My Grandfather’s War by Glyn Harper

My Grandfather’s War

Glyn Harper, Author

Jenny Cooper, Illustrator

EK Books, Fiction, Jun. 12, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes: Intergenerational relationships, Grandfathers, Vietnam War, Memories, PTSD

Opening: “This is my Grandfather. He came to live with us just after I was born. I call him ‘Grandpa’ but his real name is Robert.”

Synopsis:

Sarah loves spending time with her grandfather, but she knows that there are times when he is sad and keeps to himself. She senses his pain. Curious to find out the cause of her grandfather’s unhappiness, the child innocently asks him questions and unknowingly opens old wounds. Her grandfather is very open with Sarah and tells her about going to war in Vietnam. He tells her that his leg was hurt and that’s why he walks with a limp. But he also shares with her that some of his friends were hurt even more and some even died in Vietnam. He talks about the heat, the jungle and the chemicals that made many sick. He explains that the Vietnamese people didn’t want the soldiers there. When they came home from war no one thanked them for their service. Sarah discovers her grandfather’s sadness is a legacy of the Vietnam War and his experiences there.

Why I like this story:

Glyn Harper, a Professor of War studies, has written My Grandfather’s War to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s longest battle, Khe Sanh.  It is a compelling story that sensitively tackles difficult topics about painful memories, PTSD, the legacy of war and the treatment of returning Vietnamese Veterans. It is a story brimming with heart. Harper’s goal is to get children “hooked on history.”

     Courtesy of the publisher.

Jenny Cooper’s illustrations are realistic and expressive. Yet her warm and soft palette of colors is soothing for children.  As Sarah’s grandfather talks about his time in Vietnam, Cooper shows Grandfather’s war memories of the jungle, battle, the reaction of the Vietnamese people to the soldiers presence, and the protests by Americans on opposite pages. The illustrations aren’t frightening and will encourage kids to ask questions about this “unpopular” war.

     Courtesy of the publisher.

There are no books for children about the Vietnam war, as Sarah discovers when she looks in her school library. This is the first book that I’ve seen that delicately explains the war in an age-appropriate manner for children. I am very excited to share this book because my brother, my cousin and many friends spent time in Vietnam, while I was in college dodging protests and the National Guard presence on campus. It was a confusing time for everyone. That’s why this book is an important addition to any school library.

Resources: There is a history of the Vietnam War at the end of the book. This is an opportunity to teach children about the complexities of war, and how it impacts and shapes people’s lives. You see it in the expressions of the grandfather and the people of Vietnam. There is also a Teachers Guide that can be downloaded from EK Books.

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 website.

*Copy provided by the publisher.

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Mary Beth Leatherdale, Author

Eleanor Shakespeare, Illustrator

Annick Press, Nonfiction, Apr. 11, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-12

Pages: 64

Themes: Boat refugees, Children refugees, Seeking asylum, Persecution, War, Natural Disasters, Courage

Publisher Synopsis:

The plight of refugees risking their lives at sea has, unfortunately, made the headlines all too often in the past few years. This book presents five true stories, from 1939 to today, about young people who lived through the harrowing experience of setting sail in search of asylum: Ruth (18) and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu (14) sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José (13) tries to reach the United States from Cuba; Najeeba (11) flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; and after losing his family, Mohamed (13) abandons his village on the Ivory Coast in search of a new life. But life is not easy once they arrive. It’s hard to fit in when you don’t speak the language. These child refugees face prejudice. Yet the five make it and lead successful lives.https://gpattridge.com

Stormy Seas combines a vivid and contemporary collage-based design with dramatic storytelling to produce a book that makes for riveting reading as well as a source of timely information. These remarkable accounts will give readers a keen appreciation of the devastating effects of war and poverty on youth like themselves, and helps put the mounting current refugee crisis into stark context.

What I like about this book:

This is a timely and powerful story about resilience and determination. The book doesn’t pull any punches. It is the true stories of five refugee children who face real danger as they escape by sea. One sails aboard an ocean liner and the other four drift in open, unseaworthy boats that are overloaded. There are no lifejackets or bailing cans. Food and water is scarce. They face stormy weather and pirate attacks at sea. The boat refugees leave with hope in their hearts of seeking asylum and freedom from persecution, civil war, drought and natural disasters. They arrive at their destinations ill and needing medical treatment. Some end up in detention or refugee camps.

