Top critical review
13 people found this helpful
Good to teach, not so good to read
on 29 August 2013
I have a problem with books like this. It's a common mistake I encountered a lot when I worked as a publishing editor. The issue is when an author fails to understand and resolve the difference the market and the readership. The market is who buys the book; the readership is who reads it. If they are out of alignment, the resulting book is often uneven in tone because it is pitched at two different groups at once. Refugee Boy is written for the schools market, and as an English teacher myself, it raises lots of interesting issues about immigration, human rights, multiculturalism and social responsibility that my students can debate and discuss at length. It is effectively a textbook, and serves the same purpose as a provoking media article, as opposed to being a noteworthy piece of fiction. For example, some of the phraseology is lacking in naturalism e.g. when Alem's father describes himself as a `pan-Africanist' in a letter to his twelve-year-old son. The character development is also extremely disjointed in places - Alem's friend Robert rapidly evolves from playground luddite to intellectual free-thinker and political reformer in order to support the exploration of the themes of immigration and social justice.
I have no problem generally with issues-led books, but having raised a number of important issues, Zephaniah has literally no idea how to end the novel, so the resolution, involving a double tragedy, is extremely contrived and lacking in plausibility. A much better example of an issues-led book where audience matches readership is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
If you are a teacher of English you can do a lot with this book, particularly as many of the contentions raised are dubious to say the least, e.g. that the political asylum process in the UK, which is in fact one of the most liberal and inclusive in Europe, is unnecessarily draconian. As a meritorious piece of fiction in its own right, however, Refugee Boy, has some fundamental shortcomings.