Exploring Unreliable Narrators in the Classroom

Books which tell us the story from the perspective of one of the main characters can often have unreliable narrators - narrators you can’t quite trust 100%. These unreliable narrators can be fascinating to explore in the classroom - allowing us to take a closer look at the intentions of the author and what kind of person these characters are.

Exploring Unreliable Narrators in the Classroom. A quick look at first person narratives with unreliable narrators and how we can explore them in the classroom. A Galarious Goods blog post

The Unaware Narrator

Jamal in Boy Overboard (by Morris Gleitzman) is sure that he and his sister have arrived at a soccer match. Only to discover that he is terribly wrong.

Jamal is a character who often only has part of the story. He is forced to fill in the gaps with the knowledge he does have, but many times his conclusions aren’t right and he has to reassess and draw new conclusions. As readers there are times when we are aware that he doesn’t have it quite right (or we soon find out that is the case) and we have to assess whether we will believe his next conclusion, or treat it with a level of scepticism.

Morris Gleitzman writes a LOT of characters like this. Which makes sense because childhood often feels like this - like you have some of the puzzle pieces, but someone’s hidden the picture which helps you put them together.

Another great example of a character like this is Mothball the Wombat from Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s Diary of a Wombat story. In this case, the illustrations soon let us know that the scratching post is a ladder and the furry enemy is really a doormat, so we find ourselves carrying two narratives through the story - the narrative in Mothball’s head and the narrative we can tell from the illustrations.

Exploring Unaware Narrators in the Classroom

These can be great fun to explore in the classroom because our own knowledge, experiences and schema may be able to help us fill in the gaps. Comparing what our narrators think is happening and what is really happening allows us to understand where our characters come from - whether they’re boys or wombats.

It also allows us to explore the intentions of the author. An author study on Morris Gleitzman books would be particularly interesting, looking at what information he gives his narrators before the events of the book, what conclusions they draw from that information when they’re in unfamiliar circumstances and what they learn going forward.

When we explore a character like Mothball, we can also look at the choices the author has made - the wombat understands certain terms like sleep, scratch and - of course - carrots, but hasn’t come up across concepts like garden beds, door mats or washing lines. Why has the author made those choices for our wombat narrator? How would the story be different if there were different choices?

The Deliberately Unreliable Narrator

Erica Yurken is the best thing since sliced bread. Or at least she is in her own mind. And in the stories she tells others.

Robin Klein’s classic novel Hating Alison Ashley is told from the perspective of Erica Yurken who constantly creates stories about herself and others to amuse herself, get herself out of trouble or to impress other people - including Alison Ashley.

If we just listened to Erica, we would probably be inclined to hate Alison Ashley ourselves. But there are things which make us question Erica’s trustworthiness - times when she gets caught out in her stories, times when she contradicts herself and times when we glimpse her through the eyes of other characters. The author knows that Erica is not reliable and wants the reader to know this too.

We find another unreliable narrator in the Do Not Open This Book series from Andy Lee. Our narrator desperately wants us to stop turning the pages (because dreadful things happen to him when we do), so he’ll try anything to stop us - even turning the book around so we’ll turn the pages from back to front. The illustrations, eventual confessions and meta-knowledge of how books work allows us to know that our narrator is not the most trustworthy of characters - even if he’s only being unreliable to save his own skin.

A. Wolf is also just trying to save his skin in The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. He’s found himself in jail and he wants us to know that it’s not his fault at all - it’s all because he needed to borrow some sugar.

In this case, it’s our own background knowledge - our understanding of fairy tales - which makes us question his honesty. After all - we’ve never heard this story before. But we keep reading to see how he’s going to justify his terrible crimes.


Exploring Deliberately Unreliable Narrators in the Classroom

The biggest questions we can ask in our classrooms when it comes to deliberately unreliable narrators is why do they behave like this? Why are they trying to mislead us - the readers - and what will they get if they manage this?

We can also challenge students to write first person narration like this. To consider what motivates a character and then have them tell a story where they work to convince the reader of something which may not be quite true. This works particularly well when students begin with well known stories like fairy tales and myths and try to tell the story from the perspective of the ‘bad guy’.

What unreliable narrators have you come across in your reading? Have you used a book with an unreliable narrator in your classroom? Leave a comment below.


8 Free Resources for Classrooms Reading Boy Overboard

Providing students with high quality background information for Boy Overboard can be a little bit of a challenge. Many resources are older and out of date and many links are sadly broken. Here, I’ve collected a range of free resources to assist you in providing background information for Boy Overboard and teaching the novel more effectively to your students.

8 Free Resources for Classrooms Reading Boy Overboard - a collection of links and ideas for the Morris Gleitzman novel and some ways to use them in the classroom. A Galarious Goods blog post.

8 Free Resources for Classrooms Reading Boy Overboard - a collection of links and ideas for the Morris Gleitzman novel and some ways to use them in the classroom. A Galarious Goods blog post.


