Facing Fear: An Immigration Story

author: Karen Lynn Williams
Illustrator: Sara Palacios
publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (2021)
grades 2-4 (Mexican)

On the cover, Mamá and Papá embrace their daughter and son. The boy holds a soccer ball and smiles at the reader. In Tía’s Mexican kitchen, she sits at a table with Mamá and Papá. There is an altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe, a canary in a cage, and a bookshelf that divides the kitchen from the living room. It holds some books, Mexican art and a doll, a bread basket and some pots and pans. 

Palacio’s bright, naturalistic digital art, depicting a loving Mexican extended family, is beautiful and heartwarming. Her dead-on cultural details, which many artists might easily mess up, include the family’s Mexican haircuts and Papá’s goatee. 

However, Williams’ story is disingenuous, including its predictably happy ending.

Ten-year-old Enrique, born in the United States and therefore a US citizen, has a chance to play in his team’s big soccer tournament “across the checkpoint”—in Mexico—but it’s too risky for his undocumented family members, who could be deported. When his papá refuses to sign his son’s school’s permission form, Enrique is enraged—and forges his papá’s signature. 

Reality check 1: No kid in a family of mixed immigration status would consider crossing the US-Mexican border to play in a tournament. He would know how dangerous that would be, and he’d make an excuse to be “absent.” He might be on a soccer team, but he’d never think of crossing the border with his team. And it wouldn’t even occur to him to take a permission slip home for his parents to sign—much less forge a parent’s signature.

In a sudden sequence-switch, Enrique’s older sister, Rosa, grabs him, and together the family hurries to Tía’s house to spend the night because of “la migra.” There’s a rumor of a “roundup”: “Tomás was stopped for a broken taillight,” Papá says. “With no documents, look what happened.” Apparently, “what happened” is that Tomás was jailed and deported.

At Tía’s house, Papá tells Enrique the story of how the family got to the US. It was a dangerous journey with another family via coyote and van. During a raid, a crying baby “took la migra off (their) trail.” Everyone escaped and navigated north through the desert. After crossing the border, pregnant mom had her baby, so Enrique is a US citizen.

Reality check 2: “La migra” (ICE agents) work in the US, not Mexico. 

Reality check 3: By the age of ten, Enrique would not only know this story, but have it memorized because his safety depends on knowing that he’s a US citizen.

The following week, teammates attempt to convince Enrique to play in the tournament: “You’re a citizen—you don’t have to worry about the checkpoint…. It’s just your dad. He’s scared.” Enrique is angered because “in his heart he knew the real truth.” 

“My dad has courage!” he shouts at his teammates. “He and my mom walked across the desert with hardly any water, and men chasing them. They did it for me and Rosa. They protected us.” 

Reality check 4: Any family who crosses the border illegally—with or without the aid of a coyote —knows how dangerous it is. And children in mixed-status families do not argue with their parents or schoolmates about issues involving citizenship. They keep their heads down and their mouths shut.

All families everywhere who face danger from la migra or from the police have “the talk” when their children are young (e.g., how to walk, how to talk, how to interact at school), about the dangers in certain behaviors—way before the behaviors happen—to protect them. The family is at stake and the kids would know that. They learn to be careful so as not to endanger the family. 

[See The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love & Truth, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, Crown Books for Young Readers, 2020.]

This is not to say that immigrant kids don’t join school clubs for fear of being nabbed. They do join clubs. And they’re careful not to have conversations about their families.

The author has chosen not to look at this or any other mixed-status family or their structures. Apparently she has neither understanding of nor empathy for what these or other such families endure, how they fear for their children—and how they could be deported in a minute. Rather, the author has taken the main character out of his immigrant status by making him a “citizen”—which allegedly frees him from danger.


[For a real story about what it feels like to be an undocumented child, Alberto Ledesma’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life (Ohio State University / Mad Creek Books, 2017) is excellent.]

Williams probably attempted to write a story about how difficult it is to be an immigrant, but instead of doing appropriate research about immigrant families, she apparently chose to present her story as an empathetic pop. What is left is a story through the eyes of an immigrant Mexican child whose POV and behavior resemble those of a white child of privilege.

On Saturday, the day of the tournament, a despondent Enrique sits on his bed, wondering “what his father’s courage was worth if he couldn’t even go to a soccer tournament…. His friends were all at the big game. Maybe he didn’t even have any friends.”  

Wait, what? “What his father’s courage was worth if he couldn’t even go to a soccer tournament”? Here, the author (through the thoughts of a Mexican child whose family is undocumented) draws an equivalence between Enrique’s family’s surviving an incredibly harsh journey through the desert with the boy’s playing in a soccer tournament.

They hear a knock at the door. It’s the coach and Enrique’s soccer team. This multiethnic team has decided that if Enrique can’t go to the tournament, neither will they. 

“Papá looked at Enrique. ‘Tus amigos tienen valor, Enrique. You ask why we came here to this country. This is why we came to the U.S.’ ”

Enrique’s papá tells his son that Enrique’s American friends have courage because they’re willing to sacrifice the tournament for their friend. He adds, “You ask why we came here to this country. This is why we came to the U.S.,” he implies that the family has courage as well. 

Of course, Enrique’s parents were and are courageous—as are all immigrants who come here without papers and risk their lives in a strange place where they face deportation and worse so that their families can survive. 

Perhaps Enrique will eventually understand what his papá is trying to tell him. Maybe he won’t. Everything else about him signals that his behavior more resembles a self-centered American kid than a Mexican immigrant kid who understands the importance of what his parents have taught him. 

So what might be the author’s intended audience for Facing Fear: An Immigration Story? Not Mexican kids and their families. Or young children in mixed-status families. Or so-called “illegals.” Rather, her intended audience appears to consist of white kids and their parents and their teachers who seek some kind of “connection” with “the other”—as long as “the other” is just like them. 

And that “the other is just like them” has been accomplished. Here is a Mexican immigrant kid with no sense of survival; a Mexican immigrant kid who presents as a spoiled, self-centered white middle-class brat; a Mexican immigrant kid who is rewarded for his bad behavior while his Mexican immigrant father beams with pride. 

[According to her author’s note, Williams’s sources include “an FBI agent who worked along the border,” “a reporter who covered stories on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border,” “border patrol agents,” and “a school social worker who worked both in Mexico and the U.S.” What’s missing are immigrant people.]

Finally, the title. It’s confusing about who is “facing fear,” what the fear is, and how it’s being faced.

Facing Fear is an immigration story about a mixed-status Mexican family, conceived and written through a white-privilege lens. Sara Palacios’ gorgeous art and the eye-catching book design are not enough to save it. Not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

(published 5/5/21; revised 5/8/21)

Míl gracias a mi amiga y colega, Judy Zalazar Drummond.


  1. So, another one of our stories told from a white perspective.

  2. Sometimes it does me quite a bit of good to read reviews as thoroughly thought through and carefully considered as this one. You make good, strong, salient points that sailed right over my head when I first came to this book. Now I can look at it with a properly critical eye. Thank you VERY much for this perspective. It is invaluable.

  3. Thank you so much for this review, Beverly! Your insight and honesty are a gift to all of us.

  4. Yes! This! Thank you for a thoughtful, insightful,and truthful review of this book.


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