Reading stories about immigrants that span 80 years, offers readers a greater insight into the current refugee crisis in the Middle East, South America and Africa. It is interesting to compare the past with current events. The stories of the past echo similar themes refugees face today — they are not welcome by many countries. They are ostracized and treated like prisoners. This is an excellent and current book for middle grade students and belongs in school libraries.

Stormy Seas features a beautiful collage design with historical fact sidebars, maps of each child’s journey, timelines, quotes from leaders, and refugee data that includes costs and how many boat people die at sea. This book format is perfect for reading true stories and for research projects. Readers will gain new insights into a social justice issues that date back 600 years. Make sure you read Introduction and the Brief History of the boat people which dates back to 1670 with the Huguenots leaving France for England seeking refuge from religious persecution.

Greg Pattridge hosts the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

When We Were Shadows by Janet Wees

When We Were Shadows: A Holocaust Remembrance Book for Young Readers

Janet Wees, Author

Second Story Press, Biography, Apr. 18, 2018

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Pages: 157

Themes: Jewish children, Family relationships, Holocaust, Netherlands, Underground Resistance, Heroes

Synopsis:

It is 1937. Walter is five years old when his parents decide to flee their home in Germany and start a new life in the Netherlands. As Jews, they know they are not safe with the Nazi party in power. For nearly three years Walter and his family is relatively carefree. His father opens a small tea and coffee shop.  Walter and Hannah are able to attend school, learn Dutch, and play with other children.

When Germany invades the Netherlands in 1940, Walter’s world changes from safe and predictable to one full of uncertainty. He hears his parents talking in whispers.  He is too young to appreciate the danger he is in, and everything seems like a great adventure. He has to change his name. His family leaves their home and shop. But as the war progresses, his family is forced to move again and again, from city to countryside, to eventually, the Hidden Village deep in the Dutch woods.

Walter and his parents are separated from his seriously ill sister, who is hidden in a hospital, and his grandmother, who is hidden in other safe houses. He writes letters on napkins, scraps of paper, and book pages, describing his life, his fears, and his hopes. Walter’s eyes are opened to the threat that surrounds them every day and to the network of people who are risking their lives to help them stay hidden. This true story shines a light on a little-known part of WWII history and the heroes of the Dutch resistance—particularly those involved in the Hidden Village—without whose protection, Walter, his family, and hundreds of others would not have survived.

Why I like this book:

This is a moving and sensitive true story about the strength of the human spirit to survive. It is story about the power of a family determined to stay together. It is a story about the compassion and kindness of ordinary individuals who put their lives in danger because they know it is the right thing to do.

I like the format of Janet Wees book as it reads like a story. The author uses the letters Walter writes to his granddaughter, Jenny, as the background for the story. He waits until Jenny is old enough to share his entire story of fleeing Germany in 1937 as a young child and the fear and horror around him.  The rest of the story is told in the letters Walter writes to his oma (grandmother.)  After Oma’s death, Walter found the letters wrapped in a bundle in a trunk. They are in the voice of young Walter, who is able to sneak the letters to Oma through the Underground.

When We Were Shadows is a vivid and realistic story that will make readers remember so that this kind of atrocity doesn’t happen again. There are photographs throughout the book of Walter and Hannah, homes where they were hidden, dense forest camouflaged hide-outs and a rebuilt Hidden Village, that add undeniable authenticity to the story.

Resources: Make sure you read the Prologue, the Epilogue about the liberation and the Author’s Note at the beginning and end. This is another excellent book for middle grade teachers to add to their Holocaust collection.

Janet Wees has written since she was nine years old. A retired teacher, she spends her time creating children’s picture books, reading, walking, writing letters, cycling, volunteering and traveling. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

The publisher provided me with an advanced copy of the book.

Escape From Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

Escape From Aleppo

N.H. Senzai, Author

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, Fiction, Jan. 2, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Family, War, Refugees, Syria, Bravery, Survival, Hope, Freedom

Publisher Synopsis:

Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress.

Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have harassed his business. Nadia frowns.

It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety in Turkey. Nadia gets trapped and left behind when a bomb hits their home. She is alone and must find a way to catch up with her family.  There are many detours along the way and an old man tries to help her. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.

Why I like this book:

N. H. Senzai has written a timely story that explores the culture and history of Syria as it moves from normalcy to the harsh realities of civil war, as witnessed by Nadia. The author weaves chapters into the story depicting life before the war begins giving readers a feel for family and life in Syria. Nadia enjoys birthday parties, painting her nails, playing with her cat, watching Arab’s Got Talent and shopping in the markets.

Senzai’s powerful storytelling and vivid imagery draws readers into Nadia’s harrowing experience. Her journey is quite extraordinary as she befriends other Syrians along the way, an old man and two orphans. The elderly book binder, Ammo Mazen, promises to help Nadia reach the Turkish border, but it is a round about journey, with some unusual characters and missions involved. Just who is this mysterious Ammo Mazen? But he protects Nadia and the two orphans and navigates them around rebels groups, the Syrian Army, and ISIS fighters. As they journey across the Old City, readers catch a glimpse of Nadia memories of the colorful shops and a lively community, which is in stark contract to the crumbling city before her. There are many road blocks, but Nadia turns her fear into a strong determination to survive and reunite with her family.

This plot is gripping, suspenseful, heart-wrenching and hopeful. Readers will experience what it means to be displaced from their home, family and lifestyle. It raises questions for readers about how they would survive if everything they know is gone in a flash and they are thrust into a war-torn environment. Would they be able to survive?  This is tough and timely read for youth trying to grasp what they are seeing and hearing on television about this complicated and troubled country. They are able to  experience the human side of war through Nadia. This is a must read and belongs in school libraries.

N.H. Senzai is the author of the acclaimed Shooting Kabul, which was on numerous state award lists and an NPR Backseat Book Club Pick. Its companion, Saving Kabul Corner, was nominated for an Edgar Award. Visit the author at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

To Look a Nazi in the Eye

To Look a Nazi in the Eye: A Teen’s Account of a War Criminal Trial

Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz, Authors

Second Story Press, Nonfiction, Sep. 12, 2017

Pages: 240

Suitable for ages: 13-19

Themes: Oskar Groening, WWII War Crimes, Trial, Holocaust, Justice

Book Jacket Synopsis: True story of nineteen-year-old Jordana Lebowitz’s experience attending the war criminal trial of Oskar Groening. Groening worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp and became known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz.” In April 2015 he stood trial in Germany for being complicit in the deaths of more than 300,000 Jews.

A granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Jordana knew a great deal about the Holocaust and had traveled to Europe with her Jewish Day School classmates to visit Auschwitz and participate in the March of the Living. There she met and became friends with Hedy Bohm, a holocaust survivor. A few years later she invited Hedy to speak with students and faculty at the university she attended. When Hedy told her that she had been asked to share her personal story of survival at Groening’s trial, Jordana wanted to go to Germany. But she was not prepared for what she would see and hear at Oskar Groening’s trial, including how much an ordinary seeming man — who at first glance reminded her of grandfather — could be part of such despicable cruelty. She had expected to hate him, and she did. But hate, just like forgiveness, can be complicated.

Listening to Groening’s testimony and to the Holocaust survivors who came to testify against him, Jordana felt the weight of bearing witness to history — a history that we need to remember now more than ever.

Why I like this book:

Kathy Kacer sensitively weaves a format for this compelling and dramatic nonfiction narrative that reads like a story. The chapters alternate between Oskar Groening’s life story and testimony, Jordana’s experiences of the trial, and her relationships with the courageous survivors she has come to love and respect. Kacer shares the survivor’s gut-wrenching stories with compassion, dignity and grace. Her pacing will keep readers glued to the story.

There are interesting dynamics at play throughout the story. Seeing the trial through Jordana’s eyes  (two generations removed) offers readers an open-minded and contemporary perspective. Jordana is loyal to the survivors she has journeyed with to Germany. Their painful stories are etched in her heart and mind. But she has trouble seeing Groening as a monster. She wants to hate him, but she sees a frail and sad man who admits he’s morally guilty for his role in the process. Yet she is disturbed by the details of his actions.

