Every once in a while you come across a book that is equal parts tragedy and triumph. Refugee, by Alan Gratz, is one of those books. It is a gripping account of three young refugees from different points in history. Importantly, the book emphasizes the humanity of these refugees and the obstacles they face. It is a powerful read and one that promotes empathy for displaced people in today's world.
A strength of the book is how the three main storylines intertwine. The first chapter starts in Nazi Germany and focuses on Josef, a Jewish boy who later flees the Holocaust on the SS St. Louis. It continues on with Isabel, a Cuban girl who must board a rickety boat and voyage to Florida. Finally, it tells the story of Mahmoud, a Syrian boy who escapes from Syria in 2015. In telling their stories, Gratz switches accounts each chapter, which serves to highlight the similarities between their voyages.
The characters themselves however are distinct and particular themes and motifs arise in each storyline. Josef wants to be a man, but ends up having responsibility thrust upon him before he is ready. Isabel wants to keep her family together above all. My favourite character Mahmoud goes on his own heroic journey as he realizes that staying invisible can keep you safe in a warzone, but may be a curse for a refugee.
I read Refugee aloud to my class of grade seven students and they were hooked, particularly as they began to see how the characters lives were linked. I used the book to teach students about making connections between characters and storylines.
The book is excellent for middle school students, but there are a number of intense parts. I was in tears when I first read one particular chapter on my own, and a few of my students were visibly affected by it when I later read it to them. Don't let this deter you though. Gratz makes the characters feel real and when they face hardship, the reader feels it too, perhaps even more strongly because we know this fictional account is not far from the truth. Knowing this helps build our empathy for those who are displaced and makes this an essential book in our middle school classrooms.