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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Refugee, written by Alan Gratz. Scholastic, 2017. $22.99 ages 10 and up

"Rain lashed Isabel as she shoveled water out of the boat. Scoop, pitch. Scoop, pitch. The bottom of the boat filled as fast as they could bail it out. Isabel, her mother, her father, her grandfather, Luis, Ivan, Senora Castillo, they all worked feverishly, none of them talking - not that they could hear each other over the storm. The only ones not bailing were Senor Castillo, who looked like a ghost ... "

Three families, three countries, three conflicts ... years apart, yet the effects for the families are equally devastating at any time. The three main characters, whose parallel stories are told in this heartbreaking book, have much in common despite their many differences.

Josef is a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany in 1939. His father has been in a concentration camp for a year before being released, with the instructions to leave Germany within hours. With his family at his side, they board the MS St. Louis bound for Cuba. When unrest breaks out in Cuba in 1944, Fidel Castro allows anyone who wants to leave the chance to flee. Isabel, her family and neighbors board a makeshift boat headed to Florida in hopes that they can land before being caught at sea, In such an event, they will be returned to Cuba. Mahmoud is a boy from 2015 Aleppo where his own government is bombing his city, leaving far too many without a place to live and with nothing to call their own. His family must use any means to make their way to Europe where they hope to find safety.

They have much in common - a dictator, an escape by boat, a fervent desire to find peace and safety for each family. They endure terror, loss, hope, and are unbelievably brave in the face of tragedy. Nothing is easy here, and their stories offer a realistic look at families forced to leave the homes they love. Alan Gratz manages to share their stories through brilliant writing, all the while drawing parallels that end each of their chapters with heart-stopping action. The fact that he connects the three is quite a remarkable feat!

Using historical fiction to bring these three remarkable characters to his readers, he is respectful of their circumstances, aware of the emotional toll, and fills his pages with the suspense that will not allow the reading to stop. Urgent, dangerous action and full of empathy for the plight of migrants, this is a book that should be shared in middle and high school classrooms.

Timely, and necessary - of that there is no doubt!

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