First Generation

36 Trailblazing Immigrants and Refugees Who Make America Great


By Sandra Neil Wallace

By Rich Wallace

Illustrated by Agata Nowicka

Formats and Prices




$13.99 CAD



  1. ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD
  2. Hardcover $18.99 $23.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Celebrate the genius, diversity, and grit of immigrants and refugees in this boldly illustrated guide to 36 American trailblazers.

The men and women in this book represent nations from Somalia to Germany, from Syria to China, from Mexico to Sweden, and more. They are people like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, international singing sensation Celia Cruz, star basketball player Dikembe Mutombo, world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein, and influential journalist Jorge Ramos. And they are all immigrants or refugees to the United States of America. Their courage, their achievements, and their determination to change the world have helped make our country a stronger place. Perhaps after reading their stories, you will be inspired to make the world a better place, too.



first gen·er·a·tion

1. The first members of a family to immigrate to a new country*

2. Children who are born in that new country to immigrant parents

*The people featured in this book all fit the first definition.


The United States is a nation of diversity, from Native American peoples to immigrants and refugees. Maybe you can trace your family back to the first colonists who came over from Europe, or to immigrants who arrived during the late 1800s. But immigrants and refugees didn’t just come to this country hundreds of years ago. There are millions of new Americans making this country thrive right now.

You search the Internet thanks to an American inventor from Moscow, drink soda from an American megacompany led by a woman born in India, and listen to rock ’n’ roll music performed by a guitarist who grew up in Mexico. If you’ve ever hiked in a national park, it’s because of a Scottish-born naturalist with a passion to save the outdoors. So why don’t people know about these inspirational new Americans? Whatever the reason, we felt it was time you did.

The thirty-six immigrants and refugees featured in this book have shaped our country in countless ways, from the development of electricity to the yogurt you might have eaten for breakfast. They represent many races, ethnicities, and religions. They are men and women from tiny villages in Africa and crowded cities in Europe and Asia. They were born in countries ranging from Somalia to Germany, Syria to China. They are artists, chefs, activists, athletes, and scientists. Most of them faced discrimination while they created meaningful, impactful lives in the United States. But they never gave up, because they believed in themselves and in the best of America.

These first-generation heroes were brave, whether coming to a new country by choice or fleeing here to save their lives. They embody American ideals by working hard, creating change, influencing others, and helping to guide the world. Albert Einstein and Maryam Mirzakhani, for instance, changed how people view science and mathematics. Dikembe Mutombo showed that athletes can lead in areas well beyond a playing field or court. Rose Winslow and Razia Jan saw wrongs and made them right, inspiring others to follow.

Whether you’re first generation, tenth generation, or indigenous to this country, we hope the heroes in this book inspire you to blaze a trail yourself, and that they remind all Americans that our country’s greatest strengths are its inclusiveness and diversity.

—Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace



Halima Aden was born in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya in 1997 after her parents fled war-torn Somalia. Today, the overcrowded camp houses more than 180,000 refugees living in tin-roofed huts. Halima grew up there with kids from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia. “It wasn’t a matter of, ‘Oh, we’re in a refugee camp, my life sucks,’” she said. “It was ‘Okay. We’re in this predicament,’ but you know, ‘How do we go from here? What do we do?’” Halima and the other kids played together and learned Swahili to communicate. “As children, we were oblivious to race and religion,” Halima recalled. When her family resettled in the United States, six-year-old Halima was surprised to see kids playing in separate groups instead of all together in her new city of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

As a Muslim, Halima chose to express her faith by wearing a hijab (headscarf) to cover her hair. At first, this was because she wanted to be just like her mother. “Every little girl looks up to her mom so much—that’s your first hero,” Halima explained. But she also felt best when she was dressed modestly. “It’s how I interpret my religion,” she said, even though some kids at school stared and bullied Halima and her hijabi friends. “It was a tough time—everyone wanted to be mean.”

Flipping through magazines in her family home, Halima didn’t find anyone who looked like her. So, after graduating from high school, she decided to enter the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. “Not seeing women that look like you in media in general and especially in beauty competitions sends the message that you’re not beautiful or you have to change the way you look to be considered beautiful,” Halima stressed. “And that’s not true.”

Halima was the first contestant to wear a hijab. She didn’t win, but some of the world’s top designers invited her to walk their runways during fashion weeks in New York City and Milan. She wore beautiful headscarves and flowing, loose-fitting dresses and pants. “When I’m walking the runway I want people to see that, yes, I’m wearing a hijab—but I’m also a million other things. I want us to get to a place where we just see women.”

Halima Aden hadn’t planned to be the first hijab-wearing model on the cover of an American beauty magazine. But that’s what happened in 2017, and all because the Somali American woman refused to be anything but herself. “I think it’s important to be diverse and I hope we continue to see that as a trend in the fashion industry.”



Madeleine Korbel Albright spent her childhood being brave. At the start of World War II in 1939, Nazis invaded her home country of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), and Madeleine and her family had to leave—fast. Her father worked as a diplomat representing their country around the world, so his life was in danger. They escaped to England, where Madeleine dodged bombs that destroyed buildings so close to her bedroom she could hear windows shattering. But she also saw people helping one another and sharing what little food they had. Those experiences stayed with Madeleine when she and her family came to the United States as refugees.

As a teenager in Denver, Madeleine didn’t like being new in school or feeling different because of her accent. “I always felt I was a foreigner,” she said. Her parents didn’t have money for a car or a TV, so they invited people over to talk about the world’s problems. Since Madeleine spoke four languages and loved learning about politics, the visitors valued her opinions. She began to see her background as her greatest strength.

