The mission of the Bellefonte READS Committee is to foster a love of literacy in the community. Each year, the committee chooses a title for “One Book, One Bellefonte” that will engage all community members, but will also challenge perspectives, spark discussion and inspire action. Given the current state of discord in the United States regarding immigration, we believe this year’s choice, “Refugee,” will do just that.
Written by Alan Gratz, this heart-breaking but inspiring historical fiction novel weaves together three stories of child refugees. Gratz seamlessly connects the perilous journeys of Josef, a Jewish boy living in Nazi Germany during the 1930s; Isabel, a Cuban girl trying to escape the turmoil in her country in 1994; and Mahmoud, a boy seeking refuge from the present-day civil war taking place in Syria.
Readers first meet Josef as his family’s home is being raided by Nazis. Josef’s father is arrested and placed in a concentration camp. Fortunately, his father is released--but on one condition. His family must leave Germany. Josef’s family ultimately decides to flee by sailing on the infamous MS St. Louis, bound for Cuba.
Isabel’s story is similar to what many Cubans experienced under dictator Fidel Castro. Facing a food shortage and political persecution, Isabel and her family make the dangerous decision to leave Cuba on a homemade raft. They hope to make it safely to Miami to start a new life in the United States.
Lastly, Mahmoud’s experiences mirror what many Syrian refugees are currently going through. Not wanting to leave their home, but scared for their safety, his family escapes Aleppo after their building is destroyed. They make the treacherous journey to Germany, traveling by land and sea, as they seek a new life free from danger.
Although these characters are fictional, their experiences are real. “Refugee” gives readers the opportunity to see historical events through the lens of everyday people searching for safety. While each character experiences profound loss and a constant feeling of uncertainty, messages of hope and the importance of acceptance prevail.
“Refugee” was written for upper elementary and middle school readers, but even adults will appreciate this book. The authentic experiences and emotions of Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud make it a must-read. Many questions are left unanswered in the book, but that seems to be the author’s intent. The lives of many refugees are full of uncertainty. Where will they sleep? Where will they get their next meal? Will they ever be reunited with loved ones? Readers will reflect on each child’s journey and develop compassion for people across the world currently suffering a similar fate. “Refugee” will make you laugh, make you cry, but most importantly, it will make you think.
Reviewer Jackie Wynkoop is the Secondary Literacy Coach for the Bellefonte Area School District and the founder and co-chair of the Bellefonte READS Committee.
The 5th annual “One Book, One Bellefonte” event will be held in the lobby of the Bellefonte Area High School from 6-8 p.m. on February 21. Over 150 copies of “Refugee” will be given away, and several companion books will be offered for younger readers. The event is open to all community members.