Jordana meets the deniers who say the Holocaust is a conspiracy. She converses with Reiner Hoess, the grandson at the Rudolf Hoess, the mastermind behind the design and construction of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. She is moved that Hoess has spent his life talking about the Holocaust with young people and has come to see justice served in the Groening trial. She is shocked after a female survivor finishes her testimony, steps up to Groening, shakes his hand and says “I forgive you.” The other survivors are upset by the woman’s gesture. Jordana even boldly walks up to the judge and asks him “what is it like to be a judge at this trial…and does it affect you?”

Jordana doesn’t carry the baggage of a survivor. She has a youthful desire to be a witness to history and relates her experiences of the trial through a daily blog she writes for the Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center — the center that paid for her plane ticket to Germany. In the end, Jordana realizes that the trial represents something greater than achieving justice for the survivors. It sends a message to the world that there will be consequences for anyone who is commits or assists in hate crimes, murders and genocide against human beings, no matter how long after a crime.  Jordana also sees an important role for “the youth of today to create a better tomorrow.”

Resources: There is an Epilogue at the end about other SS Nazi guards being brought to trial. Since most are in their 90s, time is running out. Kacer shares what Jordana has  done since the trial and her dream to become a human rights attorney. To Look a Nazi in the Eye is an important book for school libraries. It fits nicely with Holocaust education and will challenge students to have many lively discussions. Although this book is designated for those 13 and up, I would share this book with a mature middle grade student. Adults will benefit from reading this tactfully written book.

Kathy Kacer has won many awards for her books about the holocaust for young readers, including Hiding Edith, The Secret of Gabi’s Dresser, Clara’s War and The Underground Reporters. A former psychologist, Kathy tours North America speaking to young people about the importance of remembering the Holocaust. For more information, visit Kacer’s website.

Oskar Groening died Mar. 13, 2018

Greg Pattridge is the permanent host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War I Finally Won

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Historical Fiction, Oct. 3, 2017

Suitable for ages: 9-12

Themes: Overcoming a disability, WW II, Great Britain, Bombings, Rationing, Family relationships, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: When 11-year-old Ada’s clubfoot has been fixed at last, and she knows now that she’s not what her mother said she was — damaged and deranged. But soon Ada learns that she’s not a daughter anymore either. Who is she now?

World War II rages on, and Ada and her brother move with their guardian, Susan, into a cottage with the iron-faced Lady Thorton and her daughter. Life in the crowded home is tense. Then Ruth moves in. Ruth a Jewish girl from Germany.  A German? Could Ruth be a spy?

As the fallout from war intensifies, calamity creeps closer, and life during wartime grows even more complicated. Who will Ada decide to be? How can she keep fighting? And who will she struggle to save?

Ada’s first story, The War that Saved My Life, was a #1 New York Times bestseller and won a Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award, and the Josette Frank Award, in addition to appearing on multiple best-of-the-year lists. The War I Finally Won continues Ada’s journey of family, faith, and identity, showing us that real freedom is not just the ability to choose, but the courage to make the right choice.

Why I like this book:

Fans of The War that Saved My Life, will be thrilled with Bradley’s captivating and satisfying sequel. The setting, the characters, the plot and the imagery are beautifully intertwined and create and extraordinary experience of how WW II changed British family life amidst the blackouts, midnight fire-watching, air raids, bombings, rationing and loss.

The narrative is in Ada’s voice. She is smart and resourceful, strong-willed and spirited, like the horses she trains. Ada continues her journey of triumph over the demons of her past, learns to trust her guardian, Susan, and discovers a new and stronger inner identity.  There are new experiences, things to learn and healing. Her brother Jamie happily accepts Susan as “mum” and all of her affection.

Lady Thorton is aristocratic and an unlikely character who helps Ada face her past. But my favorite relationship is Ada’s interaction with Ruth, a Jewish girl who escapes Germany and moves into the cottage to study higher mathematics with Susan. She faces a lot of discrimination, especially from Lady Thorton and other adults. Ada stands up for Ruth, who ends up playing an important role in the war.

