When author Alan Gratz asked the audience Tuesday night at Blount County Public Library how many people have read his book “Refugee,” nearly 200 hands shot up.
That’s the power of 1READ, in which middle-schoolers and adults throughout the community are reading the same title, with this year’s theme of “Finding Home.”
Some of the students even held up copies of his new book, “Grenade,” which won’t be in bookstores until Oct. 9 but has been available through schools’ Scholastic book fairs.
Like all of his books since “Prisoner B-3087,” released in 2013, it is a “social thriller,” Gratz told the audience. “I don’t want you to ever put them down,” he said.
The Knoxville native who now lives in Asheville, N.C., told the audience, “I’m writing books for the reluctant reader I was as a kid.”
Gratz explained that he heard writer and director Jordan Peele describe his film “Get Out” as a social thriller, and Gratz realized that applies to his own writing, which explores social issues within interesting stories.
For example, his novel “Ban This Book” is about censorship, and the main character creates a “locker library” to share banned books with classmates.
“I want them to have the experience on the page so they can think what their response would be in real life,” Gratz said.
“Prisoner B-3087,” based on the true story of a boy who survived 10 concentration camps, teaches young readers a bit about the Holocaust.
“What I hope they take away from it, too, is to not take the things that they have for granted,” Gratz said.
“He was all by himself every day trying not to die,” the author explained. “It really helps put things in perspective for me.”
“Code of Honor” tells the story of a boy of Middle Eastern heritage in America and deals with stereotypes and prejudice.
While writing that book, Gratz received a fan letter from a boy in Pittsburgh who said he felt the same type of prejudice the author had described against Jews in World War II. The author interviewed him as part of the research for “Code of Honor.”
In “Projekt 1065,” Gratz looks at “how do you become a zealot for a cause that is wrong,” through boys who are part of the Hitler Youth during World War II.
Today, Gratz noted, there are more refugees across the world than at any time in history, surpassing even the number displaced during World War II.
“They have been driven from their homes, and they are looking for a place of safety,” he said.
They might face war, violence or persecution based on politics, religion or the color of their skin, or they could be displaced by a natural disaster. “They are driven from their homes by something they can’t control,” he said.
“What I’m trying to show you with this book is that refugees don’t have one face, they don’t have one religion, they don’t have one point of origin,” Gratz said. “There but for the grace of God go we.”
Nearly eight years ago, Syrians were living middle-class lives before bombs started dropping and they began walking thousands of miles trying to find a safe place, he explained.
“Grenade,” his newest book, tells the story of a boy on the island of Okinawa in World War II and is about “what happens when war comes to your country and you can’t get away,” the author said.
Gratz has been visiting the county’s four middle schools to meet with students this week, but Blount County Friends of the Library also sponsored his public appearance for 1READ.
Although officially only Blount County Schools joined with the Blount County Public Library for this first 1READ, parents with students in other schools decided it was too good an idea to miss.
Through word of mouth, about half a dozen families decided to read the book with their children, in grades 4-6, and met to talk about it before Gratz spoke at the library Tuesday.
“We wanted our kids to be able to talk about it together,” said Crystal Colter. And Gratz spoke to the group before his presentation.
Dustin Park bought “Refugee” for his son Asher, a fourth-grader at Montgomery Ridge Intermediate School.
A fan of historic fiction, Asher finished “Projekt 1065” in three days and moved on to “Grenade.”
“He’s full of questions,” Dustin Park said of his son, noting the origins of World War II to why Syria is fighting a war now. And the father said it’s great for Asher to talk with other kids his own age about the books.
Growing up in a mixed religious family, Catholic and Jewish, Asher has said he most relates to the character Josef in “Refugee,” a Jewish boy whose family is leaving Nazi Germany, Park explained.
Asher has two younger siblings, in kindergarten and second grade. “We’ve loved the One Book Blitz,” Park said of the two-year-old countywide program in which elementary students have read the same book, and he hopes other schools will join BCS in 1READ for the middle school grades. __