A Journey of Empathy

Refugee, by Alan Gratz (2017)33118312

Opening line: “CRACK! BANG! Josef Landau shot straight up in bed, his heart racing.”

Guys, I’m so excited to be blogging about this for multiple reasons: First: This book just came out last week, so I’m actually relevant! I feel like I’m usually at least a year behind publication dates when I blog, which most of the the time feels like too little, too late in terms of making a difference in sharing what’s new out there. And now, even though Mr. Schu has been talking this up since about February, I am at least in the realm of recently published, so hooray! Second: Alan Gratz is coming to my school in October and this is one of those books that I think every one of my students (and teachers) should read!

From the title, you can guess the content. This is book is simultaneously three stories of three separate refugee crises and one story of humanity that we need to pay attention to. The first character we’re introduced to is Josef, who is living in Berlin in 1938. His father is captured by the Nazis for continuing to practice law after Jews were forced to quit many lines of work. After several months in Dachau Concentration Camp, his father is released with the understanding that he and his family must leave Germany immediately. And so, they embark on the MS St. Louis, which is transporting hundreds of Jews to Cuba to escape Hitler.

The second story we get is that of Isabel’s, whose family is living in 1994 Havana, Cuba, under the oppressive rule of Fidel Castro. With little money and next to no food, they are barely surviving. After a particularly violent public uprising, Castro lifts his travel ban, allowing any citizens to leave Cuba without punishment. Isabel and her family quickly decide it’s time to take the risk and join their neighbors in a small makeshift boat in a desperate journey to Miami.

Finally, we meet Mahmoud, living in Aleppo, Syria in 2015. Things have gone from bad to worse in Aleppo, and when their apartment building is hit with a missile, completely destroying everything, Mahmoud’s parents decide they cannot stay in Syria any longer. With little money and nothing more than what they can carry in two small backpacks, the family of five set out to journey across nine countries to Germany, who has recently announced they are accepting refugees.

If you were paying attention there, you might start to see how these three separate stories might connect, despite the 77 year and 7000 mile spread. Gratz shifts from story to story at just the right moment, leaving us anxious to keep reading so we can get back to whatever character we just left (and that happens every. time. I never had a good chance to put in my bookmark and leave it for later! Which is why I finished it in less than 24 hours…). Each refugee crisis is brought to life with the lives of these families, and you cannot read them without wanting to change something. While two of the stories are historical fiction, one is still very much a reality for many families. In his author’s note, Gratz provides the websites for two of the organizations he suggests to look into if you too are inspired by Mahmoud’s story: UNICEF (which will receive a portion of the proceeds for every copy of Refugee that is sold) and Save the Children.

The power of books is to build empathy, and this book does just that. 3 stars

A search for peace among war

51pf6phqmrlPax, by Sara Pennypacker (2016)

Opening line: “The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first.”

Get ready for a heart-breaker, friends.

Years ago, while playing in the woods, Peter stumbled across a dead mother fox and her litter of pups, all but one of whom were also dead. The tiniest one was somehow surviving, and Peter brought him home and named him Pax. Since that moment, the two, boy and fox, were inseparable. But now war is upon them, and Peter’s father is joining the effort, meaning that Peter must go live with his grandfather, where Pax is not allowed. Heartbroken, but seeing no other option, he releases him into the wild, where he hopes he will be safe. Pax, of course, doesn’t understand, and plans to wait until his boy returns. But when hunger sets in and danger lurks, that plan isn’t quite so easy.

Meanwhile, the moment Peter arrives at his grandfather’s, he knows he made a mistake leaving Pax behind. He will know no peace until he finds Pax again. So he sets out in the middle of the night, planning to hike the couple hundred miles back to where he left his fox. As you might imagine, things go array pretty quickly.

The chapters switch back and forth between Peter’s story and Pax’s, as both are desperate to reunite with the other. The alternating perspectives spur the story forward, allowing the reader to feel that desperation as well. Those who loved One and Only Ivan will love Pax as well, and it is well-deserving of its spot on the NBA Young People’s Literature longlist for 2016.

