by Alan Gratz
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars
This incredible book follows the stories of three refugees over the last 100 years at different times, from different countries, for different reasons. Their stories are harrowing and illuminating, even for a grownup who pays attention to such things.
Josef turns 13 in 1939, on a cruise ship carrying passengers and refugees from Nazi Germany to Cuba. The ship, the St. Louis eventually became famous because the passengers were not allowed to disembark in Cuba, and instead were turned back around. Josef has his bar mitzvah on board the ship, and his unique position as child-then-man plays a pivotal role in his story.
Isabel and her parents and neighbors, including her best friend Ivan, leave Havana in 1994 on a rickety motorboat. They weren’t ready to leave yet, so the boat has some problems, not least of which is running into the shipping lanes and their huge waves. Her mom is pregnant, due any minute – and does end up having the baby on the way.
Mahmoud and his family are fleeing Syria’s civil war in 2015. They are prepared to make their journey overland and are aided by smartphones and GPS. Eventually they have to leave their car behind and they hop from refugee camp to refugee camp with the eventual goal of Germany.
All three of them (all middle-school age, and forced on this precipice to become adults, with younger siblings and incapacitated parents) end up in boats at some point and the waves and the sharks and the sinking boats was terrifying. While this is a children’s book, it is NOT a happy read. I couldn’t read it at bedtime – things just got worse and worse and worse and then they got even worse. There are some pretty extensive notes at the end about some of the historical context that the kid narrators wouldn’t necessarily be able to articulate. They are all fictional kids, but their situations were very real. Hopefully this book will help kids (at least, those who can stomach it) really empathize with refugees and understand the situations, both today and in the future.