The Boy at the Back of the Class is a heartwarming and engaging story about a group of friends who are determined to befriend the new arrival at their school. Humorous and sad in equal measure, this read will stay in the memory for a long, long time and should be on the bookshelf of every child.
Nobody pays any interest to the empty chair at the back of Mrs. Khan’s classroom until one day it is occupied by a strange boy. A boy who doesn’t speak English, who doesn’t seem to smile and spends his break times in something called ‘seclusion’ with the adults. But the new boy isn’t strange, he’s definitely not dangerous, nor does he have an infectious disease (these are the kind of rumours that are circulating amongst the children), he is a refugee and has fled from a country called Syria, where the bullies are dropping bombs on his home. Along the way he has become separated from his family and so a group of children devise a secret plan - The Greatest Idea in the World - to help reunite him with his family.
Onjali Q. Raúf has taken the subject of refugees and has made it accessible and relevant to children. She sensitively explores the refugee crisis and the perilous journeys that adults and children make and the terrible consequences that they so often suffer. Telling the story through the eyes of an anonymous child that is trying to fully understand what a refugee is and the wider refugee crisis offers a wonderfully perceptive and simplistic view on an issue that is perhaps overcomplicated by adults. Interestingly, the gender and name of the narrator are not revealed until the end of the story which in a strange way meant that I felt more connected to refugee Ahmet, whose story I learnt about throughout the book, which is ironic considering that he is the ‘foreigner’.
The four friends seem to be joined together by the fact that don’t really fit in either - “people are scared of what is different.” Three of the friends have parents who are not from the UK and by their own admittance they are not amongst the popular children at school.
One of the things that stood out for me were the polarising views that society has on refugees. Adults are influenced by what they see and read in the news or hear politicians say. I love that the innocence of youth is not blinded by prejudice or judgements; the children just do what they think is right, treat everyone as their equal and simply want to do whatever they can to help.
The read is full of messages of kindness, friendship and empathy towards others. The nine-and-three-quarter-years-old narrator is still grieving the loss of her father who died when she was six and is raised by a single parent who struggles to make ends meet yet she still finds the kindness in her heart to reach out to someone who she sees needs a friend. A particularly poignant moment is when the narrator chooses to spend their pocket money on a pomegranate to give to Ahmet to remind him of home.
This is the kind of book that is so important in today’s world and is a timely reminder that the qualities of friendship and kindness are perhaps the most valuable of all. It will promote lots of discussion about the the journeys that refugees make, their reasons for fleeing their home and the treatment of them in their search for a better life. Should be read by all children of 9+.