A Chance Encounter Inspired Alan Gratz to Write a Modern Refugee Story for Kids

"I don’t weep for the future. I have hope for the future. That’s why I write for kids."

by Brad Weekes
Originally Published: 
A refugee boy sitting in a red boat in the middle of a thunderstorm over the sea

Alan Gratz isn’t particularly interested in anthropomorphizing animals or object lessons about sharing. He’s a children’s book author–and damn proud of it–but he’s largely indifferent to the norms of his genre. He is unafraid to go dark and frankly eager to uncover the horrors of history for an audience eager (if not ready) to grapple with them. Previously best known for Prisoner B-3087, a disturbing account of a Jewish boy’s time in ten Nazi concentration camps, and Samurai Shortstop, a heavier-than-it-sounds and hyper-violet depiction of pre-modern Japan, Gratz has just released Refugee. The book is about the people who have nowhere to go but elsewhere. It is pitch dark and, unfortunately, incredibly timely. Before the fall is over, it will make some middle school reading lists and, subsequently, make some parents nervous. But, painful as it can be to read, it is honest and, for Gratz, deeply personal.

It is not the book he expected to write. It is the book he needed to write because he couldn’t keep reality or his own empathy at bay.

Refugee tells the stories of three different child refugees at different points in history. There’s Josef, a Jewish boy who is fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939, Isabel, a Cuban girl bound for America in 1994, and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy heading to modern Germany. Fatherly spoke to Gratz about how the book took shape and why he desperately wants American kids to read it.

You were writing children’s books about the Holocaust even before the refugee crisis. How do you think about the commercial appeal of your work and its value to both parents and kids?

Most of my books have been aimed at middle graders, ages eight to fourteen. Those are my peeps. I talk to thousands of middle schoolers every year at schools. They read books I wrote about the Holocaust and Hitler Youth and they said, ‘We want more.’ I already know from my own experience and my own previous books that kids really want to hear the truth about the world.

There are plenty of other writers who write escapist fantasies and I’ve written a little bit myself. I think there’s absolutely a place for that. There are people who write contemporary fun stuff and humor for kids, which they eat up. But my niche is writing sort of hard-hitting thrillers. Social thrillers is a description I started to use after hearing Jordan Peele describe Get Out that way. Once I read him saying that, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s what I’m doing and that’s what I want to keep doing.’ I’ve kind of posted that in my office now. This is what I do. I write social thrillers. I write books that you can’t put down or, I hope, that kids can’t put down because they are exciting to read and action packed, but also books that have some social element to them. Something that discusses some part of the real world. That’s where I was coming from with Refugee.

Can you tell me a bit about the larger historical inspiration for your latest book, Refugee?

Specifically with Refugee, I started with the story of the MS St. Louis. It left Nazi Germany in 1939 with more than 900 Jewish refugees on board. They had already been persecuted. They had been through the Night of the Broken Glasses, when Nazis went into Jewish homes and dragged people out to concentration camps and busted up shop windows and burnt down synagogues. These 900 plus refugees had managed to get out of Germany and were bound for Cuba. Many of them wanted to live in Cuba and stay there, but many more wanted and hoped to get the United States later on.

They were turned away from America and turned away from Canada and ended up going all the way back to Europe. They were resettled in four countries that agreed to take them: the UK, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The Jews who ended up in the UK were safe when World War II began. The other folks, about 620 of them who were settled in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, they were right in Hitler’s way when World War II began. An estimated 250 of them died in concentration camps and many more died in other ways.

Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz

You’re describing a good book, but that story is actually only part of Refugee. How did you end up incorporating more modern issues and characters? What made you focus on that.

Right about that time my family and I went on a family vacation to Florida. We went down to the Florida Keys for the first time. We had a great time and were staying at a resort. My daughter swam in the pool all day. My wife and I sat by the pool and read all day. It was great.

One morning, we got up to go walk the beach, the little tiny beach that was in front of our resort. If you ever have been to the Keys, you would know there’s not much beach. We went out to walk the tiny beach in front of our resort and saw a raft that somebody had taken to come to America in the night. The previous morning it had not been there. It was a homemade raft. It was made of plywood walls and a two-by-fours. It had been hammered and screwed together. The whole bottom of it and all the cracks were sealed with the stuff you put around windows and doors from a can. They had taken that to spray foam the whole bottom of the boat to seal the cracks.

There was room for maybe twelve, thirteen people inside on benches they had built. In the back were motors from something, maybe a motorcycle or a car. They had stripped something out and bolted into the back of the raft and run a shaft down through for a propeller. There were wet clothes inside and half eaten bags of candies and empty water bottles and empty trash cans.