(While all efforts are made to make sure these links are accurate - the nature of the web means they may be ‘broken’. Sometimes searching will help you access the material, but - sadly - some information may be taken from the web permanently)

On Refugees

National Geographic: Refugee Week

To access this resource, you need a login (which is quick and easy to get). This one page primary resource introduces students to a range of concepts, vocabulary terms and ideas around refugees. The page also includes teaching ideas.

This would be good to use before students read Boy Overboard or right after. It would also be a useful resource if students were researching refugees.

BTN: Refugee Day

This BTN video provides background information on refugees in a range of situations and provides images for students to put with the story. BTN has broadcast a wide range of stories on refugees over the years and many are available. This story, like many of the others, also includes teacher notes and further links for students to explore.

UNHCR Teaching Materials for 9-12 Year Olds

This teaching resource from the UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) offers a range of teaching ideas and lesson ideas about refugees. One of the most useful resources is the teacher’s guide to integrating teaching about refugees and asylum into a range of classroom subjects.

On Afghanistan

The Pulitzer Centre: Lesson Plan on Afghanistan

This is a complete lesson plan on Afghanistan and its history, based around resources from news organisations. The lesson plan may be a little complex for your students, but there are a range of teacher questions and activities and some good news links (though some links are no longer available)

Royal Geographical Society

The Royal Geographical Society page is good for some background information on Afghanistan. Some of the links are broken, but the documents at the bottom provide a timeline and a number of fact sheets with extra information about Afghanistan.

On the Pacific Solution

Australian Catholic Social Justice Council - Discussion Paper - The Pacific Solution
Australian Parliament House - Parliamentary Library - Pacific Solution

These two pages are aimed at an older audience, but provide background information to The Pacific Solution and arguments around it. These would be good for teachers to use when preparing discussions or further reading information for students.

On Boy Overboard

Morris Gleitzman’s Author Notes

This is a thoughtful reflection on why Morris Gleitzman wrote Boy Overboard and would be especially good to read while considering author intention. Students should wait until they have finished reading the book to read this.

Boy Overboard Novel Study - Sample Pack

This Galarious Goods free resource allows teachers and students to take a closer look at several aspects of Boy Overboard. This is a great resource if you have limited time to explore the novel or you are just looking for a few supplementary resources


10 Books for Classrooms Exploring Boy Overboard

Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman is a great book to explore in your classroom. But what other books are connected to this important story? What books can you make available for your students to read? What books can you explore together?

Today I’m proud to present 10 books related to Boy Overboard, perfect for the classroom. From picture book memoirs, to wordless books to well known novels, this is the list every teacher needs when they’re teaching Boy Overboard!

10 Books for Classrooms Exploring Boy Overboard. A curated list of books related to Boy Overboard and how teachers can use them in the classroom as teaching resources. Perfect for classes learning Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman. A Galarious Goods blog post.

Girl Underground (and other Morris Gleitzman novels)

Girl Underground is a must have for students who are reading Boy Overboard. The companion to Boy Overboard it follows the story of Bridget and Menzies who team up to help Jamal and Bibi who are now living in a refugee camp in the Australian desert.

In the author notes for this book, Morris Gleitzman says he was struck by the range of responses from the public to those in need of help - like refugees. He sought to explore that in Girl Underground and it makes for a great discussion which you can explore with your class.

It’s well worth making other Morris Gleitzman novels available for your students to read as well. He’s got a huge collection of novels covering a wide range of topics - there’s something for everyone!

Mahtab’s Story and Parvana

Mahtab’s Story by Libby Gleeson and Parvana by Deborah Ellis (published as The Breadwinner outside Australia) both look at the harsh life under the Taliban in Afghanistan - the same regime that Jamal and Bibi were living under at the beginning of Boy Overboard.

Mahtab’s Story is also similar to Boy Overboard because it traces the difficult journey out of Afghanistan to Australia. We’re taken through the long - and sometimes tedious - journey Mahtab and her family take as they move from one place to another - sometimes in danger, sometimes just waiting for something to happen. The writing is beautiful and this would make for a great text if you are looking at description.

Parvana is a little different because it focuses more on the life under the Taliban. Parvana is a young girl who is forced to pretend she is a girl when her father is taken away. Girls and women in Afghanistan aren’t allowed to be in public without a male family member, so Parvana’s disguise is an essential part of their survival as she starts working to support the family.


Refugee by Alan Gratz reminds us that stories of refugees aren’t new and that they will probably continue into the future. By presenting three different stories from different time periods, students are invited to look at the similar and different aspects of people fleeing from dangerous situations and to look at where else in the world this might apply.


The Arrival

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a large, wordless book which follows the journey of a man fleeing danger and hoping to be reunited with his family and the kindness of the people he meets in the strange land. It connects with the journey made by Jamal and their family and the strange things Jamal comes across from one place to another.

This is a stunning book, well worth taking an in-depth look at if you have the time. It can be accompanied with a wide range of texts and can definitely become the focus of an extended book study. Students can explore how illustrations can tell such vivid stories and where else they can find powerful illustrations, or they can explore other wordless books or graphic novels.

