'Books are absolutely crucial in getting us to think about new worlds': we speak to the award-winning author, Onjali Q Rauf
Published on: 15 April 2019 Author: Emily Drabble
Onjali Q Rauf tells Emily Drabble the story behind her incredible Blue Peter Book Award and Waterstones Children’s Book Prize winning book, The Boy at the Back of the Class.
You wrote The Boy at the Back of the Class to honour the children you’ve encountered in your work with refugee children, through your charity Making Herstory. Can you tell us a bit about that and how and why you wrote the story?
Making Herstory is an organisation that works with women and children from all walks of life, who are escaping different forms of abuse and violence, to help them however we can. But I never really thought about working with refugee women and children, in particular, until the story of Alan Kurdi broke in 2015. Reading his story inspired me to find out more about women and children refugees and why it was that I wasn’t really seeing them in the papers or hearing about them on the radio. That let me to start going out to Calais and Dunkirk in France under my charity Making Herstory.
For the first eight or nine convoys, which we completed over a year and a half, we mobilised people from all backgrounds and gifted sleeping bags, tents, shoes, socks and whatever it was that was needed; and after a while, I needed to do this aside from Making Herstory so our UK works weren’t affected. So I set up Onjali’s Refugee Aid Team, which works as a separate entity and we deliver aid as much as we can.
So the story of The Boy at the Back of the Class was inspired by a lot of amazing young children I saw in the camps, who despite having been through awful things that we can’t even imagine sometimes, still have the capacity to smile and make friends and laugh and be cheeky and play games, just as children are supposed to do.
And there was one in particular, a baby name Raehan, who I was privileged enough to meet just a few days after he was born, and who I lost contact with. In 2017, about a year after I met him, I fell really ill and all I could think about was Raehan and what his mum must have gone through to travel so far and place herself in so much danger to get her baby to safety. That led to the creation of The Boy at the Back of The Class. Because all I could think about was what would happen to Raehan if at the age of eight or nine, he finally did make it to the UK. What would happen to him if he walked into a class one day, without any friends, without being able to speak the language? Not having his family with him? That was the birth of the book.
Was it a big decision to write from the UK child’s perspective rather than from the point of view of Ahmet, the refugee child in the book? Did you ever wonder about telling it a different way?
No, the book was always written from the perspective of the narrator based in the UK because I think there have been amazing stories written from the perspective of refugees themselves and I didn’t even think about going at it from that angle. I wanted it very much to be a story from a child in the UK who was meeting a refugee for the first time. And I was hearing of lots of stories from our refuge shelters that we work with about children going into school and feeling frightened. So I wanted to write it from the perspective of someone who wanted to be a friend to someone who was a stranger. So in the first draft, that’s the way it was written and born; there wasn’t any other way of telling that story, for me at least.
Tell us why you decided on the unusual device of leaving the gender and name of the child narrator ambiguous?
I didn’t want it to matter was the narrator’s name or gender was, and it shouldn’t matter in many ways. It was something that I didn’t want to overtake the story of Ahmet and the narrator’s relationship with Ahmet, so I wanted to keep that a secret and not to matter so much; hopefully that’s succeeded in a way! I get very excited when children ask: 'Who is it? Who is this person?'. I just say, read to the end and you’ll find out! And some assumptions will hopefully be overturned by finding out who the narrator is, so that always makes me secretly glad!
How hard to did you have to work to keep the book on the lighter side, sweet and innocent and uplifting when there’s so much bad stuff happening that you obviously have very strong opinions about?
I think that’s where my editor and copy editor have come in, because there were some darker moments. I think particularly the scene when Ahmet is firstly telling his story through the drawings and secondly when trying to convey to the narrator what happened to his sister. Those were very hard moments to try and relate the gravitas of what happened to Ahmet, but also do it in such a way that it wasn’t going to upset readers too much. There were darker moments in the book that my editor and copy editor really helped to lighten and convey in a way that wouldn’t be too devastating to children.
I think my anger came out in the acknowledgments when I wrote about what was happening and how angry it made me. My editor wrote to me that this was really devastating and that if kids read this, they’ll get really upset and feel there’s no hope in the world, so maybe we can lighten this a bit? So we did that, to make sure the horrendousness of the situation wasn’t taking [away] the sense of hope and friendship, which were the key messages.
The majority of the 500 children voting for the winner of of the Blue Peter Book Award chose your book as the Best Story. How did that make you feel?
