Alan Gratz, Author
Scholastic Press, Historical Fiction, Jul. 25, 2017
Suitable for Ages: 9-12
Themes: Child Refugees, Immigrants, Germany, Cuba, Syria, Courage, Bravery
Synopsis: Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board the MS St. Louis, a ship bound from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers. Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994, with riots and unrest plaguing her country. She and her family set out on a home-made metal boat, hoping to find safety in America. Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by war, violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek through Europe to find “home.”
All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers — from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.
Why I LOVE this book:
Alan Gratz had me sitting on the edge of my seat swiftly turning the pages of his powerful and heart-breaking story about three young refugees seeking safety from dangerous and life-threatening conditions in their countries. No matter what their country or culture, these three heroes share a desire for safety and a place they can call home. This is a difficult novel told with brutal honesty and sensitivity.
His storytelling is masterful as Gratz tackles past and current refugee stories and skillfully weaves them together to show their relevancy today. Each character’s story is told sequentially in alternating chapters. Gratz keeps readers turning pages because of powerful cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter. Readers won’t want to miss a moment of the story.
The characters are brave, courageous and resilient 11- and 12-year-olds, who are forced to grow up quickly and make life and death decisions that help their families survive. Josef becomes the man of the family when his father returns from a concentration camp emotionally damaged. Isabel sacrifices her beloved trumpet to purchase the gas needed to power their boat from Cuba to Florida, and she saves the boat captain when he falls out of the boat. When the raft Mahmoud and his family are riding in crashes into a rock and sinks, he makes the painful decision to save his infant sister by handing her to a woman in passing raft. He knows he may never see her again. Courage!
Refugee is well-documented. Even though the three main characters are fictional, their tales are based on true stories. The MS St. Louis was a real ship not allowed to dock in Cuba. The captain, the crew and many passengers mentioned were real. With food shortages in Cuba in 1994, Cuban president Fidel Castro did allow unhappy and starving to leave Cuba for five weeks without being thrown into jail. Many lost their lives at sea, while others call America their home. After six years of war, Syrians continue to flee their decimated country and their chapter in history is still being written on the world stage.
Refugee comes to a resounding conclusion, with the fates of the three protagonists revealed. It’s emotional and there are some unexpected reveals. This timely book can’t help but stir empathy among young readers and help them grasp their role as global citizens. Some readers may see their own family stories among the pages. Verdict: Refugee is a winner that should be required reading in school.
Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book that gives detailed information about the research for each character. There is also information about What You Can Do and maps that chart the routes of each child’s journey.
Alan Gratz is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including Refugee, Projekt 1065, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, and The Brooklyn Nine. Visit Gratz at his website.
Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.