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Telling Stories Through the Eyes of a Child

1. For those who don’t know, could you tell us about your debut book The Boy at the Back of the Class?

The Boy at the Back of the Class is essentially a tale about the friendship forged between two children: the nine-year-old narrator, and the mysterious, pale, silent boy who suddenly joins their class in the middle of term. As the story unfolds, it transpires that the young boy, named Ahmet, is in fact a refugee – a fact that leads to an audacious, outlandish adventure in an attempt to help reunite Ahmet with his family, the unravelling of many a truth and hopefully a dismantling of the range of hostile / racist beliefs both subtle and direct, that are held by others in both children’s worlds.

2. What was the inspiration behind your debut book?

Ever since 2015, I have been so fortunate as to have delivered aid to the refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk – both through my own organisation Making Herstory and independently. That very first convoy was triggered after seeing those gut-wrenching images of 3-year old Alan Kurdi’s body being washed ashore: a journey which led to my meeting Raehan – a baby who was born in the Calais ‘Jungle’ before its dismantling. This book is dedicated to Raehan and in my mind, is also a legacy of Alan’s too, and it’s with them both in mind that the book took shape.

3. What was the reasoning behind telling this important story through the eyes of a child? Were there any challenges writing in the voice of a child? Or did it come naturally?

The reason for wanting to write this story for a child and through the eyes of a child comes from both the root inspiration of Raehan and Alan – and the endless questions my nephews and nieces always ask me about refugees whenever I see them following my latest aid convoy mission. 

Children are hugely curious and open-hearted about the crisis and are so hungry to learn – to learn what refugees are, where they’ve come from, why they’re in the situation they find themselves in and how they can help. They see the news, they see images popping up in newspapers, and they hear everything – especially how adults speak about refugees and immigration, and the kind of language used by some of the newspapers they may be picking up. I wanted to try and answer some of their questions – and through this book, maybe highlight how they had a right to question some of the unacceptable views that some adults may hold about other human beings.

This book worked backwards in its development and as a result, was somehow easy to compose in its first draft. The title simply popped up into my head one day and wouldn’t let go, and so, as soon as I was able to sit down and focus, I began to write it. I didn’t find it challenging to write in a child’s voice at all – something just flowed. It may have something to do with all the Roald Dahl books I was consuming at the time! The ease was surprising – because I finished the first draft of the book within 3 months – along with lots of bad drawings!

4. What advice would you give to children’s fiction writers who might be struggling to translate humour onto the page?

Think about what makes you laugh and just go with it – and keep your ears open! Children especially have such a unique way of saying something hilarious without meaning to and are small vehicles of endless inspiration.

5. Let’s talk a little bit about your path to publication. How did you find the process of submitting to agents?

Difficult! 

The Boy at the Back of the Class was not the book I first approached agents with. I spent years hunting down agents by borrowing the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook from the library and submitting the first three chapters of my first manuscript – an adventure story for children centred on the world of chocolate, to listed agents in alphabetical order (so that I could keep track). 

I spent about 6 years in between full-time work and travelling, doing this – submitting sample chapters and those aggravating one-page introductory letters and summations to every agent I thought might like it. The covering letter was always so tricky to get right – to try and summarise who you were and the book in just a few short paragraphs took up many a night. 

After years of getting standard rejection letters, I decided to try and submit the story without actually appearing to submit it. So I began hand-delivering the manuscript hidden inside a chocolate box (Thornton’s boxes were perfect!). I still got a tonne of rejection letters but this time, because agents were receiving the story as a ‘gift’ and in a ruse which was connected directly to my book, I began to get hand-written feedback notes too. Not reels of it – sometimes just a few sentences, but they were enough for me to go back and re-edit the book in light of those precious suggestions.

By the time I got to ‘P’ in my last copy of the Yearbook, I was losing hope. So I stopped, and began to do more research on the remaining agents – to see what kind of authors they had on their books and if they really were as diverse in their representation and staff as they seemed to suggest. 

When I hit the Peters, Fraser and Dunlop entry and saw the picture of Ayisha Malik on their site (wearing a headscarf), I decided to submit to their headlining children’s agent – Silvia Molteni. Again, the crucial chapters and letter were wrapped inside a chocolate box and hand-delivered to their headquarters – but to my horror, when I got home to make sure I had done everything needed correctly, I realised I had addressed Silvia with a ‘Dear Dear’ in the covering letter! I think I cried some very real and long tears in frustration at myself. But I lucked out – because just a few weeks later, Silvia emailed asking to see the full manuscript.

6. Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like?

I love writing very early in the morning or very late at night. The ideas tend to come in the morning and the editing or development at night. As I work full-time, when I do have an idea that I’m excited enough to get out of bed for, I tend to get up around 6am, and work until 10am on writing and ideas, before shifting gear to get my ‘real’ day job works done. After getting home from works / meetings, I tend to give myself some breathing space and watch movies or hang out with friends and family, and then start writing again from around 11pm to 2am. Not every night – but when I love a story enough, I’ll do it! 

7. What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Don’t berate yourself if there are some days you can’t write a single word – your brain and the characters will come back and speak to you when the time’s right! (My secondary school English teacher, Dr. Chilver – when I got stuck writing an essay about Pride and Prejudice!)

8. If you could offer one piece of advice to your unpublished self, what would it be? 

Don’t take criticisms to heart – they’re trying to take you to where you need to go. 

Onjali Q. Raúf is the founder of Making Herstory, an organisation mobilising men, women and children from all walks of life to tackle the abuse and trafficking of women and girls in the UK and beyond. In her spare time she delivers emergency aid convoys for refugee families surviving in Calais and Dunkirk, and supports interfaith projects. She specialised in Women’s Studies at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and Oxford University respectively. Her first novel, The Boy at the Back of the Class, is aimed at middle-graders and it portrays the refugee crisis through the eyes of a child in a warm, funny and moving way. It will be published by Orion Children’s Books in the UK in Summer 2018 and by Delacorte in America in Summer 2019.