This book won several awards in the UK when it was published in 2019. I think the awards are well-deserved.
Set largely in an English school somewhere in London, the story centres around the narrator, a child of 10 years old (9 and 3/4 actually), and a small group of ‘best friends’. The friends are spurred to action when they learn that their new classmate, a refugee boy named Ahmet from Syria, has yet to be reunited with his parents. Fans of the Potter books will find familiar ground here - not that there is any magic - because in essence, this book is about friendship and doing your best for the sake of your friends.
The child’s narrative voice and innocent internal logic is captured perfectly by Onjali Q. Rauf, and adults reading the book are given a glimpse of what life used to be, before they became world-weary (ok, cynical) grownups. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees spread across the whole continent, but if we all try very hard and ask the people in charge, we can maybe find Ahmet’s parents.
At its core, the book is a message about being welcoming of people who have fled certain death in order to find peace and to find a new home.
Of course, this book is not just about friendship. It is about the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that is changing much of the Middle East and North Africa, not to mention Europe. The very idea of borders, nationhood, and sovereignty seem to be up in the air. Some countries have chosen their path, some have closed their doors, and some others have provided welcome. What could we as individuals do? The sheer numbers of displaced persons boggles the mind.
Yet, Onjali’s narrow spotlight on the experience of one Kurdish boy in one classroom in one school in England situates the problem in a defined way. The particularities of Ahmet, who is not anonymous, puts in sharp relief the plight of unnamed and untold families, children, sisters, brothers (even cats) across land and sea, through snow and scorching sun, and the iniquities of bureaucracy.
The Boy at the Back of the Class has all the elements to make this a modern classic of children’s novels, and at its core is a message about being welcoming of people who have fled certain death in order to find peace and to find a new home. Onjali delivers this message with light-footed finesse and a genuine compassion that has grown out of her own work with refugees in an NGO she founded called O’s Refugee Aid Team.
Despite what I’ve said above, this is not a dreary book of ‘current affairs’. You and your child will enjoy the author’s writing and the narration (in first person). The refugee crisis is explained in the context of the story, and at no time is the book preachy or discursive in any way. Like all good fiction, this work will shift your thinking about the modern world a little bit. And wherever we are in the world, we would do well to regard the radical optimism of the children of Nelson Primary School.
Purchase 'The Boy at the Back of the Class' | Suitable for ages 9 and up