The Boy At The Back Of The Class by Onjali Rauf

Values: Empathy, Friendship, Kindness, Acceptance, Inclusivity... and lots more!

This modern book was the winner of both the Blue Peter Book Award in 2019, and the Waterstones Children's Book Prize also in 2019. It has received lots of praise and I couldn't wait to read it! Onjali Rauf has worked supplying emergency aid to refugees at Calais and Dunkirk, and this story has been inspired by some of the people she met. She has gone on to set up the NGO, Making Herstory - a charity set up to end the abuse and trafficking of women and girls. Similarly to the last book I reviewed, My Hair by Hannah Lee, this book is also based on Onjali Rauf's personal experience of growing up in Britain and not seeing herself represented in the books she was reading. She wanted to change this rhetoric for children today and, through her books, mirror the diverse nature of the society we are living in.

In this story, Ahmet arrives into a new classroom and the story follows his journey as his classmates react to his arrival. The story is told through the eyes of one of his peers, also nine years old, who discovers that Ahmet is a refugee. The book covers discussions about what being a refugee means and what hardships Ahmet has faced to reach England. As the children learn that he is here without his family, they devise a plan to reunite them by writing to the Queen and this leads them to many adventures along the way!

One of the main Values that shines through in this book is empathy. There are many people who show great empathy towards Ahmet in his first few months of being in England and it is easy to find examples of empathy throughout the book. It is also also easy to find some examples of when characters do not show this Value. It could be a good circle time (or bedtime story) conversation about why Brendon chooses to pick on Ahmet. Why do bullies choose to act in this way? What should you do if you witness this? This could be a really good book to focus on in the lead up to Anti-Bullying Week in November.

Secondly, I would focus on the Values of friendship and kindness. In the story, Ahmet's new friends work out ways to make him happy. They even find out that pomegranates are native to his country of Syria and bring him one to school! The more they uncover of his story, the more they want to help him. Sometimes, they even endanger themselves and do things they know are wrong in an act of kindness and friendship. I feel that Onjali Rauf handles this sensitively in the way a nine-year-old may view the situation.

I would also unpick the Values of acceptance and inclusivity. What does it mean to really accept someone? I would discuss the difference between acceptance and tolerance, and how the two words are sometimes used interchangeably, but actually mean different things. I personally don't like the Value of tolerance because I feel it means 'putting up with' someone as opposed to actively accepting and including someone. In classrooms, discussions about how we accept and include everyone could be had. What makes you feel included in our classroom? Do we celebrate our differences? Why is being an inclusive society beneficial? What do you bring to our community that is unique? What does Ahmet bring to his school and classroom?

You could ask children what other Values they see represented in this book. There are so many! You could focus on: hope and determination as Ahmet's friends embark on a mission to make his life better by reuniting him with his family and stopping the bullying at school; compassion and consideration for those around us who have suffered hardships we may never experience; respect for people from all backgrounds and cultures; peace as we think about the effect that war has on families, communities and children around the world.

I think this book is jam-packed with Values lessons and am not surprised it received the prestigious book awards back in 2019. I would study this book with children aged Year 4 upwards, but it depends on your cohort. I will definitely be keeping this book on my Values bookshelf as a child's perspective on the issue of immigration in our country today.

If you would like your own copy, you can get one at a library or buy one for yourself. You can also follow @OnjaliRauf on Twitter.

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