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In the New World: A Family in Two Centuries

In the New World: A Family in Two Centuries
Written by Christa Holtei; Illustrated by Gerda Raidt
Published by Charlesbridge, 2015
ISBN # 978-1-58089-630-6

Grades K and up

Book Review

Immigration stories have been told before in picture books, so when the invitation to “take a closer look at an immigrant family’s journey” (p. 7) is extended in the first pages of this book, one might wonder what is different or new about this one. The answer is: a lot. In In the New World: A Family in Two Centuries, the author and illustrator team of Holtei and Raidt chronicle the developments of the fictional Peters family as they emigrate from Germany to America in 1869 and endeavor to build a homestead in the Midwest. Then they spring forward 150 years to tell about the Peterses’ contemporary descendants who seek to return to Germany to explore their ancestral home. It’s a tale of looking forward and looking back, emphasizing both the trials of building a life and home in a new place and the charge of learning from and experiencing a bit from the past in a place that seems just as unfamiliar. Holtei’s text is straightforward and compelling, providing enough intriguing facts and details to make the Peterses’ story an engrossing blend of fiction and nonfiction. We learn, for example, about what the Peters family feared and hoped alongside what they packed for the journey, how they built their home, what they ate. Raidt’s pencil and watercolor illustrations render an upbeat outlook on the family’s journeys without trivializing the challenges involved. In the New World is a vibrant addition to any picture book collection for immigration units of study, inspiring much to talk about and explore.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Family Immigration Stories. Ask students to locate an immigration story within their families, whether it be their own or an extended relative’s. They might also need to go back a few generations to find someone who knows the story of an ancestor’s immigration. As a class, have students list the questions they would want to know about those immigration stories. Use those questions to create general questions that your students could ask to learn as many details about the story as possible. If family members aren’t available to ask, perhaps family friends or neighbors are. Students may want to record those interviews on smartphones or iPads. Have each student write a narrative based on the interview, and use either photographs or their own original creations as illustrations. A fun visual extension activity would be to mark where each immigration story originated on a large class map. You might also want to integrate these activities with NPR StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen Project, which asks students to record an interview with a grandparent or elder to contribute to a large-scale oral history project.

Multiple Ethnicities, Multiple Families, Multiple Stories. As made clear via Raidt’s illustrations, the modern-day Peters family is a multi-ethnic one. Learning about their German ancestors provides them with only part of their family’s stories. Offer students the option to explore the individual parts of their family’s stories, not just the most recent or most prominent. For example, a student might investigate her great-grandmother’s Hawaiian heritage along with her stepfather’s Icelandic roots. Another student might explore the two different regions of Brazil where his parents were born. Use and adapt some of the activities described in the previous teaching invitation on family immigration stories to support students’ investigations.

Extracting a Day in the Life – Historical Fiction and Contemporary Realistic Fiction. The combined specificity of detail provided in Holtei’s text and Raidt’s illustrations is a nice balance of offering just enough information and leaving just enough to the imagination for readers. To extend students’ skills at writing historical fiction, have them select a part of the Peterses’ immigration experience and narrate the events of that day. To extend their contemporary realistic fiction writing skills, have them select a part of the modern-day Peters family’s visit to Germany and narrate the events of that day. Make sure what students write stays true to the facts provided in the book, but encourage them to also creatively speculate and incorporate facts from other resources and reference materials about the immigration experience.

Immigration via Other Points of Entry. Most people may associate Ellis Island and Angel Island as the key stations for immigration into America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the Peterses entered the country via New Orleans, a city not often known for its role in the immigration movement during that time. Have students research more about New Orleans and other lesser recognized places as a port of entry for immigrants to America, such as Boston, San Francisco, Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Savannah. Why would people arrive there instead of Ellis Island or Angel Island? How did people arrive there? What were the immigration processing stations like? How were they similar and different to Ellis Island and Angel Island, and why? You might want to begin this research with local newspaper articles that recount its corresponding city’s immigration station history, such as this article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Visual Literacy and Storytelling. The full double-page illustrations on pp. 14-15 and pp. 32-33 depict the historical and modern-day Peters families traveling by boat to their destinations. Have students closely read these illustrations, noting what is similar and different about them. In particular, what do they notice about how these illustrations tell part of the families’ stories? What do students notice about the passengers and the spectators? What do they notice about the buildings, the boat, and the loading equipment? How do the details of the illustrations enhance the story of the Peters families?

Exploring the End Pages.
The first pair of In the New World’s end pages shows a map of the Peters family’s journey from Germany to the U.S., while the end pages at the back of the book show the Peters family’s journey from the U.S. to Germany. Notice the other details included in the maps. Have students identify them and determine why they are included. What do these details add to or emphasize in the story? What commentary do these details provide about the overall knowledge about the reasons for and effects of immigration? An extension activity might be to have students identify towns and cities across the U.S. that are named after places in other countries and create maps that showcase those places.

Critical Literacy

Historical Representations of Diverse People. Holtei and Raidt do not ignore the fact that the Peterses saw, met, and interacted with diverse populations, such as African Americans and Native Americans, throughout their immigration experience. Have students identify these moments, either in text or illustration, and consider how different groups are depicted. If the groups are described in text, from what perspective(s) are they viewed? If they appear in the illustrations, what understandings or assumptions can be derived from their actions, postures, or expressions? Have students compare and contrast the representations of different populations in other picture books about immigration. Are these representations historically accurate? Are there any instances when historical accuracy might be confused with a bias of perspective? Encourage students to consider how different authors and illustrators deal with facts, perspectives, and assumptions about the historical times they depict. You might want to refer to the website American Indians in Children’s Literature, for example, for books by and about American Indians and First Nations peoples to compare and contrast experiences about Westward Expansion with what is described in picture books about American immigration.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Gerda Raidt’s website (German)

Harvard University Library Open Collections: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930

Library of Congress: Immigration Resources for Teachers

New York Public Library Immigration Images

U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs: Immigration and U.S. History

NPR StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen Project

American Indians in Children’s Literature


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Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.


  1. I love this book! And it's so fascinating to me that this book was published first in Germany and is in translation.