We catch up with children's book author Onjali Q. Raúf ahead of her visit to Dubai for the Emirates Festival of Literature.
How did it feel to win the Blue Peter award for The Boy at the Back of the Class?
Absolutely surreal! There are moments that I still can’t quite believe it happened. I’ve never won anything in my life – not even a goldfish at the fairground (I got given one once out of pity – the woman running the stall felt sorry for me as I had spent all my money trying to win one and gifted me one!). So when the book was nominated and then shortlisted, I really didn’t think it stood a chance against the other, far more epic contenders. I’ve been wanting a Blue Peter badge ever since I can remember – so the fact I won one after three decades, together with an actual prize, is beyond anything I could have wished for.
Did you face any challenges getting the book published?
I’m very lucky, in the sense that I already had a phenomenal agent (Silvia Molteni) at the time the book was written, so I didn’t have to go hunting for one after its existence – I could just submit it to her right away. And by some miracle, once that was done, the book sold to Hachette within just a few weeks. I’m not sure what the journey would have been like had I not had Silvia to submit the book to, but I have no doubt it would have taken far longer, and that the book would most probably not even be in existence yet. It took me nearly nine years of trying to find an agent who liked my works at all, and before that, I had been writing for nigh on a decade. So it’s been a very hickledy-pickledy road, and a funny one, because The Boy at the Back of the Class wasn’t ever a planned book, and yet those which were written and submitted years ago, have yet to see the light of day! In short, somehow, it’s been very smooth sailing with this book-baby.
What do you hope your books will teach children?
Empathy, and hopefully a deeper understanding of the power everyone has to help someone in need – especially through the offering of their friendship.
Name one book from your childhood that you loved?
I can never answer this question, as there were at least three hundred! Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – all of them had a huge part in my childhood. But I think Roald Dahl’s Matilda and The Wonderful Tale of Henry Sugar were game-changers. Those stories felt really real – to the point where I would spend hours trying to move a pencil or see through playing cards with my eyes. Genius stories.
Who are your favourite literary heroes and villains?
So many! For heroes and villains, I don’t think you can get any better than the two leads in The Count of Monte Cristo! I remember being utterly in awe of Edmond Dantes as one of the most patient, brilliant heroes I had ever encountered in a book, and hating the horrid Fernand to the point where I would make an angry puff every time he entered a scene. Classic, big heroes and villains that are hard to top. Except with the exception of Frodo v Sauron of course!
What’s on the agenda for your visits to Dubai and Abu Dhabi?
This will be my first trip to Dubai, so I’m very excited at the thought of exploring the city’s history and Islamic architecture, and getting to meet phenomenal people and hearing their stories too. I’d also love to have a chance to pray at the grand Abu Dhabi Sheikh Zayed Mosque too if I can.
Is there another book in the pipeline?
My second book, The Star Outside My Window, came out in October 2019, and features a young hero named Aniyah and her brother Noah, as they go on a journey centred around a very important star. It centres on another issue close to my heart and which I think we need to speak more openly about – domestic violence and abuse. And I’m currently working on a third book featuring a dubious non-heroic hero called Hector, a spate of pretty daring jewellery thefts, and some phenomenal souls who happen to be homeless.
“Stories – real-life stories about what’s happening in the world to refugees, and what can be done to put a stop to inhumanities. Not all of it will be fun to hear, but it is crucial, and I hope they’ll understand why I’m with them at the session, and why this particular book exists.
Dhs39. Sat Feb 8, 12pm-1pm. Emirates Festival of Literature InterContinental, Dubai Festival City, www.emirateslitfest.com (04 355 9844).