Alan Gratz, author and creator of Refugee, was kind enough to step away from his very busy schedule of moving, writing his new book, getting ready for the launch of Refugee, raising his 14 year old daughter and hosting the last local pub trivia game after 7 years to hangout with Storymamas for an hour to discuss Refugee.
According to Alan, in three words, Refugee is:
- Action-packed (he decided to make it a hyphenated one-word word)
“I write books I don’t want kids to put down.”
He really didn’t want to use this word to describe his own book, he’s very humble, but he said it’s because supporting refugee children is important to him, important for kids to know what is happening today and what has happened in the past, important to bring attention to refugees. So important, in fact, that Alan has tried to volunteer his home to host refugee families, but he lives in the ‘boonies’ and it’s better for refugees to live in bigger cities where there are more opportunities and a larger support system. So instead he gives money to causes like Save the Children and UNICEF. He’s such an amazing author and person he’s even giving a portion of the proceeds made from the book sales of Refugee to UNICEF to support refugee children around the world. Is that not enough reason to buy the book and read it, if not for our words of love for this wonderful book?! 😉
This book focuses on some pretty scary stuff. When Alan does school visits he asks thought-provoking questions to help kids imagine life as a refugee child, and the answers to these questions are harrowing:
-Who of the three characters would you be?
-When you leave your house, where do you go?
-If you leave your country, can you get out, will other countries let you in, where would you go?
-What will you put in your backpack?
-What 10 things that fit in your backpack would you take with?
-When you get to the new place you’ll live, are you going to walk into the same grade level classroom or will you have to go back to 4th grade at the age of 14 because you don’t speak the language?
The Birth of Refugee
Interestingly enough Alan wasn’t planning on writing this book, he was planning to write a story about the youngest kid who joined the navy, but when presented to the sales department he was told this book was already being written. WHAT?! Can you imagine being an author, having an idea, doing preliminary research and being told your idea is already being written?! But nonetheless, he’s a dedicated author and this didn’t deter him. He had to come up with a new idea, a new book. He thought the story of the MS. St Louis, a boat carrying Jewish refugees from Germany during WWII heading to Cuba, was an interesting one but that there wasn’t enough there for an entire book. Then during the late winter of 2015, he went on vacation with his family to the Florida Keys. One morning he went for a walk on the beach and saw sitting there in the sand, a raft. Not the raft you are probably imagining, a life raft full of air, but this raft was made of metal roofing from a shed wrapped around sideways, 2 by 4’s, a motorcycle engine and inside were sitting wet clothes, 2 liter bottles of water and candy they had used on their journey. Alan and his family were changed from that moment on thinking about how when they were sleeping in their comfy hotel, refugees came to America. While they were sitting by the pool reading books, this family was trying to survive on a makeshift raft. Alan went home, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the scene on the beach.
Then walking his dog one day, back from vacation, a story, a novella as he called it, started to be born based on his knowledge of the MS St. Louis, the visions of the raft in the Keys, most likely from Cuba, and the constant, terrifying news stories about Syria. It left him feeling like he needed to do something, something needed to be written, and so once he ended his travel he outlined, researched and began to write Refugee.
Alan admitted when writing, he works the hardest on creating characters, writing interesting, impactful characters. The plot, no problem, he loves writing the plot, he’s a “plot junky”, but when he needs to create characters he writes more than just an outline, he writes a character sheet for each one. He knows how imperative it is to write characters who the reader can connect with, characters who the reader understands. So with Refugee he knew he needed to create the three characters: Mahmoud, Josef and Isabel on and off the page. He needed to share their background stories, those ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories, answer the question who are they now but really, what made them that way?
He wants readers to wonder and think deeply about his characters. He wants readers to think about:
*Why is Mahmoud invisible? Why does he want to be invisible? Why does he embrace that?
*Why does Josef want to grow up to be an adult all of the sudden?
*What are Isabel’s hopes and dreams? Why is she scared of the water? What happened with her grandmother, how does that haunt her and maybe hold her back from what she needs to do?
But developing these stories took a lot of work, research and thought. Because Alan was writing a book about three different characters, in three different time periods, his research was different. The research about Josef, the Jewish refugee, was done in a more traditional research method of checking out books and taking notes. But the stories about Isabel, the Cuban refugee, and Mahmoud, the Syrian refugee, he explained, were much more difficult since these two stories are more recent. While the characters are fictional, everything that happens to his characters were real accounts taken from current reporting resources like magazine and newspaper articles, so finding those stories took a lot more time and effort.
One quote Alan goes back to often when talking about this book is by Eglantyne Jebb, founder of Save the Children, “Every war is a war against the child.” Children are the ones paying the price for war, whether it’s war or famine. His book is less about why they had to leave and more about what they do to survive and thus he developed characters who showed bravery even in a time of huge sacrifice and challenge. He also wanted to give each character ownership over their journey because in a time of tragedy, a time of suffering, kids are the ones who suffer the most since they are unable take action, unlike adults. Once you meet his characters and hear their stories, you will be forever changed, forever empathetic, and maybe like us you will wonder if you were in these situations what you would have done, could you have survived all they endure?
The Process of Writing
Alan, like many authors, has a system for writing and it goes something like this; a month of researching, a month of outlining, a month for his first draft and then a long process of drafting and editing, drafting and editing and finally publishing. He usually takes every three months off from traveling to do author visits and such so he can do the actual writing of his books.
The way Alan outlines his books is very interesting. Here’s a sneak peak of his ‘book board’.
Each notecard is a chapter in the book. We were curious about where the notecards and outlines go once he is done with the writing. He is too much of a sentimentalist to throw them away and what’s really cool is that a lot of universities collect author’s work. He gives his work to the University of Central Florida in honor of one of his beloved professors who taught him to use YA in the classroom, Tedd Hipple. So if you’re curious you can head to the university, read his book and look at his process for Refugee as well as his other books and those of other authors.
Who is Alan Gratz?
A new career…Interestingly enough if Alan wasn’t an author he would be a game show host because he loves game shows. He grew up watching them and with his trivia hosting gig he probably would make an amazing game show host!
An influential book….One book that has stuck with Alan through the years is Tuck Everlasting because it tackled the topic of death as being a natural part of the cycle of life. As a kid he was so afraid to die, he was preoccupied with his own death. He hadn’t read about death in this context before and so in 7th grade this book had a large impact on him. While he doesn’t reread books often, this one has been reread many times and he even read it to his daughter.
The fridge….Something very interesting we learned about Alan was that he has very little in his fridge. If you looked inside every day would be the same. You would find a round glass bowl with pizza dough in it, because every night for dinner, since 8th grade, he eats a cheese pizza. According to his math he has eaten about 30,000 pizzas in his life. Sounds delicious! So if you ever invite Alan to eat with you, make sure there is pizza at the restaurant!
Storymamas were changed by Refugee and we highly recommend picking up a copy today!