Happy April Everyone!
What a beautiful start to the year it has been. The spring flowers are much to be celebrated and the light nights are ever increasing. Today I want to share with you the absolute joy that is, The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf. Not only is this one of the books of the month for April, but this book also won the overall prize for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. It’s current, relevant and an incredible read. I thought I’d take the photo in my garden with this little guy. The protagonist reminded me of him a bit. Look at his cute little face!
What’s it all about?
Told through the eyes of a group of friends, Tom, Josie and Michael, this novel is something we can all relate to in so many ways.
The story starts with an empty chair in a classroom following the absence of a student who had moved to Wales. A group of friends are naturally inquisitive and want to know why Mrs Sanders (the head of the school) and Mrs Khan (the teacher) are whispering at the front of the class. After a short amount of time, a young boy walks in behind Mrs Sanders. Ahmet became the focus of everyone’s attention. He looks very sad indeed.
‘I made a secret promise to myself right there and then that I would be friends with the new boy. I happened to have some lemon sherbets in my bag that morning and I thought I would try and give him one…’
Outside of lessons, Ahmet is nowhere to be found. After all, from the children’s point of view. it’s hard to make friends with someone when you rarely see them. However, one thing that is described so beautifully are his eyes. It’s the one thing that the character of Alexa (the story teller whose name we do not learn until the final chapter of the book) focuses on. The children wait until the end of the day and eventually they see him! They’re over the moon, but it doesn’t quite go as planned, despite having the lemon sherbets.
‘But the new boy grabbed her hand and hid his face behind her arm. I didn’t know what to do because I’ve never really scared anyone so much before that they wanted to hide from me.’
As days went by, the group of friends continually waited for Ahmet to give him gifts of sweets, chocolates and fruit. Over time, Ahmet started to make improvements with them. A smile here and a wink there. All signs he wanted to be their friends. After overhearing comments about how Ahmet is a ‘Refugee Kid’ the storyteller decides she doesn’t care and it really doesn’t matter. Finally, she gets a nod from Ahmet. A sign to her that it doesn’t matter that he’s a ‘Refugee Kid’.
‘I wish he had smiled back, because you can only ever know that a person’s really your friend when they like you enough to smile back. But it was OK because the nod felt like a promise, and I knew that I wouldn’t have to wait too long before the smile followed.’
What is beautiful in this novel is the storyteller clearly has an amazing mum. Working in the local library, books and knowledge centre their world. Naturally curious, the storyteller asks her mum questions about these children and their backgrounds. It all rings so true with the images we have all seen in the media. However, the child friendly language used makes it seem relatable by everyone; young and old.
Ahmet joining the class raises more questions than answers. Yet, the children are focused on being his friend and learning more about him. They had learnt that he was from Syria and had to flee from war. The storyteller and her mum decide to go off in search for pomegranate in the hopes that Ahmet would like this reminder from his home.
‘The new boy fell quiet. And then, for the first time since we met him, he smiled… a real, proper smile that went from one cheek to the other.’
One part of the novel that absolutely had my heart breaking was Ahmet telling his story, with pictures, to show the class what had happened and where he had come from. Story time is something so common in every classroom in the country. This one created a lump in my throat.
Ahmet tells his class all about his home in Syria, his mum and dad, as well as his sister and their cat. The war in Syria had led him to flee on a boat (like those seen on our television screens) to some form of safety. He went from Greece to the setting of the novel and his new school. To a new beginning. After telling his story hands shoot up around the classroom with yet more questions. The storyteller extends friendship further by offering her beloved Tintin comic to share together. We learn the truth about Ahmet’s family – his sister, mother, father and cat and why he is all alone.
‘I waited to see if Ahmet would show them the pictures and tell them about Syrah and the sea and his mum too. But, he didn’t, and I knew that he wanted me to keep it a secret.’
Then something happened that changed everything. Whilst travelling on the bus, the group overhear a conversation about the refugees. Again, it is a conversation we have all heard over time with some sympathetic views in comparison to the more judgemental views. Nevertheless, the children hear that the border is about to be shut, meaning Ahmet won’t see his family ever again. Despite telling their teachers, the group feel slightly fobbed off. It’s time to make a plan, or three, just to be on the safe side. These include writing to the Prime Minister or creating a Special Appeal. But, that wasn’t the greatest plan of all. The greatest plan in the world involved writing to our one and only Queen of England. They even create an emergency plan, just in case!
Time was plodding a long and the children were well aware about the discussion about the borders being closed. Therefore, it was time for them to work together and head for a London adventure! They had to help Ahmet and his family before it was too late. After navigating the trains and making their way around London, they need to get to the palace. They had presents for the Queen too! The first character they meet is Stan the Taxi driver. He’s a hit straight away!
Following Stan they then meet two Cold Stream Guards: Chris Taylor and Walter Kungu. After a mini adventure in itself, the guards promise to give another letter to the Queen and the presents they brought for the Queen too.
‘Getting into the back seat of the police car, we waved back. Lots of people began cheering and waving at us from all along the palace walls, so we waved back at them too, even though we didn’t really know why.’
As you can imagine, what came next was complete stardom. The children were in the news and causing a stir around the whole world! They even had a reply from the Queen. Finally, the children and Ahmet had some good news. Alexa also had her birthday. In fact, it is here that we finally learn her name! Her birthday was a complete surprise but the best gift wasn’t for her at all. It was for Ahmet, her best friend.
‘I know that afternoon was one of the best afternoons I will ever have. Not because it was my birthday, but because it was an end to one of the best adventures a brand new ten-year-old could ever have…’
This book should be read by absolutely everyone. I mentioned throughout about comments we would have all heard in the media or even in our every day lives. However, this novel brings a voice to so many children and families who have been in this situation. It’s about friendship and kindness and the fact that we can always do more to help. The childlike innocence throughout is endearing and beautiful. This book is a deserving winner and an excellent read. It stands for something so much more than we ever could realise.
Big love all. Xxx