Written by Onjali Q. Raúf and published in the summer of 2018 The Boy at the Back of the Class revolves around Ahmet, a new boy starting school and from the onset it is clear to everyone that Ahmet is ‘different’. Ahmet doesn’t talk to anyone. He doesn’t look at anyone, and he disappears every lunchtime. These actions intrigues the group of friends who are keen to learn more about Ahmet, and as they gradually piece together the new arrival’s story, they discover that he is a refugee. This leads them to question what exactly a refugee is, how he came to be at their school and how they can become friends with him when he seemingly won’t talk to them.
With the help of an assistant teacher, Ahmet gets additional support to learn English and understand what’s being taught through translation into his native Kurdish. He gradually adjusts to his new environment and shares his displacement story from Syria to the U.K. and what happened to his family, from whom he’s been separated. With persistence and kindness, four classmates succeed in becoming Ahmet’s friends. But it is when they learn of an approaching deadline to reunite him with his family they decide to take action immediately.
The book is classified under children’s literature yet the topic that it deals with is more of an adult nature yet Raúf addresses such a huge global issues of our time: the refugee crisis, in a simple and child like manner to introduce children to the idea of acceptance of the ‘other’. It does so with enormous sensitivity and even humour. One of the successes of this book is that, while it doesn’t shy away from the trauma of the crisis, it makes it accessible to the young reader. It does this through its characters – the children around Ahmet – who are always asking questions to try to understand the world around them. For example, the author tackles people’s attitudes toward refugees throughout the book. This is mostly done via children relaying and querying what they have heard adults saying to them.
Raúf specialised in Women’s Studies at Oxford University before working in a number of human rights charities, her debut children’s book The Boy At the Back of the Class went on to win the Blue Peter’s Children’s Book of the Year 2019 and Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2019. It is an engaging debut novel that simplifies the refugee experience, crisis, and reaction to it via a child’s perspective, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that can often be quite cruel.
The Boy At the Back of the Class is a must read for both children and adult, it will pave the way for a more accepting and understanding society, we have given the book a rating of 4 out of 5.