…Writing for New Youth Connections had given me a voice. My silence was destroyed.”

Initially, Danticat had intended on studying to become a nurse, but her love of writing won out and she received first a Bachelor of Arts in French literature and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Since completing her MFA, Danticat has taught creative writing at the university level, as well as worked with filmmakers on projects about Haiti. Her short stories have appeared in over 25 periodicals and have been anthologized several times. Her work has been translated into numerous other languages. She is a strong advocate for issues affecting Haitians abroad and at home.

For further info, check out Edwidge Danticat and the Author’s Note in Mama’s Nightingale.


Set in United States, Mama’s Nightingale is narrated from the perspective of young Saya, whose mother has spent three months at a correctional center for women without papers. Saya’s father and her visit the correctional center every week, where her mother shares news with her father and tells stories to Saya. Her father writes letters to judges, as well as to the mayor and to other politicians, and to reporters. No one acknowledges his letters. One day her mother starts to send taped tales to Saya, which inspires Saya to write her own stories to exchange with her mother. The title of Mama’s Nightingale comes from a story that Saya’s mother made up for her about a mommy nightingale who goes on a long journey and looks for a rainbow trail in the sky so she can return home to her baby.


At The Atlantic, readers can find author Edwidge Danticat’s own story of immigration and separation, which served as inspiration for Mama’s Nightingale. In the early 1970s, her parents sold everything they owned to purchase passports. They fled the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and its chaotic rule to find a better life in New York City. Danticat was meant to follow shortly with her infant brother, but things didn’t work out that way: “Because of United States immigration red tape, our family separation lasted eight years.” Danticat was 12 when she finally traveled to the States in reunite with her parents.

Danticat tells The Atlantic that her parents didn’t know much about the United States except that there were opportunities there. “That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”

To read more about how her parents adjusted to the surprises of American life, as well as how Dantica herself adapted, check out The Atlantic. Danticat also explains her decision to become an artist, despite her parents feeling threatened by this ambition. “When you’ve given so much, when you’ve sacrificed everything to make this huge transition, you want to see your child have an easier life as a result. You want to spare them the anguish of worrying always about survival….” In addition, Danticat talks about the indecision that immigrants continue to feel over whether they made the right choice.


In educating myself about the background to Mama’s Nightingale, I looked up immigration statistics at Migration Policy. The numbers broke down like this:

  • In 2013, 17.4 million children under age 18 lived at home with at least one immigrant parent. They accounted for 25 percent of the 69.9 million children under age 18 in the United States.
  • Second-generation children under age 18—those who were born in the United States to at least one foreign-born parent—accounted for 88 percent (15.3 million) of all children with immigrant parents.
  • The remaining 12 percent (2.1 million) were children living in the United States in 2013 who were born outside the United States to foreign-born parents.
  • The overall number of people waiting for a green card—within and outside of the United States—is at least 4.4 million.

Sunday Book Review describes several children’s picture books that deal with the issue of immigration. Those titles include My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald, which I have reviewed earlier at Allison’s Book Bag, and Anne Sibley O’Brien’s I’m New Here and Michael Foreman’s The Seeds of Friendship.

Two child-friendly sites about immigration are:

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