Friday, 12 April 2019

The Boy At the Back of the Class by Onjali K Raúf

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize

The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Boy At the Back of the Class is the only children’s book to make it onto this year’s Jhalak Prize longlist, and one that I hope will come to the attention of the Little Rebels judges too.

It is a story that centres on Ahmet, a refugee child from Syria. But it is not the story of his perilous journey escaping a war zone and making his way to England. Rather it is the story of four friends at the primary school he starts to attend and how they react to learning his story.

The story is told by nine year old Alexa, who doesn’t understand why with the new boy at the back of the class doesn’t speak or smile, or why he disappears every break and lunchtime. And she certainly doesn’t understand the way some adults talk about him – what is a refugee kid anyway? Nonetheless, she is determined to make friends.

As the barriers between them begin to break down, and she learns that he and his family escaped from bullies who bombed their home back in Syria, that Ahmet made it safely to England, but that his sister has drowned in the sea and his mother and father are still missing. Thus emerges The Greatest Idea In The World – a plan to find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.

Although it is clearly aimed at younger children, the book this most reminded me of was The Hate U Give. by Angie Thomas. Like Starr, Alexa finds herself having to deal with the consequences of taking a stand for what she believes in. Those consequences can be frightening and overwhelming, but they can also be amazingly rewarding.

Raúf does not shy away from showing the ugliness of some adults’ views. Teachers, neighbours and the Press are all among those who show Alexa just how cruel and unfeeling the world can be. But there are also heroes and acts of kindness, and people who learn to change their minds.

At the back of the book, Raúf provides information for children about refugees, as well as questions that might be used in class – or within the family – to provoke discussion. A portion of her royalties are also going towards supporting refugee charities.

A joyous, life-affirming book about acceptance and the power to change the world

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Avoid If You Don’t believe every child deserves a safe place to grow up in.

Perfect Accompaniment: A pomegranate

Genre: Children’s, Middle Readers (typically 8-11 years olds)


Available on Amazon

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