Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee

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.

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

       World Refugee Day, June 20, 2017

The Only Road

Alexandra Diaz, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Book, Fiction, Oct. 4, 2016

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Child Refugees, Immigration, Guatemala, Courage, Hope, Freedom, Multicultural

Awards: Pura Belpre Honor Book and ALA Notable Book

Book Synopsis: Jaime is sitting on his bed drawing when he hears a scream. Instantly he knows Miguel, his cousin and best friend is dead.

Everyone in Jaime’s small town in Guatemala knows someone who has been killed by the Alphas, a  powerful gang that’s known for violence and drug trafficking. Anyone who refuses to work for them is hurt or killed — like Miguel. With Miguel gone, Jaime fears that he is next. There’s only one choice. Accompanied by his cousin Ángela, Jaime must flee his home to live with his older brother, Tomas, in the United States.

Inspired by true incidents, The Only Road tells an individual story of a boy who feels that leaving his home and risking everything is his only chance for a better Life. It is a story of fear and bravery, love and loss, strangers becoming family, and one boy’s treacherous and life-changing journey.

Why I like this book:

Alexandra Diaz’s novel is powerful and timely. It is about two cousins fleeing from dangerous drug  trafficking gangs in Guatemala and making the treacherous journey north to the United States. There are no guarantees that they will survive. Their story is heartbreaking, but it underscores the problem of why many Central American children illegally immigrate to America.

The richly textured Latino text is peppered with Spanish words and expressions, which contribute to the reader’s experience. At the end of book, there is a glossary of words and expressions used throughout the story.

The story is distinctly character-driven. Jaime’s third person narrative will move readers. Twelve-year-old Jaime is driven by his grief over the death of his cousin. Jaime is brave and compassionate. He’s also a talented artist and sketches his journey. Fifteen-year-old Ángela is  a mother figure for Jaime and to other younger children they meet along their trip. She’s smart, cautious and reminds Jaime they can’t trust anyone. She’s particularly adept at changing her Guatemalan accent to a Mexican accent so she can fool immigration officers (la migra) and town locals. When they need more money for safe passage across the border, Jaime draws portraits and Ángela alters clothing for women.

The plot is multilayered, gripping and complicated. The trip is long and hazardous, which Diaz handles with care. Jaime and Ángela dodge brutal gangs, bandits, and immigration officers. Food and water is scarce. They are herded into a freight car heading north and nearly suffocate from the heat. They rest at safe houses and make friends with other teens who teach them survival techniques. They learn how to hop freight trains (la bestia) and ride on top the cars as they travel north through Mexico to the border of New Mexico. Their final challenge will be to find the right smuggler (coyote) who will help them safely cross the Rio Grande.

Immigration is a hot topic today. The UN reports there are 10 million refugees world-wide. This is an important book for middle school libraries to help students gain a better understanding of refugees, immigration and the reasons they risk their lives to find freedom.

Alexandra Diaz is the author of When We Were, which was an ALA Rainbow List book and a New Mexico Book Award finalist. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban immigrants and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Make sure you read her Author’s Note at the end of the book that will give you further insight into immigration. Visit Diaz at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on author Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.