Young Adult fiction has been in heavy rotation in my reading for a good number of years now. Now that my kid is in middle school, I have a lot of really great books to pass on to him, but I have found that the bulk of it (aside from vampirey melodrama which I am sure he will have zero interest in) are dystopian trilogies. He flew through the Westerfeld Leviathan books (if anyone can recommend steampunk books appropriate for a middle schooler, let me know), Hunger Games, Maze Runner and is now embarking on the Divergent series, which I never did get around to reading. Searching for something that addresses what some kids his age experience in their lives is a little harder to find. He is a little too young yet for something like “The Hate U Give.” He needs a year or two before he can tackle that one and the John Green and Rainbow Rowell books. It’s that spot between “Harry Potter” and “Eleanor Park” that I’m trying to discover. So, when I heard about “Refugees”, I requested the book from the library to read myself in hopes that this might be something for him to read that didn’t involve dirigibles, teenaged guinea pigs or enforced population and mind control. (All fine things to read about people, but just trying to give the kid options).
It is the story of 3 twelve/thirteen year olds and their families fleeing their countries in seek of a safer and better life. Josef, flees Berlin in 1938, with his mother, father and sister Ruby aboard a cruise ship of fellow Jewish families bound for Cuba. In 1994, Isabel, her pregnant mother, father, grandfather and neighbors leave Cuba on a homemade boat heading towards Miami. After a bomb leaves Mahmoud’s brother on a ledge staring into the empty space that moments before held the family’s television and front wall of their apartment, he leaves with his mother, father and brother on an arduous trek from Aleppo, Syria to Germany in 2015.
What I appreciate most about the book is that it is accessible for middle schoolers without dumbing it down or trying to paint a pretty picture to soften the blow. Their journeys are harrowing and often it is the children who are helping to hold up the parents. With the Coast Guard bearing down on them, it is Isabel who must help them reach the shore while her father tends to her mother who has gone into labor in their makeshift boat. When Josef’s father is too damaged by his imprisonment in a concentration camp, Josef must stand up for his family and stand up to the ship’s captain and crew. Mahmoud’s shame and then anger at the Greek ferry-boat passenger’s reaction to the Muslim refugees on the boat praying and “ruining” the vacation view is what pushes him to break through the silence when his parents cannot.
“When they stayed where they were supposed to be – in the ruins of Aleppo or behind the fences of a refugee camp – people could forget about them. But when refugees did something they didn’t want them to do – when they tried to cross the border into their country, or slept on the front stoops of their shops, or jumped in front of their cars, or prayed on the decks of their ferries – that’s when people couldn’t ignore them any longer. “
This is a great book for middle schoolers and grown ups alike. It’s an important book, particularly now, and a good reminder of what was and still is an ongoing struggle for many people in the world.