Sunday, August 11, 2019

The Boy At the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf, illustrated by Pippa Curnick

It's three weeks after the beginning of a new school year and suddenly there's a new boy named Ahmet sitting in what had up until then been an empty seat. But while he may be a student in Mrs. Khan's class, he doesn't ever participate, nor does he go to lunch or out into the schoolyard with the other kids. No one knows where he goes during lunch break, so naturally all kinds of wild rumors abound. And although the narrator Alexa, age 9, keeps making friendly overtures to Ahmet, it is to no avail. But when Alexa and her friends Josie, Tom, and Michael overhear teachers talking about Ahmet, they learn he is a refugee kid and that no one speaks his language.

The school finally brings in a class assistant to work with Ahmet. Meanwhile, Alexa and her friends keep trying to be friends with him, until finally Ahmet is allowed to go out and play in the schoolyard with the other kids. And imagine their delight when they discover he can kick a mean football/soccer ball - well, everyone except Brandon the class bully who hates everyone who's different.

Little by little, Ahmet's story comes out and the kids learn that his family had had to escape Syria when the fighting there began, and that his baby sister had drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and that he had somehow become separated from his parents and doesn't know where they are.

Alexa's father had passed away when she was little, and now her mother has to work long hours, so she has some idea of how Ahmet must be missing his parents. She also learns that her Austrian grandmother had had to escape the Nazis in WWII and that she had then worked to help other escape, too. All of which is why, when she overhears that the border is closing in a week and the United Kingdom won't be accepting any more refugees, she and her friends decide to do something about reuniting Ahmet with his parents.

When the first plan Alexa, Tom, Josie, and Michael come up doesn't produce results, Alexa come up with "the Greatest Idea in the World." This plan consists of getting a letter to the Queen explaining Ahmet's situation, the urgency of reuniting him with his parents before it's too late, and asking for her help. After putting the plan into action, the kids end up becoming front page news in the newspapers and on television. All of this bring the plight of refugees to the fore, which is good, and it also brings out people's true feelings - both positive and negative - about the refugee crisis.

Narrated in the first person by a very empathic Alexa, this is a book that looks at the refugee crisis with humor but does not skirt the serious problems faced by refugees. From learning a new language, to making friends, fighting off bullies, dealing with those who dislike and resent all refugees, to mourning the loss of his sister, missing and worrying about his parents and homesickness, Raúf has written a moving middle grade story that highlights the kinds of things Ahmet, and all refugees, must deal with.

Some may feel that this book is too British for American readers, but I don't think that should be a problem for today's readers, and that's not what's important. What is important is Ahmet's story shows what a difference friends can make in the life of a scared child. This is a warmhearted, feel good story that ends on a very hopeful note, but in case you are afraid it is just another "white savior" story, check page 231 first.

I should say that when I read The Boy At the Back of the Class, I had no idea what the narrator's gender is. Her name doesn't appear until the end of the book. And it was kind of fun not knowing, but unfortunately, it has been used in reviews and I followed suit. I feel like this is a spoiler, but I hope I can be forgiven.

Raúl has included some important back matter to help you readers learn and understand more about refugees. Among other things, there are questions to think about and an interesting chart to fill out. Do read the Author's Note for some important background that lead to the creation of The Boy At the Back of the Class.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was bought for my personal library

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle. 


  1. Thank you for your excellent review of this important book. I'm always searching for books about refugees to share. Not sure what you mean by this book may to be "British" for American readers. It is the story that matters and gives some insight into how other countries deal with refugee challenges. Like that his teacher's name is Mrs. Kahn.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful book! I know so little about what refugees go through, so it sounds like this would be an educational read. It’s also touching to think of kids taking on such a challenge to help their friend. Thanks so much for the review!

  3. Okay, you've got me. Another one for my TBR list. The characters and the story about a young refugee have me hooked. The narration by Alexa appears to be the perfect way to tell the story. Thanks for the review.

  4. I'm with Greg. I'll put this on my list too.

  5. It really sounds great! Loved your review. Will search out this book to read it!

  6. This is a timely topic. I think it will be good for American kids to realize this isn't just an American situation and that the refugee crisis affects people all over. Great review. Thanks for this post.


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