Book Review: Refugee by Alan Gratz


Refugee is the story of three kids, Mahmud, Isabel and Joseph, separated by time but connected by a common experience.  Mahmud, a boy who only wants peace, leaves a nightmare in his homeland Syria, to seek a better life in Europe.  Isabel, an ambitious girl who dreams of playing the trumpet, flees Castro’s Cuba in a small raft, with the hope of reaching America.  Joseph boards the ocean liner, St. Louis to leave the life of persecution in Nazi Germany to seek asylum in Cuba, and hopefully, put together the pieces of his broken family.  Although each of their journeys is different, the common thread of the refugee experience weaves through them all, showing what it’s like to risk everything for a chance of a new life.  


I personally thought Refugee was a great book.  There are very few books that describe the refugee experience and this book did it masterfully.  I found it slightly melodramatic at points, but in the context of the plot these scenes were not particularly disruptive.  The characters were equally compelling and all three storylines equally interesting, something that is often lacking in books with multiple main characters.  The book was riveting, the plot and the characters developing at about even rates.  I also liked that although the three stories are separate, they all come together at the end, making the book feel more connected overall.  The author does a wonderful job of capturing the cultural aspects of each of the stories.  The diversity of the stories was also nice, helping break up the narrative. Mahmud’s journey was very much a modern refugee experience, Isabel’s more of a survival thread, as her family floats towards Florida on an overcrowded raft, and Joseph’s almost the opposite of a typical refugee tale, as his family travels from Germany to Cuba on a luxury liner.  However the themes of fear, mistrust, confusion and loss echo through all three storylines.  Overall, it was a wonderfully woven book.  Although written at a middle grade level, it would also be a fascinating read for adults.  Some thematic elements and intense scenes may not be appropriate for young or sensitive children.  

  • Age: 12-99
  • Awards: None
  • Our Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Written by Malachi L. Myers