There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it.
He’s nine years old (just like me), but he’s very strange. He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets – not even lemon sherbets, which are my favourite!
But then I learned the truth: Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. A real one. With bombs and fires and bullies that hurt people. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to help..
That’s where my best friends Josie, Michael and Tom come in. Because you see, together we’ve come up with a plan…
The boy at the back of the class by Onjali Q Rauf is a story of a 9 and a 3 quarters old child in whose class a refugee boy, Ahmet, has come as a new admission. He takes the only vacant seat in the class which is at the back of the class.
The protagonist and the whole class are curious about this new boy who does not talk to anybody, keeps his head down while in the class and does the disappearing act in the breaks and lunchtime. All kinds of stories start floating around the school about this mysterious boy until one day the protagonist overhears 2 parents after school talking to each other and mentioning Ahmet and refugee kid in the same line. The protagonist notices the variation in the outlook of both adults. While one is highly critical and dismissive of the refugees the other is empathetic. Therefore, begins the protagonist’s quest to understand the lives of refugees and bring about a big difference to Ahmet’s present life in London.
What hardships has Ahmet faced on the way from his home in war-torn Syria to London? What trouble does the protagonist bear along with his/her 3 best friends in order to help Ahmet adjusting in his new life? Does the protagonist finally succeed in his/her attempts?
My review –
I bought this book after knowing about the upcoming author visit to the city library on 8th June. This book has been making some noise in the online world for the right reasons. It is the winner of the Blue Peter Best Story Award 2019 and Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019.
This book wins me on 3 counts –
A. Gender neutrality.
You might have noticed in the above section I did not clearly specify the gender of the protagonist. This is because it was the author’s intention behind keeping the narrative gender-neutral leaving it up to the readers free to exercise their imagination. For instance – it is made known the protagonist prefers to buy space and Tintin themed stationery over dinosaurs and princess themed ones, is good at reading and spelling over sports, dreams of becoming an adventurous reporter like Tintin and yet none of it tells who is being spoken about – a boy or a girl. After a point, gender did not matter to me because heroes don’t have genders. They are Heroes. Simple.
The air about the protagonist’s identity does get cleared in the ending chapters. If you get caught up in surprise, you get to know something about yourself in the reading process.
B. Kindness and empathy.
The story looks at a refugee kid’s life from an outsider’s perspective. A world of 9-year-olds who are not aware of the people and their difficulties in the war-torn parts of the world or the meaning of the word ‘Refugee’ and yet they are kind and empathetic in their attitude towards understanding a refugee kid who is like just another classmate for them and attempting to integrate him in the mainstream.
Looking at the refugee crisis from the eyes of children gives a fresh take in this world where fear and hatred rules the day in the increasingly rightwards leaning and xenophobic minds of the people and the governments.
Humour plays a vital role in the tight storytelling ensuring the reader does not lose interest even for once. You cannot have an out and out serious story when a ‘9 and a 3 quarters old’ child narrates a story laden with innocence.
A different take on the story –
- What if the Queen’s angle was not included in the story? In my belief, the Queen’s role acts akin to the role of magic in the story as a means of providing a short cut or an easy route to expedite things to achieve the ending.
- The identities of all the 4 children – the protagonist and the 3 best friends, reveal they are immigrants which gives them a certain advantage in understanding the plight of an outsider including a refugee. How would the story shape up if these children had been natives with no experience of any kind of displacement?
I recommend this book for the middle-grade readers for creating a stir in the young minds about the refugee crisis for the reason it talks in a language they can grasp easily. I am keeping this book as a part of the collection to pass on to Dhruv when it is the right time for him.
Author – Onjali Q Rauf
Illustrator – Pippa Curnick
Age group – 8 – 11 years (Middle-grade book)
Release Year – 2018
Publisher – Orion Children’s Books