‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz: Creative, Touching, and Inspiring Middle Grade Historical Fiction


Alan Gratz’s middle grade books are always a great read, but with “Refugee,” he takes his writing to a new level. In this historical fiction novel, Gratz takes readers to three different periods in times — simultaneously — by telling three stories of young people, each of whom is a refugee.

One is Josef Landau, a twelve-year-old Jewish boy who lives in Berlin, Germany in 1938. When Aaron, his father, is taken by the Nazis and sent to Dachau for months, the family is bereft. When they get word Aaron has been released, and they have to leave the country immediately or he will be returned to the concentration camp, they are bereft all over again when they see that Aaron has been mentally unhinged by his stay in the concentration camp and the cruelty and death he has seen. Josef, his little sister Ruth, his mother and his father all end up on the huge St. Louis, the infamous ship that sailed Jewish refugees to Cuba. All had valid visas to enter the country, only to arrive and find out that the president of Cuba had cancelled their visas. Josef’s story helps readers see the horror that so many Jews endured. It also shares the very real plight of those on the St. Louis, most of whom ended up in European countries that became occupied by Nazis and were sent to concentration camps where they died.

Isabel Fernandez is a refugee from Cuba trying to escape with her family to the United States in 1994. The reader learns about the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that ruled whether refugees from Cuba would be permitted to enter the US. Isabel, her parents, and her grandfather join their neighbor’s family in a small boat to cross the Caribbean Sea to try to get to Florida.  Readers will understand what life in Cuba was like after the Soviet Union fell apart, and they will see the many reasons that Cubans risk their lives to come to America.

Mahmoud Bishara is a young Muslim boy from Aleppo, Syria, in 2015. After his family’s apartment is destroyed by a bomb, he and his family become refugees in their quest to go somewhere safe — Europe. To get there, they must dodge soldiers, rebels, border guards, and finally — the Mediterranean Sea. Although their family buys life jackets for the trip on the smuggler’s boat, they find out too late that the life jackets are fake. In fact, as reported by ABC and others, the fake life jackets are made with absorbent material, causing the wearer to sink. There are conflicting theories about this horrible event — some believe that the companies are just using cheap materials, but others believe that the absorbent materials, causing people to drown, are being used on purpose to kill refugees. No matter the reason, the refugee situation that the fictional Mahmoud endures is still going on to this day. People — educated, hard-working people and their families — are trying to escape a country that has been destroyed, and they are desperate for a place to call home. The story of Mahmoud’s journey is a perfect way to share the horror that these people are enduring so that young people understand.

Gratz’s writing is usually gripping, but the manner in which he juxtaposes the three different main characters and shares their journeys and their hardships is such that the reader will be reading long past the bedtime hour. And the stories, plus the connections that Gratz makes at the end, are so touching, the characters so real, that having tissue close by is a good idea.

This book is a great choice for most readers. Historical fiction lovers, adventurers, lovers of Holocaust books, anyone who enjoys a really well-told story will devour this book. And after the feast is over? The characters and their plights will remain with the reader for a long time — this is a book that is not quickly forgotten. In fact, it’s a book that you’ll be recommending to everyone — children and adults alike — for a long time.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Scholastic Press, for review purposes. 

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