A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Refugee by Alan Gratz is a historical novel that braids the stories of three young refugees in three different time periods and settings: 1938 Berlin, 1994 Cuba, and 2015 Syria. The circumstances of all the kids and families are dire, and their journeys are fraught with imminent danger. The publisher recommends this book for kids starting at age 9, but due to the level of violence and peril, we recommend it for 11 and up. Only two of the three protagonists survive, and all lose family members. Also, Josef, the Berlin Jewish boy gets beat up, as does Cuban Isabel's father. Syrian Mahmoud's home is destroyed by a missile, and he sees a dead man floating in the sea, as well as a soldier with a bullet in his head. Some in the book almost drown. One character's leg is bitten by a shark and he bleeds to death. But the book isn't gratuitously violent. It paints a vivid picture of the plight of refugees, and the kids and families seem both real and relatable, making this a good book for sparking family discussion.
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What's the story?
REFUGEE braids three different stories of young refugees. In one, Josef and his Jewish family flee Nazi Berlin in 1938. They board the ship St. Louis, based on the actual ship that brought Jewish refugees to Cuba and then to the United States but was denied entry by both. That ship had to return the refugees to Europe, where they were split among four countries, and when those countries subsequently fell to the Nazis, many of the refugees were killed. In another story, Isabel and her family leave Cuba in 1994 on a homemade boat and head for Miami. They weather storms, fight off sharks, and have to deliver a baby onboard. In the third story, Mahmoud and his family flee their Syrian homeland in 2015 when their building in Aleppo is destroyed by the constant shelling. They make their way to Turkey, then by boat to Greece, and overland to Germany. They almost drown, and are preyed upon by mercenaries who exploit their vulnerability. All three journeys are difficult, and the protagonists have to deal with many setbacks and hurdles.
Is it any good?
This ambitious, harrowing page-turner is chock-full of historical information, and it succeeds in providing a vivid window onto the lives of three fictional child refugees. Author Alan Gratz alternates the three stories set in different countries and time periods, keeping the chapters in Refugee short and ending each on a cliffhanger, which makes them easy to follow. Gratz writes fast-paced, suspenseful fiction while involving us with characters who seem like real, relatable kids. Though he never lets up on his characters, who face new danger at each page turn, all the kids travel with their families, so there's comfort in that. He also skillfully manages to loosely relate the different stories and characters at the end, which adds to the poignancy and satisfaction.
The only quibble might be his handling of the historical context for the Cuban story. Gratz doesn't mention until his Author's Note at the end that the U.S. trade embargo has been a significant contributing factor to the hardship endured by the Cuban people, important information since the U.S.-Cuba relationship remains a thorny political issue. But the novel as a whole is masterful, and readers will be spellbound by these three very moving stories, which can help them understand and develop empathy for families who are refugees.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the three different stories in Refugee. What similarities do these stories have? How are they different? Why do you think the author wanted to present them all in one book?
How does the author connect the three stories at the end? Were you surprised at how he did that?
Though all the chapters are short and end on a cliffhanger, did you have trouble transitioning from one to the next, or did you easily follow the thread? Did that structure work for you?
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