In the vein of timely titles such as Katherine Applegate's Wishtree and Alan Gratz's Refugee comes a touching, accessible middle-grade debut about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the life-changing power of friendship and standing as an ally.
There used to be an empty chair at the back of Mrs. Khan's classroom, but on the third Tuesday of the school year a new kid fills it: nine-year-old Ahmet, a Syrian refugee. The whole class is curious about this new boy--he doesn't seem to smile, and he doesn't talk much. But after learning that Ahmet fled a Very Real War" and was separated from his family along the way, a determined group of his classmates band together to concoct the Greatest Idea in the World--a magnificent plan to reunite Ahmet with his loved ones.
Balancing humor and heart, this relatable story about the refugee crisis from the perspective of kids highlights the community-changing potential of standing as an ally and reminds readers that everyone deserves a place to call home.
Overall Winner of the 2019 Waterstones Children's Book Prize
Winner of the 2019 Blue Peter Book Award
"Tearjerking and chuckle-inducing. . . . Above all it celebrates the power of kindness." --The Sunday Post (Scotland)
"Inspiring and sweet. . . . This is a beautiful, open-hearted debut from Onjali Q Raúf that should help children be the best they can be and realise the power of kindness." --BookTrust (UK)
"An engaging exploration of the refugee crisis through the eyes of a child." --Readings (Australia)
An Excerpt fromThe Boy at the Back of the Class
There used to be an empty chair at the back of my classroom. It wasn’t special--it was just empty because no one was sitting in it. But then one day, just three weeks after school started, the most exciting thing that could ever happen to anyone happened to me and my three best friends. And it all began with that chair.
Usually, the best thing about starting a brand-new semester is that you get extra allowance to buy new school supplies with. Every year, on the last Sunday of the summer break, my mum takes me on an Extra-Special Adventure to hunt down my notebooks for the new school year. Sometimes I get so excited that my feet feel jumpy inside and I don’t know which store I want to go into first. There aren’t many nice school supply stores where I live--they only ever have boring dinosaur sets for boys or princess sets for girls. So Mum takes me on the bus and then the train into the city, where there are whole streets of stores--even huge department stores that look like tall blocks of apartments from the outside.
Last year, I found a space-themed notebook with pictures of an astronaut floating past the moon. It was on sale, too, so I bought a pencil case, a compass and protractor set, erasers, and a long ruler--and still had nearly a pound left over! The ruler is one of my favorite things, because the astronaut floats across it in water mixed with silver stars. I played with it so much that the astronaut got stuck to one side. But it wasn’t my fault. Mr. Thompson, our teacher last year, had such a boring voice that my hands needed something to do. That’s why it’s important to have fun stuff with you in class--because you never know when you’ll need to stop your brain from falling asleep or doing something that might get you into detention.
This year, I bought a Tintin and Snowy set. I love Tintin. Even though he’s only a character in a comic book and isn’t real, I want to be just like him when I grow up. I think being a reporter and getting to solve mysteries and go on adventures must be the best job in the world. My mum and dad used to buy me a brand-new Tintin comic book for my birthdays, and Mum saves all the comics her library is about to throw away because they’re too old or ripped and gives them to me, so I have a whole collection of them now. I’ve read them all at least fifty times. But I’ll have to think of another pet besides Tintin’s dog, Snowy, to travel with because I’m allergic to dogs. I don’t think cats or hamsters or even trained mice could be half as useful as Snowy. And even though I’ve thought about it for at least a year now, I still haven’t come up with anything.
Because the Tintin school supplies were a lot more expensive than the astronaut ones and weren’t on sale, I could only buy a pencil case, a small ruler, and two erasers. I had to think about it for a very long time, but in the end, I decided spending all my allowance at one time was worth it. Not just because everything had Tintin on it, but because if you press a button on the pencil case, Snowy barks and Captain Haddock’s voice cries out, “Blistering barnacles!” I’ve already been yelled at for pressing it in the middle of math class this year, but if you can’t press a barking dog button in math, then I don’t see the point of it.
I don’t like math. Simple math is fine, but this year we’re learning about long division and square numbers and all sorts of things that my brain doesn’t like doing. Sometimes I ask for help, but it’s embarrassing putting your hand up too many times to ask the same question. I’m lucky because Tom and Josie and Michael always help me with the things I get stuck with. They’re my best friends and we do everything together.
Tom’s got short spiky hair and a side-smile and a big Adam’s apple that looks like a Ping-Pong ball got stuck in his throat. He’s the smallest in our group but he’s also the funniest. He only joined our class last year after his parents moved here from America, but we became friends instantly. He has three older brothers who all tease and bully him. Not seriously--only as a joke. But I think they steal his food, too, which is why he’s so skinny and always super hungry. I once saw him eat a whole pizza with extra toppings and a double cheeseburger for lunch and still not feel full! So I hide my snacks and chocolate bars from him when I can.
Josie has large, brown eyes and at least a million freckles across her face. She’s tall and gangly and is always chewing on her hair. She’s the fastest girl in our year and can kick a soccer ball past any goalie from the other side of the field. She’s the coolest person I know, and I’ve known her since we were three. Our mums say we became instant friends the first day we started preschool, so they decided to become friends too. I don’t really remember much about myself at that age, but Josie is in all my school memories. We even got our first detention together last year--all because of a hamster named Herbert.
Josie had heard one of the upper-school bullies say that he was going to flush our class hamster, Herbert, down the toilet at the end of the day. Josie told me, and we decided to go on a Hamster Rescue Mission. We hid Herbert in my backpack before school ended and took him straight to my house. But of course, Mum found out and made me take him back the very next day. I tried to explain to boring Mr. Thompson what had happened, but he wouldn’t listen and gave me detention. And even though she didn’t have to, Josie stood up and said she had helped to steal Herbert too--just so we could do detention together. You know a friend’s a Best Friend when they’re willing to sit in detention with you.