It will be difficult for any reader to sit on a comfortable couch in a comfortable home and absorb Alan Gratz’s new middle-grade novel, “Refugee,” without feeling both an overwhelming sense of grief and a deep desire to change the world. What Gratz has done is no small feat — distilling the horrors of Nazi Germany, Castro’s Cuba and the Syrian refugee crisis into a beautifully written, heart-wrenching balancing act between three preteen protagonists separated by decades but united by courage. “Refugee” is sure to win awards and be taught in classrooms and — as great stories always do — maybe even change a heart or two. 

Twelve-year-old Josef Landau’s tale begins in Berlin in 1938. Josef’s family is Jewish. His father is arrested on Kristallnacht, along with tens of thousands of others, and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. Six months later, he is released and told to leave Germany within two weeks. The family eventually secures passage to Cuba, where they believe asylum awaits. On board the ship, Josef reflects on the crew’s ignorance of the refugees’ predicament: “The stewards smiled with the passengers as though they understood, but none of them could really understand, Josef thought. Not until their shop windows had been smashed and their businesses had been shut down. Not until the newspapers and radio talked about them as subhuman monsters. Not until shadowy men had burst into their homes and smashed up their things and dragged away someone they loved. Not until they had been told to leave their homeland and never, ever come back.” 

Isabel Fernandez is 11 years old in 1994 and lives near Havana with her parents and her beloved grandfather. Starvation threatens, but Fidel Castro suddenly reverses his long-held and brutally enforced position on emigration. Isabel and…