Wow. It’s been absolutely surreal and I can’t believe that the book is actually being read, which is great, and that it’s been voted for by children for this massive award. It is absolutely amazing and I think it will take me a few years to grasp that this actually happened.
The Mum and Dad of the character Josie change their mind about refugees after reading the children’s story in the newspapers: 'They weren’t horrible at all, they were just nervous about making a new friend.' How important was this idea to you?
It was really important that the different levels of misunderstanding or fear be conveyed in the book somehow. I actually realised my own racism in a way because I didn’t realise I’d made all the bad guys cockney. My editor was like, is there a class issue going on here? So Mr Greggs was originally super cockney and he’s made into a dapper gentlemen. I realised some of my views about what racism sounds like or is packaged needs to be looked at as well. I think it’s really important because children do see different ways that different grown-ups talk about the situation and interpret the situation. I want to convey that as much as possible without being too uniform in doing that.
Do you think books really have the power to change people’s prejudices and open their minds to new ways of thinking?
I think books are absolutely crucial in getting us thinking about new worlds, other people’s worlds, other people’s realities – because if we don’t have that, we’re stuck in our little bubble.
For me, I think so many books have done that. From Wilkie Collins to Charles Dickens and to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and so many fantastic female authors, too. They made me realise that my reality is very unique to other people’s realities and we can access other realities through the domain of books.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood reading… Do you have a favourite childhood book?
I hate being asked that question because it’s like asking me which star is brightest in the sky. I have so many childhood books! I was addicted to Sherlock Holmes, to The Famous Five books. I wanted to be George growing up, I wanted to be Nancy Drew, I wanted to be Poirot. Some of my favourite reads were Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Five Children and It, The Hobbit, the Adventures of Narnia books. I have too many. I can’t choose one, they are all different and made my world richer in a different way.
How important do you think it is for children to see themselves or someone a bit like them in a book? Did you ever have that experience yourself?
It’s hugely important. The books that I’ve mentioned, my favourite childhood books that I read when I was growing up, didn’t feature anyone that looked like me.
The reason why I mentioned Tintin in The Boy At the Back of the Class was because it was the first book where I saw people from other countries represented. I think there was one adventure when Tintin went to Saudi Arabia. I remember thinking: Oh my god! There’s a picture of someone who looks like my uncle! That was the first time I saw anyone who looked remotely like my uncle in a book. I don’t think my uncle would appreciate it, but it was a big deal to me!
So not having access to books where people look like you, sound like you and have the same kind of lives as you, is hugely important. It wasn’t something I clocked onto until I was a little bit older. Growing up reading the books where nobody looked like me or had the same reality as me didn’t really matter until I was a little bit older.
What effect does it have on children to have an author come into their school – and particularly for a child of colour to meet an author or illustrator of colour?
It’s so important. If you’re not growing up in a world where your experiences and the faces that are part of your family are being represented in the wider world, it can make a huge impact.
When I was 17, my college teacher took me to see a live performance by Benjamin Zephaniah, and that was the first black poet I’d ever seen. I didn’t even know there could be a black poet. We were reading Shakespeare, reading Chaucer. So that was my first access to a black poet and realising someone who wasn’t white could be a poet and could be an extraordinary, amazing oral storyteller. That woke me up to a new reality. I think for children to see that at a very young age, and to see authors coming into schools who are from a wide variety of backgrounds, it means the whole world opens up and your possibilities as a potential "something" opens up as well.
So it’s just so important and one of the most crucial things a school can do for their pupils.
Can you tell us something about your second novel which is out later this year: The Star Outside My WIndow?
The Star Outside My Window is being written, I promise. It’s coming out in October, hopefully, and I’m currently on the third redraft. It will hit on the very serious story of domestic violence, something I think a lot of children are living with and can’t talk about, and are taught not to talk about. And it’s something that Making Herstory tackles on a daily basis.
I wanted to ensure that younger children, who are not teenagers but who are still at primary school, are able to connect with something that’s quite dark, but again, like in The Boy At the Back of the Class, also conveyed in lighter way.
So the story is: there’s a very special young girl and her brother who go and search for a star. The star is the heart of their mother. There’s a very sad reason why they have to go and hunt for this star. It’s also very exciting; it features the National Observatory and you’ll learn a lot about star constellations and stories about them. So hopefully it will be able to tackle a very important subject which needs to be tackled through the domain of a book!
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