2 stars

 

 

The Mountain calls.

61fvtvw74elThe Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart (2015)

Opening Line: “The mountain was calling me.”

I mean, I get it. One of the best things about my new living situation is that when I turn a corner I might get surprised by a sudden mountain view. And the mountain this opening line is specifically about, Mt. Rainier, is particularly noteworthy. I vividly remember the time my family went on perhaps the greatest roadtrip vacation ever, along the northern west coast, and had been at Mt. Rainier National Park all day without seeing the actual mountain because of clouds, and then, on our way out, we came around a bend and THERE IT WAS IN ALL ITS MAGICAL GLORY.

rainier

I mean, you see those “mountains” down at the bottom? That’s what we thought were the mountains before this bad boy came into view.

So, I get it. The mountain calls to me too. Not that I’m going to try to climb it, like Mark does in The Honest Truth.

Mark is a normal kid. As normal as a kid who has been through multiple cancer treatments, beating the odds, can be. But now the cancer is back. And Mark is out of options.

More than anything, Mark wants to follow his grandfather’s dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier, but he knows his parents will never let him with his current diagnosis. And so, he sets off on his own, with just his beloved dog Beau, telling no one — with the exception of leaving a secret haiku for his best friend Jess.

While Jess struggles with whether to tell Mark’s parents where she’s pretty sure he went, Mark journeys across state lines with little Beau. Despite his well-orchestrated plans, things go awry, and the trip is much more difficult than Mark imagined. Still, his determination will stop at nothing to reach the summit.

This story is raw and honest and the reader feels the desperation Mark feels along the way. If you have readers like I do that “want something that’s going to make me cry”, suggest this. You will never feel sorry for Mark, but you will definitely feel for him (and bff Jess, unsure of what she should do to save her friend).

All heart, this one. 2 stars.

 

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad cow world

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray (2009)

Opening line: “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.”

Oh boy, this book. Where to begin.

I guess let’s begin with a summary. Cameron is your average dissatisfied high schooler, just trying to get by with the minimal effort. His parents and twin sister seem uninteretsed and disconnected, and Cam isn’t motivated to fix anything, until he gets a serious health diagnosis: Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, more commonly known as “mad-cow disease.” This perfectly sums up the contradictions of this book. It’s a whirlwind combination of perfectly mundane ordinary high school personalities and reactions, mixed with the absurd. I mean, really, who gets mad-cow disease?? Then things get weirder. Cam starts having what he’s sure are hallucinations, involving a pink-haired punk angel named Dulcie, fire giants that are hunting him, and a speaking garden gnome. Dulcie convinces Cam to go on a wild journey to find Dr. X, the only person who can cure him. He must also bring along a kid from school, a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo. Cameron decides he has nothing to lose, so off they go.

The whole story supposedly parallels Don Quixote (although I don’t remember much from when we read it in Spanish senior year), which Cameron is reading at school before his diagnosis. It’s an epic roadtrip novel, a journey of self-discovery, mixed with the super weird. I don’t know. It has great elements and hilarious characters, but something about it… I had a really hard time getting into it and then also finishing it. After listening to the whole first section of my audiobook, I realized I had already started listening to it the year before, but had moved on to something else. I’m trying to figure out why it was awarded the Printz, because they usually know what they’re talking about, but I’m just not sure. I think most teens wouldn’t hold out for the whole thing, as I didn’t the first time around. I think it’s just a little too off the rocker for me to connect with. Those fire giants, man.

Anyway, I did finish it eventually, although I had to renew it (which I hardly ever do with audiobooks). Maybe I’m not a huge Libba Bray fan. This is the third Libba book I read (Great and Terrible Beauty and Beauty Queens), and for both of them I thought I would like them more than I actually did. (Beauty Queens was the best of the three, though.) I’m still holding out hope for The Diviners, though, because it looks real good.

1 star