Sometimes a book strikes a chord in your heart and leaves a lasting impression on your thoughts, its a rare thing but Onjali’s beautiful debut, ‘The Boy at the Back of the Class’ has done just that. There used to be an empty chair at the back of the class but one day it’s filled by a new boy called Ahmet who seems very strange. He doesn’t want to talk to the rest of the children, he spends his breaks in seclusion with the adults and he seems lost and all alone. But they soon discover that Ahmet isn’t strange, he’s a refugee who has fled to London from a terrible war where bullies have dropped bombs on his friends and families. The more they discover about Ahmet the more they want to help him and together they come up with a grand plan to beat all other plans to try and restore happiness in Ahmet’s life.
For me the thing that stands out most about this book is that it is told purely through the eyes of young children, it brings a simpler perspective to the complexities of the Refugee crisis. If people are in trouble we hold open our hands and hearts and welcome them to our country, we do whatever we can to stop them hurting. They hold none of the prejudices of grown ups and don’t see the supposed barriers that stand in the way of us helping those in need. Interestingly the narrator is anonymous we don’t know their name and gender while we find out all about Ahmet’s life throughout the story. I thought this provided a thoughtful contrast to the images that we are bombarded with by the media of refugees trying to escape from war and persecution. We’re never told their names, they’re just a mass of people not individuals. It took an incredibly heart-breaking image of a young boy Alan Kurdi washed up on beach to make people realise that refugees are individuals who are innocent and terrified and will go to extreme lengths to escape their plight.
Unlike many stories featuring refugees I felt that this story was definitely suitable for younger readers from 8 years old. Although it contains some devastating revelations they are presented in such a way that younger children can understand and process this information. Pippa captures these terrible experiences thoughtfully and sensitively, clearly showing these through Ahmet’s eyes. The narrator is grieving after the death of their father, they know what it is to feel incredible pain and loss and they recognise something in Ahmet which makes them want to be friends. There are so many poignant moments in this story that really resonated with me, my favourite is when despite having very little money of their own the narrator sets out with his Mum on an adventure to find an exotic fruit to remind Ahmet of his own. Cleverly it has a parallel thread running through where the school bully is making Ahmet a target because he is different, this illustrates to children that war on so many levels is a battle between the powerful and the weak. Friendship, loyalty and empathy are at the heart of this story and I defy you to read it without weeping. Thought-provoking and powerful this has to be one of my stand out reads of the year, I can’t recommend it enough.
Thank you to Hachette for sending me a copy of this brilliant book. ‘The Boy at the Back of the Class,’ is available to buy now online and from any good bookshop.