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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Refugee: the Undoubtedly Relevant, but Is It Distinguished?

refugeeIn the comment section of Sharon’s YA? Why Not? (October 18th) post, some readers discussed the timeliness of titles and whether a book’s thematic relevance increases its winning chances.  Many considered the manual and emphasized that the committee members are not to make their decisions based on the chosen theme but how successful such theme is literarily presented.

That said, Heavy Medal reader Joe proposed that “many (not all, but many) Newbery winners do reflect the zeitgeist of the year in which they were awarded” and he went on using the 2017 winning titles to illustrate his point, citing The Girl Who Drank the Moon as about the control of information and isolationism, Inquisitor’s Tale, the intolerance of religious differences, Freedom Over Me, race and Own Voice, and Wolf Hollow, “kindness to outsiders” — all seem ultra relevant to the larger social consciousness.

No matter how objective one strives to be, reading is ultimately a very personal, emotional, and oftentimes subjective experience.  (If not, we wouldn’t all be so passionately talking about books day after day here!) So, is it possible that the Newbery Committee members would carry their concerns, worries, beliefs, life experiences, aspiration for a better world, etc. into the close-door meetings?  Even if the discussion is overtly not about the themes of the books, wouldn’t they naturally favor a book with both hight literary quality AND a worthy theme?

This brings us to one of the most timely titles in 2017: Refugee by Alan Gratz.

It received 2 starred reviews, 6 Heavy Medal reader nominations, and is now on the New York Public Library’s, Publishers Weekly’s, and Kirkus Book Reviews’ Best of the Year lists.  Even if the book must have been conceived and written in 2016/2015 or earlier, the publication date for it is nonetheless so intimately connected to the current social conscience in the U.S.

I read the book quite a few months ago but could still recall many of its harrowing scenes: the losing of a baby sister/daughter on the darkened sea in Europe, the death of a friend in the shark infested ocean between Cuba and the U.S., and the ultimate sacrifice of an older brother, facing Nazi soldiers.  These are important stories to keep alive in our collective memories and to inform readers about on-going plights of fellow human beings: wherever they originate and whatever their beliefs.

Gratz inter-weaves the three stories from different time periods.  Certain revelation of the interactions and the ripple effects of action and inaction during times of crisis would be quite illuminating for young readers, even if some would have already seen easily all the interconnectivity before the reveals.  Constructing the narrative in this way could be a risky undertaking. Some readers might find the breaking away from one tale and taking up another unsettling, especially since for most of the book these tales seem loosely thrown together merely because of their thematic similarity.

And then there’s the connecting thread from person to person between the three featured families through time and circumstances.  For some readers, this device would be clever and satisfying, but for others, it might come off as trite and forced.

I imagine the book would have been nominated, and wonder how it will fare on the Newbery discussion floor in February.

Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at


  1. I appreciated the adroit weaving in of the three stories and also was riveted by the most harrowing scenes. But I also found the sentence level writing to never rise up to others under consideration this year. And one thing in particular really bugged me — why are the parents of the Syrian family referred to as Mom and Dad? In the other two story lines parents are called by more culturally-centered names: Papa and Mama for the German one and Papi and Mami for the Cuban one. Online I found several ways of saying parent names in Arabic, none of them “Mom” and “Dad.”

    • Monica, that drove me *insane*, too. It seemed so tone-deaf, and I can’t believe an editor let it slip by. For me, this seemingly innocuous oversight kept the Syrian chapters from being fully realized: Mahmoud never comes across as a developed character and his interactions ring hollow.

      In fact, most of REFUGEE rang hollow for me. Although Gratz seems to have put a lot of heart into the book and seems to very much care about refugees and their struggles, neither echoed in the text. Perhaps this is because the writing was serviceable rather than elevated or because the narrative arcs of all three stories were so similar (context of home situation -> need to flee -> flee -> trouble while fleeing -> resolution). I didn’t feel thrilled or concerned or emotionally invested.

      Additionally, the manner in which the stories merged in the end seemed so ham-fisted to me. I couldn’t help but think of Pam Munoz Ryan’s masterful merging of her narratives in ECHO and how spectacularly satisfied I was by that reading experience. REFUGEE was supremely underwhelming, and there were too many missed opportunities with such a timely and important topic.

    • Hannah Mermelstein says:

      I actually didn’t notice the “Mom” and “Dad” thing, perhaps because anything else would be transliteration, whereas the other languages use the same alphabet as English. But I suppose it would have been easy enough to write “Mama” and “Baba,” for example. What I DID notice was Mahmoud’s father’s jokes, some of which were puns that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t work in Arabic (I’m not close to fluent, but the word I know for the vehicle “train” and the verb “to train” are not the same). I forgave it, but I noticed it.

      Since this is one small negative comment, I will say that overall I did really appreciate the book (even if I was also horrified by it, particularly as I think of my 4th graders who are reading it). I think it’s an important book that is presented well and with clarity, a well-developed plot and setting, and decent characters. The sentence-level writing isn’t always pretty, but it didn’t slow me down. It just wasn’t awe-inspiring.

      • Thank you for mentioning the train/train pun, which bothered me too. I always think when I’m reading books taking place with characters speaking in other languages as if I’m at a foreign film and I’m reading subtitles, so that jumped out at me as a glaring error. I had the same experience with Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, but where I held it against that book, I’m more willing to let it slide here since it didn’t disrupt a plot point.

