Transformed Book Recommendation - Refugee

My reading life is all kinds of warm fuzzy when the person I am on page one of a book is different from the person finishing the book's final word.

Why do you read? Do you read to be entertained? To gain information? To become more empathetic?

To be transformed?

For me, calling a book transforming is one of the best compliments I have to offer. On this blog, we hope to highlight books that we can describe with this compliment.

The first book I want to share with you is Refugee, by Alan Gratz. Don’t let its middle-grade level fool you. This book transformed me by changing my understanding of the torn and horrific challenges too many families have wrestled through as they set out on journeys to find safety and peace even in places far from all they've known.


In Refugee, which is one of those books that can’t really be described without using the word heavy, we journey with three children as they flee their homes and all that is familiar because of unsafe conditions in their home countries. The children are separated in time and space yet the threads of their stories weave together in an incredible way.

There is Josef, a Jewish boy, who boards the MS St. Louis in 1939 with his family to escape his German home, hoping to find refuge in Cuba. There is also Isabel who steps into a homemade boat from a Cuban beach in 1994 to travel the ninety-miles north to freedom and safety in Florida. Third there is Mahmoud who travels in 2015 with his family from Syria to find peace and safety in Germany.

I found the most insightful part of this book to be the way Gratz makes each child real. With their unique personalities and thoughts, they aren’t the unidentified “refugees” we read about in the news but individual children with specific concerns and experiences.

Josef delights in turning thirteen and becoming a man aboard the ship, only to put his manhood to the test all too soon.

Isabel makes a sacrifice of a musical passion so her family has the resources to make the journey.

Mahmoud’s family uses their iPhone's mapping capabilities to navigate across land and sea, just as I navigate to find a coffee shop in an unfamiliar city.

None of these children began their lives in difficult circumstances. They had mothers and fathers who loved them, comfortable homes, siblings they cared for, school that consumed their daily lives. Toys, books, clothes, homes and friends, they said good-bye to all these things because the sacrifice of saying good-bye was less than the sacrifice of staying.

The lives of moms and dads and kids taking great risks even this day by stepping into rickety boats, fighting to reach a place of safety and freedom are more real to me and I can better imagine both the reasons and the obstacles in their journeys.

After finishing Refugee, I’ve stepped one inch closer to an increased and TRANSFORMED understanding of the value of freedom and the perseverance that may be needed to hold onto it.