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Refugee: 2018 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour

The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2018 Blog Tour features interviews with gold and silver medalists. Visit jewishlibraries.org for the full schedule of blog tour stops (including Shoshana’s interview with Tammar Stein!) and follow the Association of Jewish Library’s blog.

Refugee by Alan Gratz is a timely, emotion-filled, and pulse-pounding story that intertwines the narratives of three young protagonists: Josef, a German Jewish boy in 1939; Isabel, a Cuban girl in 1994; and Mahmoud, a boy in 2015 Aleppo, Syria. Refugee was named the 2018 Sydney Taylor Award winner in the Older Readers category by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

Five Questions for Alan Gratz

1. How did you decide on the book’s three different time periods and geographical locations?

AG: Refugee started for me with the story of the MS St. Louis. There have, of course, been other books about it, and movies, even an opera. But there wasn’t a book about the MS St. Louis for young readers. So I decided to write one!

I was in the middle of figuring out who my main character would be and how exactly I would tell the story of the MS St. Louis when my family and I went on vacation to the Florida Keys. One morning we got up to walk on the beach, and there we found a raft refugees had taken to come to the United States. No one was on board, and I still don’t know where it came from, but my best guess is that it came from Cuba. It made me think: why was I writing a book about Jewish refugees seventy-five years ago when there were refugees right here, right now, I could be writing about?

And of course at the same time I was seeing images on the news and on the internet about the Syrian Civil War, and the millions of Syrian refugees looking for some place of safety. I couldn’t decide — which book should I write? They were all important stories! And then I realized: why do I have to write three books? What if I just wrote one book, and combined all three stories? That’s why I chose those three communities, and that’s how Refugee was born.

2. Your own family was Jewish, going back…but they didn’t know. Can you tell that story?

AG: I was raised Methodist (though my family was never particularly devout), and my ancestors had been Christian as far back as anyone could remember. Then somewhere around the time I was in fourth grade, my father’s side of the family got interested in where exactly we came from and started doing some digging. We knew that our earliest ancestor in the United States was named Louis Alexander Gratz, and that he had made a name for himself in the Union Army during the Civil War, and then later settled in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he became a lawyer and a city planner and married into a prominent family. But who had he been before he came to America, and where was he originally from?

My aunts and uncles and grandparents did some genealogical digging, and eventually discovered that my great-great-great grandfather (I think I have the right number of “greats” in there) L.A. Gratz was an orphan from Prussia who had come to America in the 1860s without any family connections here, without any money, and without any English — he spoke only German.

Oh — and he was Jewish.

That was the real bombshell for my family, because good old L.A. Gratz — the L.A. Gratz we knew from his time in America, at least — was Christian! It turns out that he switched religions upon reaching America’s shores, doubtless to aid in his assimilation. (I guess he was as loose about his Judaism as we were about our Protestantism!) But the kicker is, he hid his Jewish past from the rest of his family. He never told either of his wives, nor any of his children, so none of us knew. It came as a real shock to everyone, but none more so than my anti-Semitic grandfather. He died of a heart attack soon after learning about L.A. Gratz’s Jewish origins, and family lore has it that that’s what really did him in.

3. How did that revelation affect the way you approached writing Refugee and other books with Jewish content (Prisoner B-3087, Projekt 1065, The Brooklyn Nine)?

AG: I suppose that ever since learning about my family’s Jewish origins I’ve been more interested to learn more about Judaism and Jewish life. And I had everything to learn. I grew up in the American south. I think there was one, maybe two Jewish temples in my whole city, and it was high school before I really knew any Jewish kids. Every time I write about Jewish characters — and I’ve done so in at least four books now — I feel like I’m exploring part of my own ancestral past. I even took L.A. Gratz’s story — my family’s story — and adapted it for The Brooklyn Nine, following a family that is Jewish when it comes to America, transitions to Christianity to assimilate, and then by the end of the book isn’t really religious at all. For so long the first part of that religious journey was hidden and unknown to me, and every book I write with Jewish characters brings it a little more to life.

4. In addition to historical fiction, you’ve written — among other genres — mystery-humor (the Horatio Wilkes books), steampunk fantasy (the League of Seven series), and a Star Trek novel, plus lots of baseball. Do you have a favorite writing style/genre/go-to topic?

AG: I do get around! I’m interested in lots of genres and lots of topics, and I’ve been really lucky to have a career where I’ve gotten to play in different sandboxes. My favorite thing to read is murder mysteries — and as you point out, I’ve tried my hand at writing a couple in the past. But I think my favorite thing to write is middle-grade historical fiction, particularly about World War II. That’s where I’ve recently found my home, and that’s where I’m going to stay for the foreseeable future!

5. Through your experience with this book (researching, writing, post-publication), what do you think are ways to combat xenophobic ignorance and to encourage empathy?

AG: Reading and learning about people who are different from ourselves is one of the best ways of teaching empathy that I know. So much of people’s hatred and prejudice is just ignorance and misunderstanding in disguise. When I was writing Refugee, it was important to me to show traditions and ceremonies from each of my three main character’s religions and cultures. That’s why we see three funerals (however hastily handled) and three celebrations (a birthday, a party, and a wedding). My hope is that young readers will see in those ceremonies universal emotions — love, devotion, happiness, sorrow — and that once they see that they too share these feelings, they’ll understand that everything else is just gravy.

In Mahmoud’s story there are multiple scenes of Muslim prayer, something I was totally unfamiliar with before writing this book. I had to do a lot of research to understand what exactly a Muslim person is saying and doing when he prays to Mecca, and in doing that research — and all the other research into the religions and cultures and traditions of my characters — I learned so much about all of these people who were other to me. But in learning more about what made them “other,” of course, I learned so much more about all the things that make us alike. So it works for me, too, not just for my readers. Kids always ask me which character I am most like in Refugee, and the funny thing is that I am totally Mahmoud’s father — the one character who is, on the surface at least, perhaps the most unlike me.

Read The Horn Book Magazine‘s review of Refugee and Alan Gratz Talks with Roger. Visit jewishlibraries.org for the full schedule of the 2018 Sydney Taylor Award blog tour and read the Association of Jewish Library’s blog.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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Comments

  1. Great questions and responses!
    There was/is a book for young readers about the MS St. Louis. I wrote Liesel’s Ocean Rescue, published by Gihon River Press in 2015. I can appreciate the interest in the story of the St. Louis–I interviewed nine people in 2010 who had been aboard. I commend the approach to put forth a combination of refugee stories that share experience although representing different cultures. They are extremely relevant to today’s readers.

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