  2. Leonard Kim says:

    I haven’t quite finished REFUGEE, but I have problems with the “appropriateness of style,” “interpretation of theme,” and “presentation of information” Criteria. I guess my question is, why fictionalize this at all? Is it appropriate to take, for example, a real person’s suicide attempt and just transfer it to one’s fictional creation? After all, the story of the St Louis has been oft-told in accessible formats. I even found a “Read-Aloud-Play” from Scholastic Teaching Resources:

    “MAX LOEWE: I know there are Gestapo agents here, looking for me. They want to put me in a
    concentration camp!
    ELISE LOEWE: Max, darling, please try to stay calm, for the children’s sake.
    NARRATOR 2: Frightened, Max Loewe sneaks off to hide. Later that afternoon, he slashes his
    wrists and throws himself into the harbor.
    MAX LOEWE: They will never get me! Let me die!
    OSKAR BLECHNER: Man overboard!
    BRANDLA FLAMBERG: Someone, save him!
    NARRATOR 2: A crewmember does and Loewe is taken to a Havana hospital. . .”

    I’m having trouble articulating my problem here. It is laudable to try to engender empathy by telling individuals’ stories. But there are real faces and stories out there to tell (q.v. Leatherdale’s Stormy Seas, which I mentioned elsewhere). Gratz’s fictional dramatizing feels stylistically inappropriate to me. I feel things like Max Loewe’s suicide attempt should be presented truthfully, not appropriated for Gratz’s made-up narrative. Yes, the author’s note mentions being inspired by real-life happenings. But really, what does it serve for it to be Josef’s dad who tries to kill himself, not the historical Max Loewe? Why can’t Josef just bear witness to a true event? I’m not saying that a fictional treatment is not possible. Thanh’s story in A CRACK IN THE SEA presents similar themes and concepts as REFUGEE no less effectively, but Bouwman’s treatment, which of course steps into fantasy, strikes me as the less problematic “interpretation” of them.

    • I haven’t read REFUGEE but I hope others will chime in to discuss the use of a lightly-fictionalized true event when the actual event (or a nonfiction work) would seem to be a better treatment of the subject matter. I admittedly have a very butterfly-effect-y lens as a historical fiction reader (if we transfer this event wholesale to Josef’s dad and erase the actual Max Loewe, what else changes?), but these are always boundaries I find fascinating to negotiate in good faith. (I know we went MANY rounds on this about Okay For Now, but the context of REFUGEE seems to give it greater ethical weight.)

  3. steven engelfried says:

    There’s a lot I like about this book, and I hope a lot of readers discover it. I plan to recommend it to our many “I Survived” fans, among others. It’s gripping at times, and informative. And a good choice to open discussions. Plus an excellent cover (not a Newbery consideration, I know).

    But I don’t feel it really reaches the level of “excellence” in any of the literary qualities noted in the Terms and Criteria. Events take the forefront over character, which makes sense in a plot-driven story, but I found it hard to connect with any of the protagonists beyond empathy for their dire situations. Leonard mentioned that CRACK IN THE SEA is similar in some ways, and that’s helpful: I thought Thanh and Sang were more interesting than any of the REFUGEE kids.

    At times the sentences seem to try to do more than is needed to set a scene or convey an emotion. When the tanker nearly hits Isabel’s boat it’s a dramatic moment, but the description of its monster-like qualities seems overdone (p. 116). When Mahmoud is described as feeling “like one of the zombies from his favorite video game” (p. 301) it’s kind of an awkward fit for the situation. Even writing this these feel like minor quibbles, and may just be subjective judgments based on an individual reader’s sensibilities, but I had a general sense throughout the book that the author was just trying a little too hard. And there was enough going on in the stories that a lighter touch might have actually been more powerful.

  4. I seem to remember Roger Ebert saying that he reviewed movies based on whether they accomplish what they intend to accomplish. REFUGEE strikes me as a book that successfully accomplishes what it intended to accomplish, which is giving upper middle grades readers an emotionally gripping and relevant story, and for those reasons it is deserving of starred reviews.

    However, I don’t think it ever aimed to be more lofty or more literary than that, and other commenters have pointed out where this book falls short.

    I ENJOYED reading REFUGEE, but I think there are other books this year (e.g. ORPHAN ISLAND) that are much more careful, crafty, and intentional.

  5. When I read Refugee this past summer, I KNEW I wanted to read it with my middle school classes. I loved it, and found it important.

    When it came to actually reading it, two things I did not expect happened:
    1. My students were confused and had trouble following the multiple story lines, which in turn made it a slog for them. (I work with students who struggle with reading, and was doing this as a read aloud.)

    2. Reading it aloud slowed me down and highlighted for me some of the echoes between one chapter and the next. Not the story lines, but the use of language, or images, or even sounds. I actually found it MORE artful upon reading it this way. (Same thing happened to me with The Crossover and Orbiting Jupiter, and even Last Stop on Market Street.)

    So that is a negative and a positive.

    Regarding Mahmoud’s family; I took “Mom and Dad” as being both transliteration, and a reminder to the reader that this is a very modern, current story. This kid calls his parents what you call your parents. And with his dad’s joking, rather than worry about if his humor would scan in Arabic, I took it as representing the type of humor he had, and the kind of dad-jokes he would make. Again, making him relatable for the average reader in a way Josef’s and Isabel’s fathers might not have been.

    • Wendy, valuable observation here. I believe that this experience would be a valid point to make during official Newbery committee meetings and since this is not simply a personal anecdote but a literary experience.

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