The plot is riveting and full of tension.  Bradley’s pacing will keep readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. It is a story that will stay with you because of the depth and the profoundly human characters.

This is an excellent discussion book for teachers to use with middle grade students. The author put a lot of research into this novel, so make sure you read her notes at the end about the historical facts woven into the story. You can learn more at Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s website.

For the next few months Greg Pattridge will be hosting Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Thank you Greg for keeping MMGM active while author Shannon Messenger is on tour promoting her sixth book, Nightfall, in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, which will be released November 7.

Ali’s Bees by Bruce Olav Solheim

Ali’s Bees

Bruce Olav Solheim, Author

Gabby Untermayerova, Illustrations

CreateSpace, Fiction, Jul. 14, 2017

Pages: 142

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes: Immigration, Iraq, Loss, PTSD, Bees, Intergenerational relationships, Tolerance, Friendship

Publisher Synopsis: There is a lot you can learn from bees. They may look aggressive, but they won’t sting you if you keep your cool and make them comfortable around you.

Ali wishes he could feel comfortable in his new home in Los Angeles, California. He loves living with his beekeeper grandfather, but he desperately misses his parents. They were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq, and Ali was sent halfway across the world to live with his grandfather. In addition to the deep grief Ali faces, he is also struggling with post traumatic stress disorder from the attack.

Ali’s wise grandfather knows that working with the bees will help. Ali enjoys working with the bees so much that he announces he will do his science project on bees, their place in the world, and the dangers of colony collapse disorder. His work attracts the attention of Lupe, a friendly classmate with problems of her own, and Jenks, an angry bully who cares for his disabled father. The three form an unlikely connection through a funny bee dance and a cherished Mickey Mantle baseball card. Will it be enough to overcome their differences and the challenges each one faces?

Why I like this book:

Bruce Olav Solheim has written a sensitive and realistic story about an Iraqi teen boy who has lost his family to the horrors of war and comes to live with his grandfather in California. It is a positive story that challenges readers to understand the effects of war and to show compassion and tolerance towards immigrants as they learn new customs.

The characters are memorable.  Ali has been emotionally scarred by the loss of his parents during bombings.  He is grieving and suffers from PTSD. Sirens and loud noises remind him of war. His wise and patient grandfather, Jady, is a beekeeper. He has a steady and calming influence on Ali as he teaches him how to love and care for bees.  Ali makes friends with Lupe, who has her own family immigration problems, and Jenks who is a bully, but knows how to build things. They are unlikely and diverse threesome, yet perfect partners for Ali’s science project on bees.

The bees not only play a role in Ali’s emotional healing, but also promote the idea of teamwork as the students work together on their bee science project. Learning about bees also encourages readers to become interested in the plight of bees and the natural world.

The language is easy for  elementary students and teens to understand. Solheim’s pacing makes his engaging story a quick read. Pen and ink illustrations are scattered throughout the book and contribute to the story. Ali’s Bees would be a good book for families to read and discuss together and a great classroom book.

Bruce Olav Solheim served for six years in the US Army as a jail guard and helicopter pilot during the war. He has written five books and seven plays. He is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. Solheim founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College and cofounded the Boots to Books transition course, which is the first college course for returning veterans. Solheim was born in Seattle, Washington, to Norwegian immigrant parents

*The author provided me with an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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

A Good Trade by Alma Fullerton

A Good Trade

Alma Fullerton, Author

Karen Patkau, Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Ugandan children, Poverty, Traveling for water, War

Opening: “In a small Ugandan garden, a single poppy blooms white in a sea of green. On a mat inside his hut, Kato wakes at the break of dawn.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Kato wakes early to begin his morning routine, a long barefoot trek beyond village gates through grasses, down a steep hill, and along fields dotted with cattle and guarded by soldiers. His destination is the village well, where he will pump a day’s supply of water into two jerry cans. Like very day, Kato lets the water splash over his hot tired feet before carrying his heavy load back home, where the day’s chores await him. But this is no ordinary day. The aid-worker’s truck has come, and in the back is something so special the little boy rushes home to look for something to repay the aid-worker for this unexpected gift for his village.

