We have been reading Alan Gratz’s Refugee (Scholastic, 2017) together since mid-November, and expect it to wrap up this month. There are days we read and then I shut the book for a moment to discuss both the details of the story and the history behind it, and there are days I shut the book for a moment just to give us a minute to breathe, relax, and switch gears before we move on with our day. On those latter days, I also check in with the group informally to see how we’re doing. Responses are always quiet and reflective and often include sighs and comments like, “I’m okay,” or “It’s good to take this book in small chunks.”
In some regards this book is written in small chunks. There are three stories, and the novel takes us from one to the other predictably, each section lasting between four and perhaps ten pages. Each section is also fast-paced and ends on a cliff-hanger, which certainly contributes to our need for periodic rests.
However, the primary reason for the shorter portions and the breathing breaks is that the story deals with trauma, specifically the trauma faced by three young people and their families as they become refugees, fleeing from their homes, desperately trying to get to other parts of the world. The book is intended for young people of this group’s age and up. It includes truthful, but never gratuitously violent or scary, portrayals of the situations the three families face as they flee. Yet, the characters are not the nameless, faceless people we imagine when we read or hear the news as adults. In the words of Leonard Pitts in his August, 2017 review of the book in The Miami Herald: “What we so readily see as nameless, voiceless, and faceless is really none of those things. It is girls and boys, women and men, people like us, just trying, like us, to navigate safely through this challenging life.”
Refugee demands that we not only know that this has happened and continues to happen to people, but that we empathize with them. The story accomplishes this by letting us see ourselves: in a Jewish family fleeing Berlin aboard a repurposed cruise boat in 1939, in neighboring Cuban families ironically attaching an image of Castro to the bottom of their rickety boat in 1994, and in a family using Google Maps on their iPhones to escape Syria in 2015. Several times, children have commented that the book reminds you that it could be anybody. This can happen to anybody.
The most recent conversations, however, have centered on the observation that a common condition between the three tales is that so many times, the characters have no good options. It’s not that they cannot see them; it’s not that they aren’t trying hard enough. There simply are no good choices, just bad ones that nonetheless must be selected. That, more than anything else at this point in the book, has all of us empathizing—deeply—with these stories. And by extension, to “real” refugees around the world. What if one’s only options, the only choices a person has to save themselves, their loved ones, their humanity, are bad ones?
These are significant philosophical quandaries to be engaging in with young people, and of course, stories are the very best vehicle for engaging them. Amongst the most important developmental work of this age group is crossing the line from concrete into more abstract thinking, moving from “black and white” constructs toward the ability to live with the discomfort of gray area. The experience of reading this book together has been a big step along that path.