Don't underestimate the power of a book

Onjali Q Raúf is founder of the NGO Making Herstory, a woman's rights organisation tackling the abuse and trafficking of women and girls in the UK and beyond. Her debut children's novel, The Boy at the Back of the Class, draws on her own experience delivering emergency aid to refugee families in Calais and Dunkirk and has won multiple awards. Here she tells us how children's literature can change the world.

When it comes to remembering the impact of children’s books on your life, everyone has a special book, one that made you cry, or go out and do something. For me, it was Black Beauty and I said, ‘Mum! We have to go and save horses!’ Two weeks later she said, ‘I could take you to a donkey sanctuary?’

Whatever has an impact on you as a child stays with you. I’ve noticed from my own book that kids are ready to take on the world. You just have to give them the opportunity and not underestimate them. Any kid who reads a book that speaks to them, and is  given a way to do something about the subject will act on it, which is absolutely fantastic to see.

I absolutely believe that children’s literature is the first step towards changing the world, whether that’s climate change, endangered animals, the refugee crisis or sexism. Whatever it is, if kids are made aware through the books they’re reading, they’ll go on and start thinking about it and asking questions and start making changes.

My book has been really well received and it feels surreal, as if ’m going to wake up tomorrow and think, ‘Did that happen?’ Only Twitter makes me realise that it did! But I did not expect the level of kids mobilising. I did not expect schools to get stuck in and start donating stuff to my convoys, givng money, rucksacks, toothbrushes and toothpaste. All that has been a huge shock and woken me up to the fact that I might have actually underestimated the power of a book. I didn’t write it with the intention of any of that happening, but the fact that is has is such a beam of hope.

Don’t underestimate the power of friendship in humanising those that are dehumanised. I’ve seen it in the refugee camps, I’ve seen it in people here, I’ve seen it between Brexit voters and non-Brexit voters. It’s the power of deep intimate friendship and the desire to help that will make the other person who is made out to be the monster real and human and that’s when change happens. That’s all there is, friendship. It’s such a gift. If you strip away all the layers, you’re just human. They feel fear, hunger, sleep deprivation as much as you do, crave chocolate as much as you do. It’s all just humanity and that starts with friendship.


Onjali Q Raúf attended Hay Festival on Monday 27 May and Tuesday 28May. Listen again on Hay Player here.