How did seeing that raft and knowing how close you came into contact with refugees impact your writing process?

My family and I were really stunned by this. We walked around it and looked at it and talked a lot about it. We realized that while we had been sitting by the pool the day before, relaxing and enjoying our vacation, somebody in this raft had been risking their life to come to this country to try and seek refuge here. It was really sobering and was really eye opening. It made us question our what we take for granted. Our freedom, the roof over our head, the food on our table. We talked about all that stuff as a family: the privileges we enjoy and what other people don’t have and what risks they would take to have opportunities.

I still don’t know where the people in this raft came from. My guess is Cuba. It’s the closest to the Caribbean countries and the Florida Keys and 90 miles away over the Florida strait. That’s my best guess, but they could have come from elsewhere. That’s the shortest trip and it’s still 90 miles over open sea in this raft that I wouldn’t want to go fishing in. It’s mind boggling and absolutely dangerous. Here I was wanting to write this book about the MS St. Louis, but now I see this and I want to write about this, about people coming to America on a raft right now. This is happening right now.

Do you think Americans are aware of the ongoing refugee crisis and its impact?

If I am being charitable, I forgot this was happening right now. If I’m being hard on myself, I was ignoring it. Logically, I know that people are trying to get to this country every single day in ways official and unofficial by land, sea, and air. I know this, but I don’t live in Florida or by the Mexican border. I don’t live on the West Coast. I don’t live in a big city like New York City or some place where’s there a lot of immigrants and refugees coming to that area. I don’t see it every day and I wondered if a lot of my young readers didn’t see it every day either.

Again, they may know that this is happening, but if they’re not there on the frontlines of it are they really seeing it? I thought: ‘I want to show that.’

How was your development of the book affected by the current Syrian refugee crisis?

I had these two ideas and then of course everyday before and after our vacation we were seeing images on TV of the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s been happening since 2011 when the Syrian Civil War began and it’s still happening today. You’ve seen it and we’ve all see those incredible photos of the destruction and the people having to leave. Statistics say that 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes by this conflict. That’s more than the population of Kentucky. IIt’s the population of an entire metropolitan area in America gone. I wanted to write about that too.

I wanted to bring this to light and it took me a little while thinking about how to tackle each. Then, I was like, wait a minute. What if I put them all together? What if I wove them together to show the similarity between these journeys, in different eras and different parts of the world with different kids. It became the story of Josef, a Jewish boy who is feeling Nazi Germany with family on board the MS St. Louis in 1939 for Cuba; a Cuban girl named Isabel, who gets on a raft with her family and another family for America in 1994; a Syrian boy named Mahmoud who leaves Syria with his family bound for Germany. That’s how it all came together. That was the genesis of Refugee.

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz

When did you realize you finally had a story for Refugee?

For me, as a writer, the real moment I realized I had a novel and this would work was when I realized not only were there parallels between each of their journey, but that I could actually connect all three of those stories through time. When you get to the end of Refugee all three specific children and their families are connected through time, showing the parallels between those three stories. That I don’t want to give away because I want readers to come it and find it. Not only are their parallels, each of these families is connected through time and that was important to me too.

That’s an obvious respect you have from the genre of children’s book as a vessel to teach important lessons about the world. What role do you see children’s books playing in our current political, cultural and social discourse?

I think that what we are seeing in America is a lack of empathy. We have many adults who are unable to see things from other people’s point of view. I think one of the best things that books for young readers can do is put them in the shoes of other people. To show them the world through another person’s eyes. A person who is not from here, not their religion, not their race, not of their economic status. By telling the stories of different people, people different from the region, I think we can begin to build empathy. The more kids read books about people who aren’t them, the more kids will understand where other people are coming from. I hope, it’s my sincere hope, when they grow up they will have more empathy for other people and be able to embrace the other.

To bring it back to Refugee, the word refugee has become a really political, hot button word. When thirty or forty years ago, the word refugee was not a political word. When you heard the word refugee, you thought, ‘Oh my god let me help you because I understand you didn’t want to leave your home and you were driven out by violence and persecution and now you need a safe haven’. America has responded to people from the Middle East with hatred. We already accept far less than one percent of all the Syrian refugees who need out help.

What was your ultimate goal or mission with Refugee?

I don’t weep for the future. I have hope for the future. That’s why I write for kids. I really believe that the future is always going to be better than it is today. That’s why I do it. If I can prepare them for what they are going to run into in the real world through fiction, then I have done my job. That’s why I write. I write to entertain, but I want to change the world and I can do that through helping kids.

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