A perfect introduction to the refugee crisis for upper elementary aged kids. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed 9 and 3/4 year old narrator about her friends and how the filling of an empty chair in the back of the room changed their lives. Ages 7 through 12 will enjoy the plotting and planning of the friends, the awesome climax and the gentle opening of their eyes to the atrocities and bigotry around them. At 297 pages, with a few pictures and some engaging notes and tidbits at the end, the book is both big, yet completely non intimidating at the same time.
Right near the end we learn that the narrator’s name is Alexa, and not too much before that, I learned that she is a girl. I kind of like that vagueness of it, especially as we also learn that she is half Indonesian and half Austrian. You realize that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t change anything, and that we all bring our own assumptions to the story and learn a bit about our selves as the narrator’s identity is revealed. But really, thats a tiny bit of the book, the book is really about a group of diverse friends battling bullies, bully teachers, and trying to help the new kid in their class Ahmet.
Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, but the information isn’t easy to establish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he disappears at lunch and recess, so Alexa, Josie, Tom, and Michael, first have to figure out who he is, and how they can be his friends. Along the way we learn the Tom is from America, the book takes place in England. Josie is the best football player and her parents are nervous to have her interacting with Ahmet, Michael is incredibly wealthy and his parents are Nigerian and French, and Alexa lives with her mom a librarian who works really long hours, her dad passed away and money is incredibly tight.
Once friendships are established, Alexa learns that Ahmet’s mom and dad are missing and that his sister and cat died while fleeing Syria. When she learns that the government is planning to close the borders to immigrants and refugees, the group of kids come up with plans to keep the gates open until Ahmet’s parents can be found and they can come to the United Kingdom. The kids come up with a variety of plans, but “The Greatest Idea in the World,” is the one they decide to go with. It involves a lot of danger, but the general gist is to get a message to the Queen of England, who will keep the gates open, find Ahmet’s parents and reunite the family.
Naturally, there are a lot of moving parts to the plan, and a lot of naivety on the part of the 9 year olds, but they do get the Queen’s attention, and they do have a wonderful support system of parents and teachers and while their are bullies around every corner, they do come together to make the world a bit better for Ahmet and for us all.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that it is realistic, with the plotting, and understanding of war, alike. The war and Ahmet’s journey is very very simplified, but the tone, introduces kids to the intensity without overwhelming them. Just like the plot to get the Queen’s attention is not celebrated, but appreciated. What the kids did was wrong and dangerous and they lied, and the kids don’t ever know after if they are in trouble or being praised. I like that the integrity of both situations is upheld and the book doesn’t get too far fetched. Similarly, the book is fun and adventurous, and in many ways Ahmet is just a catalyst for the kids to come together to solve a problem and save the day.
There aren’t a lot of details about his life in Syria, because he doesn’t speak English, there isn’t anything about Islam, except he draws his mom with a scarf on her head. But there is a lot of learning to accept each other, and stick up for whats right and to not give up on people. I love the diversity of the friends and how they don’t expect each other to change, they accept each other and move along.
There is a slight typo on page 3, “…could be half as useful as a Tintin’s dog, Snowy,” that had me afraid that this book was going to be unrefined, but alhumdulillah I was wrong. The book reads easily and wonderfully, and my children loved it as much as I did. The author is a first time writer, and I hope she has a bunch more stories in her, because I look forward to reading them.
The book is clean and reads believably from a 9 year old’s perspective.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would do this in an elementary book club in a heartbeat. I’ve suggested it to many and I hope to read it aloud to my 4th and 5th grade lunch bunch crew. It is well written, timely, and memorable.
Teacher’s Notes: https://www.hachetteschools.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/The-Boy-at-the-Back-of-the-Class-Teachers-Notes.pdf
A bit about the author: http://beingthestory.org.uk/speakers/onjali-q-rauf