The boy at the back of the class
Review by Shahin Najak, recent University graduate
Onjali Q. Rauf. (2019). Delacorte Press.
The Boy at the Back of the Class is written from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy who decides to become friends with the new arrival in his class. He persuades his friends to befriend the new boy too, but they first have to find him. Ahmet is kept in a calm, quiet space from his peers to allow him time to settle down into his new environment. However, Ahmet comes out at the end of school each day, and the boys rush to see him and share their lollies. This helps Ahmet trust them, and slowly he begins to open up and play football with them. Together, they embark on a legendary adventure that will make international headlines.
The book very delicately covers the emotional strain a refugee child can go through and how parents can play a dominating role in shaping a child’s beliefs. It also highlights how some adults can have negative, misinformed opinions, which can leave a child feeling ashamed and confused. We are all different, and we must accept each other's differences. Talking about refugees is never an easy conversation, let alone explaining it to children. But it's an issue that will keep happening with increasing political instability and climate refugees. Ahmet's journey to reach the United Kingdom is not one that any child should experience. Once Ahmet begins to feel comfortable in his new life, he uses drawings to explain the different stages of leaving Syria.
The key theme running through this book is friendship and how even having just one good friend can make everything else in the world seem easy. The author Onjali Q. Rauf showcases the importance of being a good friend and going out of your way to make someone feel special when they are feeling down. Whether that be by hunting through several grocery stores for a special fruit that reminds someone of home, or by skipping school to do whatever you can to help reunite your friend with their family, sometimes all it takes is one good friend to make all the difference in the world.
This book is a great read for pre-teens and helps explain the complex topic of refugees. This book had me in tears by the end, with the heart-warming response of both the children and the parents to the events that unfolded.