Madeleine earned a scholarship to Wellesley College and studied political science. It was the first time she felt like she belonged, since everyone in her class was passionate about politics. She learned why countries went to war and how they made peace. “Being raised in a free America made all the difference,” Madeleine said. That freedom made her question why more women weren’t world leaders. She knew that societies thrive when women and men have equal opportunities.

Politicians were so impressed by Madeleine’s views that she started working for the US government. As an ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine worked to end the war and build peace in the Balkans, a region near her birth country. In 1996, President Bill Clinton chose Madeleine to be the US secretary of state, the most important international job in the country. Everyone in Congress agreed. It was the first time in American history that a woman held this office.

Madeleine loved the job, but she didn’t like that critics talked about her clothes. They never did that with male diplomats. She made a statement by wearing a pin shaped from broken glass. It reminded people how she had broken through the glass ceiling of politics—a symbolic obstacle that kept women from being world leaders.

By breaking down barriers and embracing her heritage, Madeleine was able to create change in conflict countries. She saw beyond borders to the humanity in everyone, a quality that she says is very American. “We are a country,” she explained, “that has been created and populated by people from other countries.”

While she was in office, Madeleine found out that she is Jewish and that some of her relatives had been killed in concentration camps during World War II. Today, she is as proud of her Jewish heritage as she is of being America’s first female secretary of state.

During World War II, Madeleine’s parents secured fake passports to travel to England.



Diana Al-Hadid works big. Some of her sculptures fill entire rooms. Her studio includes a welding station, huge power drills, and assorted hammers and saws. Sometimes she wears a protective hazmat suit when she’s carving. Working with heavy-duty materials such as steel, wood, fiberglass, and plaster, Diana creates sculptures that look like ruined cities, crumbling towers, and mythological worlds. “I climb over my sculptures…. They’re very physical,” she said, describing how she works. “I’ll break things and then fix things, and sometimes I’m… literally inside the piece.”

Diana’s family left Aleppo, Syria, in 1986, when she was five years old. She spoke only Arabic when the Al-Hadids arrived in Ohio, and she quickly had to learn English. “I remember rehearsing saying ‘I’m not from here, I’m from Syria,’ but people didn’t realize where Syria was.” Though she fit in pretty well in her new neighborhood, Diana said her parents maintained strict traditions at home. “I wasn’t allowed to go to prom,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend!” But she was free to pursue her love of art, and by the time she turned eleven, she was determined to be an artist.

Diana admired the Old Masters of Europe—painters like Goya, Botticelli, and Rembrandt—and she studied drawing and photography before turning to sculpture.

Sometimes her work draws on her Arab and Islamic background, but some critics have said she should do more to embrace those roots. “I am a Syrian artist, but that’s not the full story,” Diana said in reply. She is very concerned about the conflicts in war-torn Syria, where cities have been destroyed and thousands of people have been killed or have escaped as refugees. She also knows that opportunities for women in the arts and other professions were very limited in Syria even before the war. Living in the United States gave her the opportunity to create.

“Everything I do now is a product of my ancestry,” Diana said. “I think that’s a political enough statement: that I’m an Arab woman making sculptures. I wouldn’t be making sculptures if I was living in Syria.”

Diana’s studio in Brooklyn, New York, used to be a silk flower factory.

Diana once put paint on the soles of her feet and danced to make a blueprint for a sculpture with her footsteps.



It started in a college dorm room and developed into one of the world’s most powerful businesses. But long before Google founder Sergey Brin launched his company, he had a lot to overcome.

“I never felt like a part of the majority,” Sergey said. He’d been a child in the Soviet Union, where Jewish people were banned from many things. His father had wanted to be an astronomer but wasn’t allowed to attend graduate school because of his religion. He sneaked into classes and wrote a doctoral thesis anyway, and was eventually offered a teaching job at the University of Maryland, where he fled with his family in 1979.

In Maryland, six-year-old Sergey was teased by his classmates because of his heavy accent. But he was already used to being an outsider, and the private school he attended allowed him to explore his own interests. Working with puzzles, maps, and math games sparked his creativity. “I could grow at my own pace,” he said.


  • A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018

    A Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2018

    A Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Selection 2019
  • "A book all children should read or have read to them."—The New York Times
  • * "A deeply patriotic look at how immigrants' application of the American ideals of hard work and perseverance can have lasting effects."
    Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • "Engaging... A fascinating and robust collection. Readers will be eager to explore the various subjects and their accomplishments across all fields."
    School Library Journal
  • "This book is a treasure to show children the value of diverse cultures, and that those who come to America, help make America a wonderful, colorful, and brilliant country."—
  • "The authors and artist have skillfully presented the stories and challenges of 36 immigrants and refugees who have all made enormous contributions to our nation."—The San Jose Mercury News

On Sale
Sep 4, 2018
Page Count
96 pages

Sandra Neil Wallace

About the Author

Investigative journalists Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace are award-winning novelists and nonfiction authors of books like Blood Brother: Jonathan Daniels and His Sacrifice for Civil Rights and Bound by Ice: A True North Pole Survival Story. Sandra is a former news anchor and ESPN sportscaster. The daughter of a refugee, she became a US citizen in 2016. Rich was a longtime senior editor at Highlights magazine. Both Sandra and Rich are members of the advisory council for the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College and are founding members of the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership. They live in New Hampshire.

Agata Nowicka is an illustrator and a comics artist. She spent her childhood drawing on everything with everything, including her mother’s red lipstick on the staircase walls. She became an illustrator because she never wanted to stop drawing. Agata immigrated to the United States from Warsaw, Poland and now lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author