I debated whether I should read this book, or listen to it as an audio book with my children, ages 2,7,8,11. The AR level is 5.3 and Common Sense Media suggests 10 and up because of the intensity, but knowing my kids are aware of some of the heartbreak the book discusses from other fictional works and the news, I decided to share this emotionally powerful book with them. Tears were shed, discussion occurred, and the stories I pray will haunt and bother my children for years to come, inshaAllah resulting in compassion and action.
The book is 338 pages with maps, references, ways to help, and acknowledgements at the end. The audio book is just over seven and a half hours.
Three kids stories are told in pieces as they occur in different time periods, in different parts of the world, and for different reasons, but the heart of the stories are not the differences, but the similarities that all three share. The real life parallels of each horrific event, and how small the world suddenly seems, is amplified by the ties that connect these fictional stories to one another.
Josef is a Jewish boy living in 1930 Nazi Germany. When his father is released from a concentration camp; he, his mom, and younger sister Ruthie board the MS St. Louis headed for Cuba to try to find a new life. However, Cuba refuses to let them in, and Josef’s father cannot escape the ghosts from his time in a concentration camp. Returned to war in Europe, the family is once again on the run from Nazis and not all survive.
Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. Unrest is growing in Havana and when Fidel Castro says people can leave, her family: Grandfather, dad, and pregnant mom, join their neighbors in their makeshift boat to try to reach El Norte. The shark filled waters, tankers, getting blown off course, and a temperamental boat engine, all pose as obstacles for the family trying to get on dry land to avoid being sent back to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.
Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015 who’s life has been altered by the civil war, but when their home is destroyed by explosians, they must leave right then. His parents, younger brother Waleed, and baby sister Hana, begin walking, their journey will travel through many countries as they seek the promised land of Germany. Along the way they will be held at gun point, be forced into detention centers, walk for days and put their lives at the mercy of the Mediterreanean Sea in a flimsy rubber dinghy.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that this book takes huge pivitol historic events in our life time and gives them a face. Numbers are often numbing as they are difficult to grasp, and political motivations are often so hard to understand in their complexities, that this book does a marvelous job of making it about the person, about the humanity at stake. I challange any one, especially those opposed to letting refugees in, to not cheer these three on, to not get irrated by those that willingly can help and chose not to, and those being relieved when people finally do see them and do help. Its amazing how far a little kindness can go, and seeing it in tangible terms is powerful. Yes, taking into your home a refugee is a huge kind step, but so was the giving of water and asprin to Isabel and her family, or giving of clean clothes and a ride to Mahmoud and his family, or removing the protrait of Hitler from the Social Hall during Josef’s Bar Mitzvah, all little kindnesses that hopefully we can rememember.
I love that the author got Mahmoud’s religion right. They stop and pray, they make duas, their cell phone apps for salat times all ring at once, they are Muslim and their religion is mentioned as they practice it, not as a storyline.
Overall, I was impressed at the book. Many reviews online found issue with the structure of the stories being broken up and seperated, but listening to it, atleast, made them feel incredibly connected. I absolutely enjoyed seeing the parallels of each story and the humanity of each chacter shine through.
The book has a lot death, and violence, and it is intense, but, it is not glorified and it isn’t too graphic. It is done tastefully to make a point and keep it real, but not to overwhelm the audience or sensationalize the events, although I don’t know that any fiction, could be worse than the reality endured during these time periods.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
A map, would be awesome, a big one. I like that the author gives some tips to help, but I think more on hand would be beneficial as the urge to help others is pretty intense after listening to/reading the book. Especially ways to get involved in Syria, as the struggle is still ongoing.
There are lots of tools online as the book is published through Scholastic.
Book Unit Ideas: http://bookunitsteacher.com/wp/?p=5858
Author’s page: https://www.alangratz.com/writing/refugee/refugee-discussion-guide/