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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Interactive Idea Springboard, Middle Grade Readers, Read-Aloud Suggestions, Social Justice

THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS by Onjali Q. Rauf

There are many things about The Boy at the Back of the Class that make it a great reading choice for the younger middle grades–more 3rd & 4th grade specifically. Alexa is 9 3/4 years old. A new student named Ahmet appears one day at the formerly empty desk at the back of the classroom. Alexa’s open and generous heart perceives immediately that to be the ‘new kid’ must be very scary and she makes up her mind to offer him friendship immediately.  It takes a while for Alexa and her friends to actually meet and interact with Ahmet because they eventually discover that he is a refugee from Syria and that he is learning to speak English.

When Alexa and friends find out Ahmet has lost his parents somewhere along the journey from Syria they feel compelled to help him find them again. When they overhear a conversation between strangers on a bus talking about how England will be closing its borders to refugees in a couple of weeks they immediately feel an added sense of urgency to reunite Ahmet with his parents before they might be prevented from entering the country.

They go first to their trusted teacher, Mrs. Khan to explain what they perceive as an emergency situation. Disappointed with the slow pace of the adults to mobilize in such a desperate situation, Alexa and her friends come up with their own plan: The Greatest Idea in the World. Of course, as 9-year-olds their plan does not account for some pretty significant obstacles and when they attempt to implement it this becomes a problem in the best tradition of ‘children have unexpected and complicated results from a naively conceived plan of action.’ Wound through Alexa’s story of friendship and compassion is an explanation of who refugees are (and how they differ from immigrants) and a small taste of what they have survived. Alexa is filled with admiration for her new friend’s bravery in the face of such extreme hardships. But she also becomes aware that not everyone shares her opinion of, or compassion for, refugees.

If you are looking for a detailed narrative about the life of a young refugee, you won’t find that here. The Boy in the Back of the Class concentrates heavily on Alexa’s experience with the refugee experience and Ahmet, in particular. It is skewed more toward observing our reactions to this crisis and finding tangible ways to motivate ourselves and others to intervene and help find a solution. The Boy at the Back of the Class is a sweet story of kindness and empathy. Due to the age of the main characters I wouldn’t suggest using this as a read-aloud outside of 3rd or 4th Grade. It works as an independent reading choice as well–although it is rife with opportunities to have discussions about tolerance, kindness, and empathy in the context of the refugee circumstances.

I love that at the end of the story the author has included: (1) a Did You Know? section with some facts about “the biggest refugee and displacement crisis of our time;” (2) a How Can I Help? section filled with websites of domestic resettlement agencies; (3) a 10 Questions to Think About… section which poses questions to young readers about their experience with refugees, the refugee crisis–or how they imagine they would react in situations similar to Alexa’s; and (4) a Pieces of Your Own Puzzle section which offers readers the beginning of a sentence about themselves like “My best friend in the whole wide world is…”

The Boy at the Back of the Class is absolutely a worthwhile read in a classroom or at home. All the main characters have loving hearts and inspire readers to cheer them on as they fight for what they believe is the right thing to do.

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