Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Refugee Book Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Harrowing page-turner sheds light on child refugees.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 9 reviews

Kids say

age 11+
Based on 39 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Historical and political information about Nazi Germany, Cuba in 1994, and the current Syrian situation. One thread based on the true story of the ship the St. Louis, which carried fleeing German Jews and was denied entry by Cuba and the United States and had to turn back to Europe. The Syrian story is also based on news accounts of specific refugees. Author's Note at end makes clear what's factual and where he's taken creative license. Maps of the three journeys.

Positive Messages

Refugees are relatable people who've been forced to flee their country because of dire circumstances. Their families are much like ours. It's good to offer refuge to people in need and to assist them as they try to make new lives.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The kid protagonists are all brave in trying circumstances, though they have realistic doubts and fears.They actively work to help their families and find their way. Sometimes they're called upon to act like adults and take charge.


There's much violence, which, though not gratuitous, might be frightening to younger readers. Principal characters are beat up. After one character's leg is bitten by a shark, he bleeds to death. A home is destroyed by a missile. Characters almost drown. A baby is passed off to another family and not seen again. One protagonist sees a dead man floating and another with a bullet in his head. German Jewish father who'd been in concentration camp goes mad and tries to commit suicide. A character is sent to a concentration camp and readers eventually learn he died there. 


Frequent mentions of iPhones, which Mahmoud's family uses to navigate their journey.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

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. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bylara.liebenberg October 1, 2018

Harrowing tale of refugees

This is a great book that raises many of questions for discussion. We are using it for our Grade 8 class. It has good historical detail and is based on the sto... Continue reading
Adult Written byNatalie K. December 8, 2017

Perfect for students

A great book for increasing global awareness for today’s students. Would make a great read aloud for 6-8th grades.
Teen, 13 years old Written bySrirama Prabhav... October 4, 2018

A Heart - Touching Book

Refugee by Alan Gratz will remain as a classic for the coming generations. The book has a historical background. It fuses 3 different stories of 3 different fam... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old March 21, 2019

Absolutely Amazing!!!!!

This is a phenomenal book that my whole family enjoyed very much, I also read this at school in L.A. as a whole class and they all had a great time reading it a... Continue reading

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?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love immigrant stories and tales that teach empathy

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate