In the U.K., students have been inspired to lead fundraising efforts to spread awareness about and raise funds for refugees in their country and beyond. Their inspiration? Onjali Q. Raúf’s novel, The Boy at the Back of the Class. After receiving groundswell support and accolades in England, this debut for middle grade readers will soon be published by Delacorte in the U.S. Raúf is the founder and CEO of Making Herstory, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and support to tackle the abuse and trafficking of women and girls in the U.K. and abroad. For years, she has delivered emergency aid convoys for refugee families sheltering in Calais and Dunkirk.
Inspired to write a novel by “the amazing refugees” she had the honor of meeting and learning from, Rauf dedicated her novel to one particular child: “a newborn by the name of Raehan.” Raúf encountered Raehan and his mother in a Calais refugee camp, meeting Raehan only once and his mother twice, but she says, “His face and his mother’s face will never leave me.” She had hoped to stay in touch with them, “but the French police closed and then burned down the camp sites shortly after we left, and we never found out what happened to them.” A year after meeting Raehan, Raúf couldn’t stop wondering what had happened to him.
“That wonder turned into thoughts about what it might be like if he were to reach a safe country when he was older—say nine or 10—and walk into a classroom with absolutely nothing to remind him of who he was except his rucksack. That’s how The Boy at the Back of the Class came to be born,” Raúf explains. “Raehan was most certainly the inspiration, along with many innocent little ones like him who I probably won’t ever get to see again.” The resulting novel follows a trio of friends determined to be friends with the new boy in their class, Ahmet, who they soon learn is a Syrian refugee who has been separated from his family. With the threat of the country’s border closing looming, the friends begin a series of attempts to stop the border from closing and to reunite Ahmet with his parents, which draw the attention of the media and then the entire country.
In the U.K., Orion Children’s Books editor Lena McCauley acquired Raúf’s manuscript from Silvia Molteni at Peters Fraser & Dunlop. “The idea of a book that could take the huge scale of the refugee crisis and make it accessible to middle-grade readers was immediately intriguing,” McCauley recalls. “But the thing that really resonated with me when I first started reading The Boy at the Back of the Class was the voice. Even though we don’t know the gender, name or any other identifying characteristics of the narrator, they have this incredibly strong personality. Onjali is incredible at showing the world from a child’s perspective and I could immediately picture the narrator as a real kid going through the world. I wanted to keep reading to see where their story would go.”
To promote the novel, along with the proofs Orion mailed handwritten, wax-sealed letters from the author “to key influencers, for a personal touch,” McCauley says, and directly targeted trade accounts and schools, to “give the campaign a long tail.” She notes, however, that “one of the crucial things that helped build the success of this book is Onjali herself. She has been absolutely tireless in promoting the book and everyone who meets her is won over by her compassion and enthusiasm.” Ultimately, McCauley says, “This was a book that built very much by word of mouth—it didn’t immediately sell thousands of copies, but as more people read it and loved it and talked about it, it built over time.”
When asked about the success of The Boy at the Back of the Class in the U.K., Raúf says it has been “truly unprecedented” and “beyond anything” she could have imagined. Earlier this year, the novel was awarded the 2019 Blue Peter Book Award, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. “Laying aside the beautiful awards and nominations, what has been staggering to witness is the number of schools, families, and individuals who have mobilized after reading the book,” Rauf says. McCauley had hoped the book would move readers but says, “I didn’t realize how deeply it had resonated until I saw the many ways that kids have been motivated to take action after reading the book. It’s truly inspiring and far beyond anything I could have imagined.” Young readers in the U.K. have embarked on fundraising and activist efforts inspired by The Boy at the Back of the Class, from ensuring every school in their county has a copy of the book to urging their schools to become recognized places of sanctuary for refugees and, like the students in the book, writing letters to the queen and the prime minister demanding policy change.
The book’s journey to the U.S. market began in Italy. Alexandra Hightower, who edited the book for Delacorte, explains: “The book was first seen by our Beverly Horowitz, at the Bologna Book Fair. She shared the manuscript with me and the two of us responded very quickly. I couldn’t get enough of the voice—it was refreshingly youthful, observant, and inquisitive. In addition to tugging at my heartstrings, the story was filled with plenty of uplifting, humorous moments.”
After finishing the manuscript, Hightower says she “felt certain that the themes [Raúf] explored weren’t simply ‘important’; they ran parallel to real, everyday conversations here in the U.S.” Raúf’s first-person perspective, she notes, “truly places readers into the narrator’s shoes and encourages them to question their impact on both their local community and the wider world.” When asked if the book’s U.K. success had any bearing on its acquisition, Hightower said no. “Beverly and I decided to preempt the project for Delacorte Press many months before the book hit the U.K. market,” but added, “It’s been exciting to watch the book explode overseas.” To date, rights for The Boy at the Back of the Class have sold in Albania, China, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, the Netherlands, and the UAE.
Raúf says she feels strongly that “it’s more important than ever that our children understand the refugee crisis—and view the issue through a human lens, not the political, economic, or racial lens that the “grown-up” world depends on to justify wrongdoings.”
“Once the word refugee is stripped away,” she says, “the human being and potential friend who needs a little help and understanding is unveile. Hopefully the bogey-monster brush that all refugees are painted with can be disposed of, too. Children are more capable of doing just that than most think.”
The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf. Delacorte, $16.99 Aug. 6 ISBN 978-1-984850-78-2