Q&A interview with Onjali Q Raúf and Lena McCauley, author and editor of
The arrival of a new boy in class, who doesn’t speak, or smile, and disappears at break times, intrigues the narrator of this book and when she finds out that his family are lost somewhere in Europe, she and her friends decide to help.
The judges praised this as a beautifully structured children’s book and admired the way the story carries the reader through. They also highlighted its message of hope.
Where did the inspiration for The Boy at the Back of the Class·come from?
The many children met, seen and played with in the refugee camps of Calais and Dunkirk. In particular Baby Raehan (to whom the book is dedicated), whose mother Zainab I met in Calais when she was heavily pregnant with him. I only met Raehan for a few minutes – my first meeting with him was my last, and he was barely a week or two old at the time. But the camps they were staying in were destroyed the night we left, and ever since, I’ve often wondered where Raehan is and if he and Zaianb are ok. In summer 2017, I began to think about what it might be like for Raehan to come to the UK as an older child, and what kind of battles he would have to face. The title jumped into my head one day and refused to leave, and suddenly the story began to form. So my main inspiration was definitely Raehan – with a good sprinkling of other children being remembered in the process of writing Ahmet’s character.
As a debut author, what did you find the most challenging part of the writing process for The Boy at the Back of the Class?
The story itself in its first draft seemed to flow out of me. It was finished in just under nine weeks – and about a quarter of that was spent on me being silly and coming up with a whole series of drawings that were unfit for human eyes! The toughest process was definitely the editing stage – accepting that the first draft needed to be changed and restructured and parts re-written or added to or taken away. I also had no idea of the many stage of edits a book needs to get through to make it to the other side – from editing and copy-editing and back around again, so it was a huge learning curve to undertake in a really short amount of time.
What was the thing you most enjoyed about working with Lena on the book? Why?
I think the actual process of ‘undoing’ parts of the book that weren’t working and hearing or ‘seeing’ the book through her eyes. Lena is brilliant at spotting gaps and suggesting solutions, and I know she got all the characters and what I was trying to do better than I did! I always had lots of ‘Oh yeeeah!’ or ‘Oh no! Really! I did that?’ moments whenever Lena came back to me with suggestions and edits, and I’ve loved tugging and pulling and fixing the book up with her so that it got to where it needed to be. Her unsurmountable patience and granting me the space I needed to just go away and get my head down meant I always felt I had the time I needed to let the story change and grow as it needed to with each edit – even when there were deadlines approaching fast and short. I always say this book is in part Lena’s, because it became what it was through her hands. My nephew once asked me why I need an editor and what an editor does (he’s seven). And my answer was that my book was like a wonky misshapen, sopping wet clay jug that need to be put into the hands of an expert and reshaped so that it could be put in shop window. It’s messy work – but beautiful and fun with the right person. I’m so happy and grateful to say that Lena was that right person for the moulding of the book.
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
I have so many, but action-wise, it has to be the scene in which Ahmet gets angry and beats up Breandan-the-Bully! There was an enormous amount of satisfaction and joy that went into writing that short scene – I think it took me half an hour to write it, and left me with a huge smile on my face. Revenge and vindication is sometimes sweeter than being good and bearing the unbearable all the time!
What advice would you give to debut authors?
I’m still one myself. But I guess it would be: never forget that you’re not alone in this journey. You have a whole team of people – and hopefully a brilliant editor – who have your back and are working just as hard as you are to get your story out into the world. So when things get hard or feel endless – and they will! – just look over your shoulder, and remember the amazing people waiting to help you write on.
What most excited you about Onjali’s manuscript when you first read it?
From the very first page of The Boy at the Back of the Class, I fell in love with the voice. Even though we don’t know the gender, name or any other identifying characteristics of the narrator, they have this incredibly strong personality – I could immediately picture them as a real kid going through the world. Onjali is incredible at showing the world from a child’s perspective and in doing so creating moments of humour and of real emotional resonance. The mix of comedy and solemnity was perfectly balanced, and I immediately knew that a writer who could tackle serious issues in a way that allowed for humour and adventure alongside empathy was someone very special.
What would you say are the qualities of her writing that marks her out as a talent to watch?
One of things that I think marks her out as a talent is also one of the first things that excited me about her manuscript: her ability to get inside the mind of a child and distil complicated and difficult topics down to their heart. One of the other things about her writing that I love is that both the humour and emotion in her writing work at multiple levels – appealing to middle-grade readers and adults. On a more micro-level, Onjali is also great at word play and evocative and unexpected similes which never fail to make me smile.
What are the particular challenges for first time authors for writing for this age readership?
There are a lot of things competing for children’s attention at this age – other forms of media like movies and TV and YouTube – but also other books. Kids of this age love to read and reread the books or authors that they love and it can therefore be difficult to get a kid to pick up a book by a new author. But a kid’s loyalty to and passion for what they love can also be the biggest advantage for writers for this age, because when they love something they will talk about it and share it with everyone.
Is there a single piece of advice you would give to would-be children’s authors?
I would say write about what matters to you – whether that’s an issue in the world or making children laugh – I think the passion behind a project always shines through. If the passion and belief is there behind it, then everything else will follow.
Thanks to Onjali and Lena for answering our questions.