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.

Liesl’s Ocean Rescue

Liesl's Ocean 51Go9YPulaL__SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Liesl’s Ocean Rescue

Barbara Krasner, Author

Avi Katz, Illustrations

Gihon River Press, Nonfiction, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes: Liesl Joseph, Jewish children and families, Refugees, MS St. Louis, Seeking Asylum, Cuba, America

Opening: “What fun we had last night,” Josef Joseph, said. “It was the best birthday yet.” “You’re very old now, Father, “Liesl said. “You’re 56!” Mother placed breakfast plates in front of them.

Synopsis: Ten-year-old Liesl and her family were enjoying breakfast when two uniformed men wearing Nazi swastika armbands burst into their home and arrested her father. That 1938 night in Rheydt, Jewish businesses were destroyed and synagogues were burned. It was called the “Night of the Broken Glass.” Liesl’s father was eventually released from jail.  Her family along with 1,000 Jewish refugees, fled Germany in May 1939, aboard the MS St. Louis ocean liner, for temporary asylum in Havana, Cuba and later in America. But when they approached the island that looked like a paradise to Liesl, the ship wasn’t permitted to dock. They were stranded for weeks sailing back and forth between Cuba and the United States not knowing if they’d be sent back to Germany.

Why I like this book:

Barbara Krasner has written a compelling story based on the true experiences of Liesl Joseph, a courageous and endearing 10-year-old, who is heroic in her own way. Despite her own fear, she does her best to keep up the spirits of the children aboard the ship. She plays games and reassures them things will turn out okay. Her father, a lawyer, is busy negotiating arrangements with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Paris, for safe passage to other European countries.

I am drawn to Holocaust stories, especially those involving children. Liesl’s story is one I had a hard time understanding. Why would the United States deny these refugees a home away from the tyranny of Hitler? Since this is a story about a child’s experience, that question is not addressed. However the story delivers a powerful message for older children about remaining brave in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is an excellent addition to any school’s Holocaust collection. Although this is a picture book, I believe it would also serve well as a chapter book for older children. My only negative comment is that I felt the story ended abruptly.

Avi Katz’s black and white illustrations are expressive and capture emotions ranging from the fear during the German raids to the anxious moments of the refugees aboard the ship.

Resources: Make sure you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book to learn more about Liesl’s journey and fate. The author interviews Liesl Joseph Loeb at her home. Krasner also provides information on other resources to use with this story. There is a Teacher’s Guide at Gihon River Press.  Visit Krasner at her website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Drum Dream Girl

Drum Dream Girl9780544102293_p0_v4_s260x420Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music

Margarita Engle, Author

Rafael Lopez, Illustrator

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Mar. 31, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Drummers, Music, Cuba, Gender equality, Diversity

Opening: “On and island of music / in a city of drumbeats / the drum dream girl / dreamed…”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Girls cannot be drummers. Long ago on an island filled with music and rhythm, no one questioned that rule — until the drum dream girl. She longed to play tall congas and small bongos and silvery, moon-bright timbales. She had to keep her dream quiet. She had to practice in secret. But when at last her music was heard, everyone sang and danced and decided that boys and girls should be free to drum and dream.

Why I like this book: Margarita Engle’s Drum Dream Girl is an inspirational and beautiful work of free-verse historical fiction. As you read this melodic poem out loud, you are drawn to the rhythmic beat of the text about a girl who made a difference. Millo Castro Zaldarriaga is so infused by the music and sounds around her, she can’t help herself.  When she walked under / wind-wavy palm trees / in a flower-bright park / she heard the whir of parrot wings / the clack of woodpeckers breaks / the dancing tap / of her own footsteps / and the comforting pat / of her own / heartbeat. When her sisters hear her drumming, they invite her to join their dance band. Her father says only boys can play drums, but relents and takes her to a teacher.

I applaud Engle for focusing on Zaldarriaga’s young life instead of her career. It is important for children to see how a 10-year-old girl dares to make a difference in 1932 and paves the way for Cuban women to become drummers. There is a historical note about Zaldarriaga and her musical career at the end of the book. Rafael Lopez’s creates his own magic with his vibrant, colorful and dreamy illustrations. His artwork beautifully compliments the story.

Resources: Children love music as much as they enjoy making things.  Make a drum or other musical instruments to encourage creativity and play. Visit the Kinder Art site for steps to make a variety of easy homemade drums.

Author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books (PPB) Fridays will be on hiatus this summer. This will be the last PPB review until September, although you will still be able to visit the link. I will continue to review books throughout the summer.