I first heard of The Boy at the Back of the Class when it was recommended on Twitter by Lisa Thompson – the fab author of The Light Jar and The Day I was Erased – and as the storyline intrigued me, I decided to buy a copy. For some reason, though, it sat on my TBR (to be read) pile for quite a few months; however, after seeing the book included on the shortlists of a number of book awards recently, I accelerated it to the top the pile. I’m really glad I did: not only is it a super read, it (more importantly) shines a spotlight on the plight of young refugees in a way that I think will really resonate with younger readers.
The author, Onjali Q Rauf, is the founder of Making Herstory, an organisation which encourages men, women and children to work together to create a more equal and fairer world for women and girls everywhere. Outside of her professional role, she delivers emergency aid packages for refugee families living in Calais and Dunkirk, and so it’s no surprise that her first novel centres around Ahmet, a 9-year-old refugee, who arrives in London after fleeing Syria.
The story is told in the first person by a 9-year-old child of undisclosed gender (we find out at the end of the book that she is a girl of dual heritage called Alexa). It starts with an empty chair at the back of the classroom, which, just 3 weeks in to the school term, is filled by Ahmet. As the days go by, and after hearing many rumours due to the school’s gossip net being cast far and wide, Alexa and her friends find out that Ahmet is a refugee from Syria and they decide that they want him to be their friend. As they start to discover his story, they are determined to to help him find his family
This is clearly a very topical and relevant story. It has a big heart and is told with humour, honesty and empathy. Onjali doesn’t shy away from the differing opinions held in this country about refugees – from anger and fear to empathic and supportive – and highlights the power of the media, in particular how it can sensationalise and sway opinion with less than accurate reporting. She also highlights the resilience that children possess in looking past what they hear so that they can make their own minds up. Ultimately, the book teaches us to stand up for what you believe in and to never underestimate the power of friendship and kindness, which I think are principles we can all applaud and aspire to.
This would be a great book to be shared in school or to open up discussions about refugees. As a middle-grade book, it is aimed at Key Stage 2 and above; however, I have shared it with my 7-year-old who really enjoyed it. As usual, she takes the story in her stride, whereas I had a tear in my eye a couple of times…
The Boy at the Back of the Class
Author: Onjali Q Rauf
Illustrator: Pippa Curnick
Publisher: Orion Children’s Books (an imprint of Hachette Children’s Group)
Paperback: 321 pages