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Benjamin Zephaniah
To encourage younger, reluctant and emergent readers to feel part of the Small Island Read 2007 project, we will be supplying libraries and other partners in the participating sites with copies of Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy.

Refugee Boy tells the story of Alem, a young boy with an Ethiopian father and an Eritrean mother, who is left alone in London and needs all his courage as he faces up to the British justice system. It is a powerful, thought-provoking and topical novel that demands to be read.

You can read some reviews of the book in the Kidz section of the A Poet Called Benjamin Zephaniah website. There are lots of interesting articles by and about Benjamin Zephaniah on the site along with some of his poems.

You can download the Refugee Boy activity pack at the bottom of this page.

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was born in the Handsworth district of Birmingham on 15 April 1958.

Like Hortense and Gilbert in Small Island, his mother, a nurse, had come to Britain from Jamaica in the post-war period. Zephaniah’s early years were divided between Handsworth, which has a large resident Jamaican population, and Jamaica itself. He has said: ‘My poetry is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and I can’t remember a time when I was not creating poetry.’

He moved to London at the age of 22 and published his first book of poetry, Pen Rhythm, in 1980. He says if he was to choose one term to describe what type of poet he is, it would be an ‘oral’ poet.

I say this because as I write my poetry, I can hear the sound of it, sometimes I can be heard giving birth to my poems by those close to me and sometimes those that are close to me get tired of hearing me give birth too often…

We oral poets do get published now but knowing that reading is a minority pastime, it would be fair to say that the publishing of books is way down on our list of priorities. We put poetry into music, into plays. On television, radio, we perform like crazy people, we put poems on post cards and in micro chips, in fact we do anything to change the dead, white and boring image of poetry.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s first poetry book for children, Talking Turkey, was published in 1994 and became an immediate best seller, being reprinted after only six weeks. As with his adult poetry, in these poems Zephaniah tackles important issues such as war, racism, bullying, animal rights, the environment.

… I write about the real world. Just because I’m writing for children it doesn’t mean that I can’t be political, it just means I can’t be party political. You have to be a bit more imaginative than just throwing out slogans, so it’s made me look at the world differently.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s first novel for young people, Face, was published in 1999 and is described as a book about ‘facial discrimination’. It was followed by Refugee Boy in 2001. Benjamin Zephaniah also writes prose for adults, plays for radio, television and the stage, is an actor and presenter, a performer on musical recordings of his work, a Rastafarian, a vegan and a martial arts enthusiast.

On the morning of 13 November 2003, Benjamin Zephaniah received a letter saying he had been awarded an OBE – Order of the British Empire. In an article in The Guardian, he described his reaction:

Me? I thought, OBE me? Up yours, I thought. I get angry when I hear that word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised. It is because of this concept of empire that my British education led me to believe that the history of black people started with slavery and that we were born slaves, and should therefore be grateful that we were given freedom by our caring white masters. It is because of this idea of empire that black people like myself don’t even know our true names or our true historical culture. I am not one of those who are obsessed with their roots, and I'm certainly not suffering from a crisis of identity; my obsession is about the future and the political rights of all people. Benjamin Zephaniah OBE – no way Mr Blair, no way Mrs Queen. I am profoundly anti-empire.

The full article can be read in the Media section on the A Poet Called Benjamin Zephaniah website.

You can hear Benjamin Zephaniah reading his poem ‘London Breed’ on the British Council website.

An activity pack on Refugee Boy devised for the Small Island Read 2007 project can be downloaded here. There is also a downloadable pack of teachers’ notes and classroom sheets on the Caribbean Schools website.

  Benjamin Zephaniah.

Benjamin Zephaniah.

John and Tom from the Voctional Access Programme at City of Bristol College with workshop leader Claire Williamson looking at Refugee Boy.

John and Tom from the Vocational Access Programme at City of Bristol College with workshop leader Claire Williamson looking at
Refugee Boy.

Cotham School

Read work inspired by Refugee Boy produced by Year 7 pupils from Cotham from workshop with Claire Williamson here.

Stockwood Primary

Read a class story created by pupils from Stockwood in a workshop with Claire Williamson here.

Benjamin Zephaniah in Liverpool

Benjamin Zephaniah will be appearing as part of this year's Writing on the Wall Festival at the Philharmonic. Don't miss this opportunity to see the author of Refugee Boy. See the festival website for details.

Colston's Girls School

Pupils at Colston's Girls' School in Bristol have created some poems and short pieces inspired by Refugee Boy during a writing workshop with Claire Williamson. Read their work here (PDF).

"The story Refugee Boy is about Alem, who is both Ethiopian and Eritrean. The countries are at war so his parents send him to England where it is safe. This story is about his struggles and achievements when he is fostered by an English family and sent to an English school. It is exciting and makes you feel shameful about the way we treat refugees. I really enjoyed this story and hope to read other books by Benjamin Zephaniah."
Review by Phoebe Hill, 12, Lyme Regis