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The Boy At the Back of the Class ISBN: 9781510105010
Curnick, Pippa and Rauf, Onjali Q.
Published by Orion Children's Books, 2018
This long, meaty novel is full of adventure, sensitivity, and a great deal of understanding. Told in the first person by a nine-year-old whose name we don't know, it is about this child and three chums making friends with a refugee boy, Ahmet, from Syria and the remarkable events this brings about. We don't learn until the end of the book that the author is a girl, Alexa, and not a boy as certainly I had thought all along! A remarkable wheeze which becomes totally believable and puts into a cocked hat any negative ideas one might have about equality of the sexes! Alexa, Tom, Michael and Josie are best friends at school, and each has something different about him or herself. Alexa's dad has died, and this comes into the story may times; she is also half Indonesian. Tom is from America, Michael has an 'afro', and is half Nigerian, and Josie is a tomboy and a spectacular footballer. When Ahmet first appears in the chair at the back of the class, he speaks no English and has an interpreter who helps him. It is Alexa who decides they must befriend him. It takes time and lots of patience, and they bring him little gifts of food to help things along. He also turns out to be a wonderful footballer, but he falls foul of the school bullies, Brenden-the-Bully and his two chums, and the four friends start a huge fight to defend him Bullying comes into the story quite a lot, particularly as one of the teachers is a bully too, as well as one of Alexa's neighbours. These four children are naive and not really knowledgeable about the world and the people in it yet, and so there are lots of explanations by Alexa's mum who helps her to understand why people treat Ahmet the way they do. As the four children get to know him better, Ahmet tells them more about the family's escape from Syria, his young sister's drowning when they crossed the sea, and the fact that his parents have been left behind and no one knows exactly where. This sad story makes the four friends more determined than ever to help Ahmet find them and bring them to England. There follows the most extraordinary story of how they make this come about, which involves Alexa's Greatest Idea of the World, a train journey into central London by Alexa and Tom, a letter to the Queen, an adventure at Buckingham Palace and lots of reporters!! One has to suspend disbelief a tad at this point (these are nine-year-olds, after all) but it's all so wonderful and exciting that one doesn't mind a bit. Lots of Alexa's thoughts come into the story, thoughts that involve her beloved dad whom she misses tremendously and thoughts to do with racism and people she cannot like for good reason. The fact that she tells the story herself means that we can accept at the end that she is a girl; also, as she has some interests which are usually given to boys - like loving Tintin and astronauts and being quite fearless - means that we are easily led into thinking she is a he. It's a brilliant book that will help children understand the problems of racism and refugees in ways no other medium can and also says a great deal about diversity and the joys and problems it can bring. Some scattered black and white illustrations also add to the whole. A very special book.
Age: 9+