Why I like this book:

Alma Fullerton’s text is rich, spare and beautifully crafted. Her narrative is strong and lyrical as she shares Kato’s daily trip to get drinking water for his family. He is barefoot like the other children in his village. The water he collects is essential for cooking, drinking and bathing.

When Kato spies the aid worker’s truck that brings shoes to the village children, he hurries home with his water cans. He finds a white poppy and returns to give it to the aid worker as his expression of gratitude for her generous gift.

This important book shows children how difficult life can be for kids living in war-torn areas and in drought. For many children school isn’t an option because  their days are filled with chores. Fullerton’s story raises cultural awareness for the global plight of children like Kato. Young readers will appreciate the things they take for granted, like running tap water, shoes and transportation.  It addresses tough issues in a hopeful and age-appropriate manner and is an excellent read-aloud for the classroom.

Karen Patkau’s digitally rendered illustrations are colorful and lush. They work beautifully with the text and illuminate the message in the story.

Resources: This is an important story that will generate lively classroom discussions  about how difficult life can be for children around the world.  Ask children about how they would feel if they didn’t have a pair of shoes? Would they be able to walk barefoot every day to collect water from a well? How would they bath or wash clothing?  What will they eat? This is a great exercise in empathy.

Alma Fullerton is the award-winning author of the picture books A Good Trade, Community Soup and In a Cloud of Dust, When the Rain Comes. Check out my review of her most recent picture book, Hand Over Hand.  Visit Fullerton 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 website.

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.

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

My Beautiful Birds

Suzanne Del Rizzo, Author and Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, Mar. 8, 2017

Suitable for ages: 6-10

Themes: Refugees, Refugee camps, Syria, Birds, Hope

Opening: “The Ground rumbles beneath my slippers as I walk. Father squeezes my hand. “It will be okay, Sami. Your birds escaped too,” he repeats. His voice sounds far away. I squeeze back, hoping it will steady my wobbly legs.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbors in a long line as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons — will they escape too?

When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the makeshift city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

Why I like this book:

Suzanne Del Rizzo offers a timely, compassionate and poignant story of a Syrian child refugee who flees his beloved home with his family and leaves behind his pet pigeons. Sami’s story is a journey of hardship, sorrow, and hope for a better future. The text is lyrical at times, but mostly it is honest. Conditions are cramped in the tent city, but Sami and his family are safe. But he has trouble adjusting to his new life. He continues to worry about his pigeons, until three birds appear one day and he finds his joy again. This is a turning point for Sami.

Del Rizzo’s exquisite polymer clay illustrations add depth and a life-like dimension to Sami’s story . Her stunning  sunset with vibrant colors of pink, purple and golden hues remind Sami of his sky at home. He even sees his fluffy cloud-like pigeons.

I appreciated that the author focused on the refugee crisis that is affecting the most innocent and vulnerable, children. She doesn’t address political themes in the book, but focuses on the humanity of the situation for children displaced from their homes in Syria. Instead, her story is based on an article she read about a boy who found comfort in connecting with wild birds at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

My Beautiful Birds is an excellent addition to any school library. It is age-appropriate and an introductory story about children who are displaced because of war or natural disasters.

Resources: Make sure you check out the Author’s Note at the end of the book. She talks about the displaced refugees in Syria that flee to nearby countries,  but she also talks about the 65.3 million people who are displaced worldwide.  For more information and resources about the Syrian conflict, visit the Pajama Press website.

Suzanne Del Rizzo has always loved getting her hands messy. She traded her job in scientific research for a career in children’s illustration with her first picture book, Skin on the Brink, which won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award and was a finalist for the Rainforest of Reading Award. Suzanne’s dimensional illustrations use Plasticine, polymer clay, and other mixed media to bring rich texture and imagination to her books. Suzanne and her family live in Oakville, Ontario.

*I was captivated by Patricia Nozell’s lovely review of My Beautiful Birds on her website, Wander, Ponder Write.  Check out her website, because she is reviewing a lot of books about child refugees and immigrants stories from all over the globe.