“Refugee” Review

As I write this, I am trapped… Trapped at home. I am living in the most comfortable jail of all time. The very worst thing that could possibly happen is for the Internet to fail. I could survive without power for several hours. Were the WIFI to go out, we would all die… or, dig out board games.

My friend Julia Dweck reminded me, however, “Too much of a good thing ceases to be good.” After eight weeks of staying at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I am ready to escape my peaceful prison. Luckily, we can laugh about our entrapment.

Recently, I was mulling over this idea of being trapped in tranquility, when I thought about people who did not have homes. I’m not speaking of homeless people. Although they have their difficulties, the stay home order hasn’t affected them as much as the people who are seeking homes in foreign lands. I’m speaking of refugees

When I walk to my mailbox, I look across the street. Human beings who were my neighbors are now potential carriers of the virus. How much more multiplied must the venomous thoughts of a hateful person be toward persons they already viewed as threats? I can’t even imagine!

In an era when we wish to escape our castles, it would do us well to see our situations from the perspective of persecuted peoples forced from their homes only to be rejected entry into any other. I read a book last year that haunts my thoughts of wanting to leave the house. What if the moment I stepped foot out the door, I was never allowed to return?

Refugee 

Alan Gratz 

It took ten paragraphs to completely hook me on this book, and halfway through I was wondering to myself, “How could this possibly NOT win the Newbery Award?” Few books have changed my perspective as much as Refugee. I was already sympathetic to the plight of refugees, believing that I couldn’t possibly understand what they experience that makes them leave their homes. Alan Gratz’s research and writing transformed this passive feeling into an empowered passion of empathy for refugees. No longer do I simply feel badly for them. I know that if I were in their shoes, I would have no other recourse but to throw myself and the fate of my family onto the path of the promise of a better life elsewhere.

Refugee braids three strands of families into a tight, strong rope of a tale. And, in the same way partners of greater genetic difference have the healthiest offspring (Oldfield, 2015), here is a book made stronger by its diversity. A middle class family abandons a decent job and life in contemporary Syria when there land experiences civil war. Persecuted for no reason past their parentage, a Jewish family is pushed out of Germany in 1936. The third family struggles with the decision to leave Cuba in 1994, during a brief window of opportunity. 

As different as these families are, there are many elements they share. The governments of the lands they flee to are not interested in helping. There are people in those places who want to help. Along the route, refugees are fueled by hope, while simultaneously finding it drained at every turn.

The reader of Refugee will find their heart tapped, and the beating blood of humanity, with all of its life-giving as well as soul-sucking qualities, pumped into it. Be cautioned. It is not for the faint of heart, but it will grow your heart.

IMG_6235BIBLIO: 2017, Scholastic Press, Ages 9 – 12, $9.74

REVIEWER: Matthew Weimann

FORMAT: Hardcover

ISBN-10: 9780545880831

ISBN-13: 978-0545880831

 

Alan Gratz author.jpgWhen we read, we escape. We live the lives of the characters from the text. Sometimes we escape boredom. Other times we escape reality. There are times we must escape ignorance.

What is the best way to put yourself in other people’s shoes? Put on other people’s shoes! Alan Gratz has been a writer-in-residence and teacher in Japan; Tokyo; the attic of James Thurber in Columbus, Ohio; and Jakarta, Indonesia. He grew up in Tennessee and now lives in North Carolina.

Books by Alan – “Novels” page from his website

Sources:

Oldfield, P. (2015, July 1). Diverse parental genes lead to taller, smarter children, finds extensive study. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/02/diverse-parental-genes-lead-to-taller-smarter-children-says-extensive-study 

Classy Character Development

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Small booklet to be photocopied and stapled contains my story, “Teamwork Changes Everything”

“What gender is the Squirrel?” a student asked me as she typed her written response into her iPad.

“What pronoun was used in the story?” I hinted. This is a story about a squirrel who is too worried about collecting nuts to speak with a rabbit who just wants to help. Eventually, the squirrel allows the aid, and in time the two become unlikely friends. I wrote the simple story for my students several years ago. The animals don’t have names, however, I do use the personal pronoun, “her”. I just refer to them as Squirrel and Rabbit, which is common among characters in folktales. 

My student located the female personal pronoun. I got the class’s attention and pointed out the student’s discovery. A mini lesson on pronouns ensued.

Even after all of that, this morning I ran across a written response that jarred me. I had the students write about how Squirrel changes throughout the story. They were to use sequence and display evidence to show comprehension of character development. One of the best responses was written by a boy. He did a great job writing an opening sentence, answering the prompt, providing evidence…

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The great written response that gave me pause.

 

Only one thing… 

The boy used “he” to refer to the Squirrel.

Now, this is not a big deal at all; I would not take any points off for that, but it caused me to pause and think. This was not a student who failed to pay attention during my lesson on pronouns. He is one of my better listeners. 

You know what happened? This smart kid identified himself with the main character of the story; the one who changes from frantic to friendly. I don’t think that this is a case of gender reversal. It feels more like gender take over. The student is a great kid, and I don’t think there was one malicious moment in his reading or writing or learning. I blame this on my lack of clarity when developing the characters of the story. I afforded the student enough ambiguity that he was able to comfortably substitute the male pronoun for the female without even thinking about it. 

This reminded me of a Twitter profile I recently ran across and look forward to following. “Write With Color” (https://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/) is about purposefully including detail about race and/or ethnicity in character development when writing.

I used to think that it was a good thing to be vague when presenting a character, so that the reader can identify more freely. There is certainly a time and place for that. If your purpose for writing is to provide powerful female potential in the public mindset, though, it would be important to make sure that people are clear on who your character is. 

My student assuming a male gender for the character from my story did not bother me, but it was a wakeup call. As I write, I plan to be more explicit in who the characters are. In this way a white kid may find out that he is no different than a kid of color. A boy will find out that a girl is just as strong, and maybe more, than he is. I want to provide opportunities for comparing and contrasting, rather than usurping my characters.