Refugee by Alan Gratz

There are times when books and history or social studies lessons go hand in hand. Refugee is one such book. This should be on required reading lists for middle graders, and adults might learn a thing or two from it as well.

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I first heard of Refugee as it was coming out last summer and pre-ordered a copy (side note – it really helps authors when you pre-order their books for a wide variety of reasons). We became big Alan Gratz fans with The League of Seven series and have enjoyed his works. More recently, I heard an interview with Alan Gratz on the Kit Lit Drink Night Podcast. In it, Gratz talked about how he had originally planned to write a book about the Holocaust but wound up writing about refugee situations in 3 distinct time periods. I finally managed to read the book and all I can say is wow. Just wow.

If you haven’t already heard about the book, here is the basic rundown from the jacket:

Three different kids. One mission in common: ESCAPE.

Josef is a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe…

All three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers–from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.

This book expertly weaves the stories of three kids (kids!) who are fleeing their homelands for various reasons. That is an amazingly difficult concept to understand. Yet, readers of Refugee get a personal and realistic idea of what each of them dealt with in their homelands and on their journeys. The stories of Isabel and Mahmoud are profound because people don’t consider them as often, yet Isabel’s story is woven into the American fabric and Mahmoud’s story is unfortunately still going on. The idea of refugees is hard to grasp. The story of why they need to flee, the struggles they face along the way, and their sheer determination to survive and live their lives free of persecution is something that we need to understand as humans.

“If no one saw them, no one could help them. And maybe the world needed to see what was really happening here.”

With books like this, we know going in that somehow the stories are going to intersect. That glimmer begins around 200 pages. They don’t intersect randomly. They intersect to show that if you want things to get better, you have to stand up for change. People will continue to live with blinders on if you let them because it is easier that way. You can wait for the world to change and be dismayed when it never does, or you can stand up and be the change. Without spoiling it, I will say that the intersection at the very end is what got me the most.

So the Jewish perspective…I have done the Holocaust story. A lot. Yet I still feel strongly that this is a book that all Jewish children 5th grade and up should read. Perhaps because it tells the story from such a different perspective. Refugee touches on the concentration camps, especially through Josef’s father, but even more, it tells the reality of life outside of the camps. It quickly touches on Kristallnacht and the reality that the Germans wanted the Jews to leave, but also wanted them to be denied elsewhere. At the same time, it shows a people who stand up for their traditions. Who still feel the power of “becoming a man” at their Bar Mitzvah. Josef tells the story of the MS St. Louis that set sail from Nazi Germany in 1939 with 937 passengers, almost all of them Jewish refugees. The ship went to Cuba, where they expected to be let in, yet were denied entry. They were then denied entry into the United States. Some were admitted into the United Kingdom. Some had to go back to continental Europe where they wound up back in the world of the Nazis.

“All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: It didn’t. Because I didn’t change it.”

Please, please, please read this book. Assign it to classes. Talk to your own children about this book and the importance of simple kindnesses, about standing up for yourself and what you believe in, and about being willing to be heard.

Middle Grade Monday


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