Guest Post by Erin Hamilton, Committee Member of ICBG.
I had the pleasure of meeting Onjali Q Rauf at a school event in October last year. She was there to chat about The Boy at the Back of the Class and to introduce her latest book, The Star Outside my Window. The children and adults in the room sat entranced by her talk. She spoke knowledgeably and heartfelt about the refugee crisis and I know many eyes were opened to the seriousness of this. She had photos, facts and research into this crisis. I admit to being shocked at the figures, and the events that happen to these people on a regular basis. Many of us felt inspired to learn more, do more and take action, regardless of how small it might be.
After the event, I was lucky enough to sit and speak openly and honestly with Onjali. She is such a lovely person, honest, intelligent and thoughtful. She is someone who you know you want to be friends with as soon as you meet her. She has a brilliant sense of humour, a charitable heart and is the epitome of an activist.
When I asked her about the next generation of activists and her advice for them, it was kept simple. “Be Aware, Ask Questions”. She went on to explain that you are never too young or too small to make changes and ask important questions. With Greta Thunburg in the world, this is proof that children can have power. Onjali seeks to make changes and ensure good and hope are alive in the world.
Her first book, The Boy at the Back of the Class, has taken the world by storm and is highly acclaimed, winning several awards. Across schools nationwide, children are learning about acceptance, friendship and standing up for what is right. The children in the book accept Ahmet and want to make him feel welcome. They go on a city wide search for a pomegranate as it is a familiar food for him. Food is something we all have in common- we have favourite foods from our families, countries and cultures. Food can be a wonderful way to welcome people to your community.
We spoke about the emotional connections that are felt by the reader and Onjali admitted that some of the events were emotionally raw and were honest of herself. The Star Outside my Window also encourages an intense emotional connection for the reader. Both are beautiful, heartfelt and bring hope and empathy to our children.
Later the same day, after two school visits, Onjali did a question and answer session at our local Waterstones. This was hosted jointly between Waterstones and the Ipswich Children’s Book Group. As part of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, the Ipswich branch aims to bring books, authors and illustrators to Ipswich. Being as lovely as she is, Onjali greeted me with a hug. Like I said, someone to be friends with! There were cakes, drinks and the chance to listen to Onjali answer insightful questions into her writing process and thoughts on being published.
Supported by her family, Onjali writes in her spare time. Along with her charitable commitments and work she finds time to write these incredible books. Her writing process involves copious amounts of tea, large quantities of chocolate and time closeted away with her laptop.
When asked about how she feels regarding her author status and the huge reaction to her books, she said it was “surreal, lovely and wonderful”. She was so pleased The Boy at the Back of the Class has won several awards and is used widely in schools. My guess is that schools will now look to The Star Outside my Window and ways of incorporating it into the curriculum.
Onjali plans to write more books and has pitched an idea and title to her publisher already. It, of course, has a cause close to her heart featuring in it and I know many of us will look forward to hearing more. Books with heart that deal with tough subjects are what we need in schools to maintain empathy as the readers get older. The subjects are so sensitively approached and written but bring some huge emotional release for the reader.
An honest, intelligent woman with huge plans and the strength and determination to see them through. It was an honour to sit and speak with her.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the FCBG.