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The Boy at the Back of the Class

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
The Boy at the Back of the Class Book Poster Image
Poignant, adventurous refugee story highlights kid activism.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Set in England, The Boy at the Back of the Class looks at the refugee crisis in an intimate way. Geographical, political, and social issues are examined and explained from a kid's point of view. Some historical topics regarding world wars are mentioned. There are resources provided in the back of the book to help kids understand the refugee cirisis and explore ways to help refugees. 

Positive Messages

If you really want something, you have to keep trying for it. It's nice when adults tell kids the "truth about life," rather than keeping kids in the dark about world matters. The best books leave you with more questions than answers. The more questions you have, the smarter you'll be. You should never be really horrible to somebody who is horrible to you. Books are like people; if you look past their covers, they'll take you on a great adventure. Refugees don't just look for a home, they look for peace.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though some adults and a teacher behave in a bigoted, unsupportive way, the openhearted, helpful adults support the kids in their efforts to help Ahmet and other refugees. The narrator's [arents are seen as smart, admirable, loving and wise. The narrator's Uncle Lenny brings food when there's not enough, and is emotionally supportive. 

Violence & Scariness

Kids get in fights on the playground, punching each other. The school bully intimidates and plays mean tricks on people, like filling their backpacks with gross food. Soldiers have guns. Elementary description of a bombing raid, the death of a sibling, escape from violence. A parent has died in a car crash, though it is not described in detail.

Language

"Poo."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know thatThe Boy at the Back of the Class, by human rights activist Onjali Q. Raúf, takes place in England and looks at the refugee crisis from a kid's-eye view. Some adults tell their kids that refugees are bad for the country and should be kept out (while others advocate for their relief). A teacher turns a blind eye to a bully's bad behavior because they are both white. Playground violence includes punching and fighting in a group. In a key scene, soldiers carry guns and armed guards surround children. A refugee boy describes his home having been bombed, going into exile, his sister and cat dying, and losing his parents. His accounts are told are told in broken English with the help of hand-drawn pictures, so they're not bloody or terribly detailed. But the kids who are listening are affected by the telling.

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What's the story?

In THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS, Onjali Q. Rauf's debut novel, a boy named Ahmet suddenly appears sitting in the back Mrs. Khan's class. He doesn't speak to anyone, seems very scared, and disappears at recess. The narrator, a 9-and-3/4-year-old British kid, along with a pack of friends, decides to befriend him: first with candy and oranges after school, then with soccer matches and displays of loyalty on the playground. When the kids learn that Ahmet has been separated from his family, his new friends decide to take matters in their own hands and make a plan that ends up shaking up much more than the status quo on the playground.  

Is it any good?

A lively plot enriches a story of a refugee kid who's come to England without his parents. The kids in The Boy in the Back of the Class take their friend's plight very seriously when they concoct a plan to help re-connect him with his lost parents. The resulting madcap scenario is steeped in serious business, and it's an overall enjoyable, informative read. The brash opinions of the adult world are almost always filtered though the insightful explanations of caring adults. In fact, the network of adults that cares about these kids is ever-present, which makes the adventurous risk-taking in the book feel cushioned.

However, there's a disconnect between the political realities surrounding these 9- and 10-year-olds and what they actually understand about the world. The narrator -- whose gender and name are not revealed until the end of the book, making the case for the universal every-kid -- has been incredibly sheltered in unusual ways. For example, the narrator doesn't know that their family has a refugee story a generation back. Nor has the narrator heard of World War II, which seems pretty unrealistic for a kid living in modern-day London. Perhaps if the characters in the book has been portrayed as younger, the naiivite would make more sense. Nevertheless, this engaging book can serve as a resource for readers who want to learn more about the global refugee crisis without being flattened by the weight of the world.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the refugee experience in The Boy at the Back of the Class. How does Ahmet's arrival at the school change the dynamic? How are refugees portrayed in the media?

  • The Boy at the Back of the Class takes place in England, close to the continent of Europe, where many refugees have crossed borders. Would the story in this book be told differently in the United States? How much does geography matter?

  • We don't know the name or gender of the narrator until the very end of the book. How does gender affect the telling of a story? Does it matter to you if the narrator is a boy or a girl?

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