Peer Review by seaomelette (United Arab Emirates)

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Reading "Refugee" by Alan Gratz (Review for review!)

By: Riya

“You can live as a ghost, waiting for death to come, or you can dance.”

Alan Gratz sheds light on historical events while still managing to weave an enticing tale of 3 children seeking refuge. This historical fiction novel follows the stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud through various time periods. Living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Josef needs to escape after the Nazis attack his Jewish family. Isabel is escaping the civil unrest in her home country of Cuba in 1994. Mahmoud is a boy in Aleppo, Syria, escaping the war in 2015. 

Although these kids seem to live entirely different, yet equally terrifying lives, they have the same goal: to survive their journey to seek refuge. I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to those who enjoy being at the edge of their seat wondering what will happen next. Refugee captures accurate images of historical events, so it is ideal for those who would like to delve into these moments in time. Although it is geared toward a younger audience of middle schoolers, I feel that even adults should read this book because of its impactful description of the lives of refugees.

"We're against whoever's dropping the bombs on us."

What I enjoyed most about this book was how you get attached to the characters. I felt like I was right there with Mahmoud when he's in a car getting shot at. Right next to Isabel in her leaky raft trying not to sink. Right there watching with dread as Josef's Star of David armband falls down in front of a Hitler Youth boy. Whenever a character was forced to overcome an obstacle in their journey, I was there rooting for them and hoping they would survive. I found the writing to be very emotional and you could really connect with the characters. Often, when there are multiple narrators, it gets difficult to understand each character's situation on a deeper level. Despite each narrator being in a wildly different environment, I still connected with them which is what I find admirable about the writing. However, the changes between the narrators are also the book's weakness since they seemed a bit abrupt occasionally. Sometimes, the cliffhangers made me want to skip to the next time it was, say, Isabel's turn to tell her story.

"Her foot tapped in time with the hidden cadence, and she realized with a thrill that she was finally hearing it."

What was also interesting to see was the way it all connected together and how certain ideas continued throughout the story. For Isabel, an aspiring musician, the theme of counting clave (a hidden beat in Cuban music) is consistently found throughout her journey to the United States. Additionally, the three stories all intertwine towards the end even though it seems like Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are in wildly different worlds.

All in all, I found Refugee to be an emotional story that is full of ups and downs, twists and turns. It truly opens one's eyes and shows the difficulties so many people have faced and are still suffering. I think that Mahmoud's story was the most interesting and the one I was captivated by the most. His story is still relevant due to the ongoing Syrian war. His sacrifices and the fact that a child around my age knows exactly how to avoid artillery shells from experience is heartbreaking. I would like to thank my English teacher for recommending this book to me and I want to do the same and tell you that this is a must-read. Refugee is definitely a novel that needs to be on your bookshelf. 

Word count: 605
I'd love any feedback you have.

Peer Review

I always appreciate a good historical fiction, and I love how you captured the essence of Refugee, sprinkling key quotes in between the paragraphs and interpolating your personal thoughts about why you loved this book.

While writing a book review, the balance between describing too little or too much about the book's plot remains crucial. I loved the way you introduced Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud, and hinted at the obstacles each character faced in their own time. However, I felt like I was only getting at the surface of each characters' story, and each characters' complexity.

Instead of just saying that Refugee is an emotional story with cliffhangers, can you give readers of your review a hint of how amazing it is? You do this when you describe the dramatic situations Mahmoud, Isabel, and Josef experience, and I'd love to see that level of detail extended to a brief outline of their individual life stories. When Josef is forced to escape with his family, what kind of experiences does he undergo? How does Isabel's escape from Cuba unfold? What is Mahmoud's life like in war-torn Aleppo? Are their stories connected in some way? Of course, you won't be able to tell readers of your review everything about the book, but hinting at a general plot framework without giving away a lot of details can go a long way towards heightening reader interest and persuading them to read the book for themselves.

I loved the way you connected your review with beautiful quotes from the book itself, but I'd love to see you try and connect these quotes with your recounting of the plot. You do this excellently with the quote about Isabel discovering the counting clave, and it would be amazing if you could extend that same amount of detail to the other two quotes, which I thought were wonderful, but somewhat disconnected and unexplained in context with the rest of the story. For instance, the quote, "You can live as a ghost..." makes for a gripping introductory sentence, but I'm not quite sure how it relates to the stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud.

The writing of book reviews appears deceptively simple, but can be fiendishly frustrating, since you might want to toss in all the details into a huge verbal salad and just shout in your readers' faces about how much you want them to read this book, but struggle with finding that balance between piquing interest and spoiling them. I can totally relate to that, and I applaud your writing efforts. With this first draft, you've already made me want to read Refugee, and that's an amazing accomplishment. Keep up the awesome writing!

Reviewer Comments

I've never read Refugee myself, but reading your review, I'm getting that feeling of excitement when I think I've found a new treasure of a book. I'll be reading Refugee for sure! All the best, and good luck with the competition!