'The visit affected the pupils in a way that just reading the book never could'

Jacqui Fox, Year 6 teacher and English Subject Leader, looks back on a visit from prize-winning author Onjali Q Rauf, who won the heart of every child in the classroom.

Onjali Q Raúf on her school visit to a Leeds school

It all began with my mother-in-law (Mum II). She asked if I had read the Waterstones Book of the Month – The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf. She said it was about a boy who was a Syrian refugee.

I hadn’t, but I googled it. It is indeed about a Syrian refugee; a boy who is different and who doesn’t belong. I bought a copy, read it over two days, and loved it. I decided it would be our class novel after half-term.

The pupils in our school can empathise with a character like Ahmet. We have refugee children at Shakespeare. We also have high numbers of N2E (new to English) children arriving in our school on a regular basis. Their families are economic migrants hoping for a better life in the UK. They can feel isolated and alone because of language barriers.

Soon after, I received an email from BookTrust. Our school had been nominated to take part in a new project, BookTrust Represents.

'Would we like a FREE visit from the author of The Boy at the Back of the Class, Onjali Q Rauf, recent winner of the Blue Peter Book Award and Waterstones Children’s Book Prize?

My jaw dropped to the floor! Is the Pope a Catholic? Is George Clooney handsome? It took a millisecond to reply. YES! YES PLEASE!

A few emails passed between us. We were sent 85 FREE copies of the book and "Onjali Day", as it is now known at our school, was set for June 28th.

'They knew children like Ahmet'

Shakespeare Primary is full of book worms. Our January OFSTED report said: ‘Reading suffuses the life of the school.’ Even so, there are many reluctant readers in the year group and many children who would not be able to access the story due to a limited understanding of English.

We read each chapter together, some children translated for others. We discussed the plot, drew "fortune lines" of the main characters and used role play to ensure that most children got the gist of the story.

Year 6 are not always receptive learners at this time of year; this was different, though. They knew children like Ahmet, some had experienced Ahmet’s isolation and loneliness first hand.

We lied (teachers do that sometimes); we told the children that we were going to skype Onjali and ask her questions about the story. Excitedly, we began to prepare to "meet" her online.

We loved the fact that we didn’t know if the main character was a boy or girl until almost the end. We loved the fact that he or she (no spoilers) had experienced loss too. We loved the four friends and their wacky plan to reunite Ahmet with his parents. We loved the awfulness of Mr Irons and the wonderfulness of Mrs Khan and Ms Hemsi. We loved the illustrations. The story is funny and sad, thought-provoking and genuinely moving.

The teachers told the truth. There were shocked faces and squeals of delight when Year 6 were told that Onjali Q Rauf was coming TOMORROW – in person.

'Ive never felt like this about a book before'

Friday morning dawned. Registration.

'Is she here yet?' One very quiet member of my class walked towards me and handed me a picture she had drawn for Onjali. It was a perfectly sketched pomegranate (readers of the book will understand). We put it on the table where the author would sit; Onjali was delighted.

It was a magical day: something special, something different. The children felt a connection with Onjali immediately. They shared a common language. They felt that they already knew her. 

Onjali was everything we thought she would be. Warm, funny, clever, smiley, engaging, natural. She spoke about herself, her writing and her work with refugees. The room was silent when she told us of the death of Alan Kurdi. Eyes lit up when she talked about the great things that refugees have brought to this country. 

Waiting in line for a book to be signed, a Year 6 girl said to me:
'I’ve never felt like this about a book before.'

The quiet artist was given a special Snowy and Tintin badge. They discussed whether a gift of a lemon sherbet (integral to the plot) was Halal. The joy on this child’s face knowing that she and Onjali were both Muslims is hard to describe. Onjali inspired the Muslim girls, but she also inspired the rest of the girls and the teachers too. We wanted to become better people, better human beings because of her. 

Key that unlocks a child's passion

The visit affected the pupils in a way that just reading the book never could. The thank you letters are testament to this. Lots of children stated they want to help refugees too; one boy wrote that he will treasure his signed copy of the book forever. Another said he understood how Ahmet felt.

Books affect us, but a real person can affect us deeply. I will never forget the profound effect Onjali had on us all that day.

So, parents, carers, teachers – arrange that author visit, attend a book signing, support author events at your local library. It may be the key that unlocks a child’s lifelong passion for reading. It may be all they need to fall in love with books.

Jacqueline Fox from Shakespeare Primary School

BookTrust Represents

Our project promotes and supports children’s authors and illustrators of colour, so young readers find the books that represent them.

Learn more about BookTrust Represents