Book Review of Refugee by Alan Gratz

Book Review by Megan Sulek

Refugee is a young adult, historical fiction novel written by New York Times best-selling author Alan Gratz.  Refugee tells the courageous and terrifying stories of three kids:  Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud.  They have three separate journeys, on three different continents, during three different decades.  They may be worlds apart, but they have one mission in common, to escape their homes and find safety and freedom.  They are constantly plagued with new obstacles, but they all have the hope for a better tomorrow.

Josef is a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany with his family in the 1930’s on a cruise ship to Cuba.  Once on the boat, Josef learns quickly that he must take over as the “man” of the family and he must help them survive, no matter what it takes.

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994 who desperately wants to escape riots in Cuba and find freedom for her family and friends in America.  They have one chance, it’s now or never!  They decide to do this by sailing on a small makeshift boat.  They have too many people and not much time, will they make it?

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015 who is on the run with his family on their journey to Europe away from violence and destruction.  His father is a jokester and tries to stay positive, his mother just wants what’s best for them, his little brother is numb to it all, his little sister is just a baby, and Mahmoud is just trying to hold it together.  With each new place, comes new impossible challenges. 

Readers will be captivated by these three stories as the characters grow and change through their separate journeys.  We learn how brave each character is through their actions.  By the end, Alan Gratz does a beautiful job of entwining the three stories.  This book opens your eyes to the challenges that refugees face all over the world. Not only in the past but also today.  We see through these stories that refugees throughout the years have a lot in common.

The three main characters that Gratz wrote about are fictional characters, however they are based on true stories.  Gratz tells us that Refugee started with the story of the MS St. Louis, which was a famous German ocean liner in the 1940’s that tried to help Jewish refugees escape Germany.  This was the boat our beloved character Josef was on in the book.  There were many books and movies about this famous boat, but none of them for young readers.  He decided he was going to be the person to write one.  Around the same time, he was on vacation with his family in Florida.  They saw an empty refugee raft on the beach there.  He realized why write a book about Jewish refugees in the past, when there are refugees today?  Meanwhile, information about the Syrian Civil War with millions of refuges seeking asylum was being broadcast everywhere.  Gratz decided, instead of three separate stories, he would connect and combine them into one story.  In the back of Refugee, it has the true stories that Gratz based the book on, along with maps that show all three of the characters journeys.  It is a nice visual that shows how far each character traveled to get to their final destination.  Gratz also included information on how we can help refugees today. 

Refugee is recommended for children 8 years of age and older.  Each journey is emotional and violent. This book should be monitored and discussed with readers of all ages, but especially younger readers.  Through discussion, students can make connections and begin to thoroughly understand what these characters and many real people like them experience. 

Refugee has won numerous awards.  It was also a book choice for the Global Read Aloud in 2018.  If you are interested in this book or ones like it, Alan Gratz has also written several other young adult novels, including his newest novel, Grenade.


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