Summary: Josef / Berlin, Germany-1938

Josef Landau is a twelve-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany. On Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, seven Nazi Brownshirts (storm troopers) raid his home. Josef is dragged from his bed and thrown on the floor next to his six-year-old sister, Ruth. Josef’s father is arrested for being Jewish and practicing law. When Josef argues, the Nazis threaten to take him to a concentration camp. Josef’s mother, Rachel pleads with them, saying that he is still a boy. The family later learns that tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested on Kristallnacht. They do not want to leave without their father. Six months later, they receive a telegram: Josef’s father has been released from the Dachau concentration camp, but the family must leave Germany within fourteen days.

Summary: Isabel / Just Outside Havana, Cuba-1994

Isabel Fernandez is an eleven-year-old girl who lives just outside Havana, Cuba. As Isabel feeds a starving cat, she reflects on how nearly all the people in Cuba are starving, too. After the fall of Soviet Russia in 1989, Cuba’s economy collapsed, since Russia was no longer buying sugar from them. People lost their jobs, and the country lacked the resources to switch the sugarcane fields over to food crops. Iván, Isabel’s twelve-year-old neighbor and friend, talks to her for a while, and they discuss naming the cat.

When Iván’s father hollers that he needs to come home, Iván tells Isabel that he and his father are building a doghouse. Isabel knows, however, that they are actually building a small boat to try to escape to America. Isabel worries for Iván’s family, because her father was put in jail for a year for trying to escape to America, which was made illegal by Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro. 

Isabel joins her father and grandfather, who are going into Havana. She hopes to earn money from tourists by playing her trumpet. While she plays, she tries to hear the clave, the irregular beat that she has been told underlies all Cuban music. Instead, she hears glass breaking.

Summary: Mahmoud / Aleppo, Syria-2015

Mahmoud Bishara, a twelve-year-old boy, tries to live an “invisible” life in Aleppo, Syria. After four years of war, he has become paranoid, and his younger brother, Waleed, no longer expresses emotions. There was open revolt against Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, following the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. With the Syrian military attacking its own civilians, Mahmoud has learned not to stand out or be noticed. 

While walking home with Waleed, Mahmoud sees a boy being beaten and robbed by two older boys. Mahmoud thinks of the time that he tried to save his friend Khalid from a similar attack, except that Khalid was attacked for being a Shia Muslim (in a predominately Sunni country). Mahmoud’s attempt to rescue Khalid was unsuccessful, and he was also beaten. Afterward, he and Khalid were regularly attacked by the older boys, reinforcing Mahmoud’s decision to become invisible. Khalid died in an airstrike a year later, convincing Mahmoud that it was better not to have friends. Mahmoud and Waleed ignore the robbery and take a different route home. 


In this section of the book, Gratz introduces the need for refugee children to behave as adults as a theme. Although Josef is only twelve, his response to Nazis ransacking his home and taking his father to a concentration camp is to argue when they call him a boy. He says he will be a man in six months. Josef shows great bravery in this scene in trying to pull the soldiers away from his father as they carry him off. However, he is nevertheless still a child. He screams as they grab for him and wets his pants in fear. Throughout the book, Josef takes on the responsibility of adulthood, but in reality he is too young to have to take on so much. Gratz develops a theme of the premature adulthood of refugee children, who must take on more mature obligations than are normal for kids their age in order to keep themselves and their families safe.

In Isabel’s opening chapter, Gratz establishes her deep connection to music, a motif he will develop throughout the book. Isabel’s mother says that with her trumpet, she can “play the storm clouds from the sky,” a reference to her skill and a foreshadowing of the storms her family will encounter in the book. As Isabel plays on the Malecón, she listens for the clave, the rhythm that lies underneath every Cuban song. The clave is the heartbeat of Cuban music, and even though Isabel is a gifted musician, she cannot hear it. Isabel feels like an outsider, since everyone else can hear the clave, a sign of her anxiety at not having a properly developed Cuban identity. As she listens, she instead hears the sound of breaking glass, a metaphor for the chaos and destruction coming for her family’s tenuous safety in Cuba. From the first chapter on, Gratz uses music as a metaphor to tell Isabel’s story. Even Isabel herself comes to use Cuban music to define her refugee journey.

Mahmoud has made an art of invisibility as a boy in war-torn Aleppo. He keeps his hoodie pulled down close as he walks the streets of the city and takes different routes through back alleys and bombed out buildings to avoid attracting the attention of army or rebel soldiers. He knows that being invisible is his only means of safety. At school, he sits in the middle and does not make friends, having found that his friendship with a Shia boy led to them both being the targets of bullies. When he and Waleed see boys stealing bread from another boy, he ignores his impulse to step in and help, instead choosing to stay safe by remaining unseen. Gratz compares Mahmoud’s attempts to stay out of sight to Syria’s attempts to avoid the uprisings of the Arab Spring, suggesting that just as the revolution and unrest came to Syria despite its efforts to ignore the movement, Mahmoud will not be able to stay invisible for the whole story. Despite his best efforts, Mahmoud will have to become visible to gain the help he needs for himself and his family.