Refugee by Alan Gratz; Scholastic Press, 352 pages ($16.99) Ages 9 to 12.
In this heartrending and important tale for our time, Alan Gratz offers parallel stories, in alternating narratives, of three children forced to flee their native lands with their families - Josef Landau in 1939 Berlin, Isabel Fernandez in 1994 Havana and Mahmoud Bishara in 2015 Aleppo. Josef's father, a lawyer, has been broken by his experience of torture in prison, and the family - 12-year-old Josef, his mother, and 6-year-old Ruthie - books passage with hundreds of other fleeing Jewish families on the St. Louis, bound for Cuba. Five decades later, with riots and unrest plaguing Cuba in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Isabel trades her beloved trumpet for enough gasoline to power a leaking wooden boat, and her family and the next-door neighbors crowd in and shove off in the dead of night to travel the 90 miles to Miami. When their apartment in Aleppo, Syria, is destroyed in an airstrike, Mahmoud, his parents, his shell-shocked younger brother and baby sister Hana hurriedly set off on a nightmarish journey by car, on foot, bus, train and raft hoping to find safety in Europe. This is a survival tale for young readers like no other. Gratz does not sugarcoat the reality of the refugee experience, and not all of his characters survive the journey. The grim realities of the anxious voyage aboard the St. Louis include the insults and assaults inflicted by the crew - and the agony of being turned away from Cuba and back to Europe. The voyage of the Fernandez family surrounded by sharks in their leaky boat, trying to avoid U.S. Coast Guard vessels is described in gripping detail as the family races to set foot on shore at the time of the Clinton administration's "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy. The Bisharas' experience in that rubber raft crossing the Mediterranean is truly terrifying, knowing as we do that so many desperate refugees are traveling - and dying - on this route today. The three stories all turn out to be connected, a nifty detail that delivers a powerful message to young readers.
Hell & High Water by Tanya Landman; Candlewick Press, 312 pages ($17.99) Ages 12 and up.
Carnegie Medal winner Tanya Landman explores the lives of history's dispossessed in her historical fiction for young people including "The Goldsmith's Daughter" and "I Am Apache." And it's the gritty depiction of the realities of class, poverty, racism and judicial corruption in mid 18th century England - along with the mystery and a hint of romance - that makes "Hell and High Water" such a riveting read. The year is 1752, and 15-year-old Caleb, a boy of mixed race, finds himself all alone in Torcester, England, after his father, a puppeteer, is wrongly accused of stealing and sentenced to be transported to the Americas. Following his father's whispered instructions in jail , Caleb makes his way on foot to the coast - dragging his father's wooden theater and the Punch and Judy puppets - to find an aunt he has never heard of. No longer a maid at a wealthy estate, she now lives in the miserable seaside village of Fishpool, taking in laundry and sewing to support herself, her stepdaughter, Letty, and baby daughter while her husband is away at sea. Caleb's nimble fingers make him better adapted to sewing than work on a boat, but the discovery of his father's body on the beach - and the local authorities' denial that the dead man was indeed his father - sends Caleb and Letty on a dangerous quest to uncover the truth. This richly detailed, beautifully written novel was inspired by the true story of Thomas Benson, a wealthy land owner and merchant trader, member of Parliament and notorious smuggler and fraudster.