I’m Australian Too

Much of I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox focuses on different groups of people who live in Australia and how their families came here. However, at the end of the book we are introduced to a refugee in a camp, still waiting to come to Australia.

This powerful end to the book, contrasted with all the other children leading fulfilling lives within Australia can raise a number of discussion points with students. They can compare this story with Jamal and Bibi’s story, reflect on why people leave one country for another and whether it reflects Australian history.

My Name is Not Refugee

My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner is aimed at younger children, but is a beautifully written way to explain life as a refugee to people of all ages. Throughout the book, a range of questions are asked which put the reader into the shoes of refugees.

This would be a great book to share before starting Boy Overboard, as it introduces students to the idea of refugees. Students could also read it to compare the story of the child depicted with Jamal and Bibi and their journey

Books for classrooms exploring Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman. A collection of books which are perfect for the classroom for teachers to explore as they teach Boy Overboard. A Galarious Goods blog post.


Wisp by Zana Fraillon is more abstract than some of the other books, asking students to draw connections between the text, the illustrations and things which are happening around the world. This beautiful book draws the reader in as they go on journeys of memory and imagination with the characters.

Students can use this book to explore the notion of hope and to compare it with the hopes Jamal and his family carried with them as they journeyed away from the danger in their homeland. They can explore different ways hopes can be written about and drawn and how we may hope for a better future for everyone.

Room on Our Rock

Room on Our Rock by Kate and Jol Temple is an incredibly clever picture book which shares two messages depending on whether you read it from back to front or front to back. This reflects Morris Gleitzman’s statement about the range of opinions which exist when it comes to refugees and other people who need help.

This would be a great book to look at in terms of structure. Students can attempt to write their own forwards or backwards stories with different messages and examine how the authors have successfully managed it.

The Little Refugee

The Little Refugee by Ahn Do and Suzanne Do shares another story of a boat trip to Australia, but this time as a result of a different conflict - the Vietnam War. Students may be surprised to see that this is the picture book memoir of a popular children’s author, well known for the Weir Do and Hot Dog books, allowing them to see what life may look like for refugees as they grow from children to adults.

There are many parallels with Boy Overboard in Ahn Do’s story, which students can explore and list. They might also explore what Jamal and Bibi’s story might look like if it was turned into a picture book and how it might be illustrated.

Books for classrooms exploring Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman. A collection of books which are perfect for the classroom for teachers to explore as they teach Boy Overboard. A Galarious Goods blog post.

Whether you are able to add one or all of these books into your classroom, you will find that there are plenty of strong, thoughtful books to supplement the stories and messages of Boy Overboard in your classroom.


Addressing Controversial Topics in the Classroom

There's been a fair amount of media attention lately about whether teachers should discuss controversial topics in the classroom - and whether they should bring their own opinions into it. The intensity of the media focus can make teachers feel like they should avoid those topics altogether. However, sometimes those topics are unavoidable and many times those discussions are invaluable. The key to successfully discussing controversial or difficult topics is using tactics and guidelines which make it safe and useful for everyone involved - including you as the teacher.


1. Create a Caring, Compassionate Classroom

A classroom environment which promotes care and compassion for each other will make it easier when you approach difficult topics. It's easier for students to express different views and be open to listening to each other when they are being mindful of each other. 

2. Let Parents Know What's Happening (When You Can)

Although some topics come up because of something on the news or because a student introduces it through a question or statement, other topics are part of the curriculum or planned lessons. Keeping parents and caregivers in touch with what is happening in the classroom (whether it is controversial or not) allows them to have a full understanding of the situation, rather than getting bits and pieces home through their children or the work in their books. It also establishes trust between you and them and is generally good practice.

3. Set Guidelines for Discussions

Having strong guidelines for discussions allows students to express themselves in a safe place. When students know what is and what isn't acceptable, they learn to consider their thoughts and frame them in a way which is less likely to cause harm to others. They may not always get it right - learning to say things in a considered way is something that even adults can struggle with! - but with time and consistency it will become easier for them. Guidelines can also apply to listening.

4. Encourage Students to Collect Both Facts and Opinions - And to Know the Difference Between Them

It can be very easy for discussions to become very opinion focused, but by encouraging students to collect facts - and opinions from other people - you can create a broader, more informed discussion. In a discussion on refugees, for example, students might research opinions from politicians, academics and activists. They might also look at the reasons why there are refugees and the movement of refugees throughout history. Historical opinions could also be discussed. The more students know, question and discuss, the more informed and thoughtful their own opinions will be.

5. It's OK to Have A View. It's OK to Share It. It's OK Not to Share It.

Some commentators believe that teachers shouldn't have a view on anything and should just 'get back to the teaching!' But that's not necessarily fair on students who should be exposed to a range of views from the people in their lives - including teachers - and should be able to see how people develop their views. By letting students know what your view is, and how you came to that point of view, you're providing them with more information as they make their way through their decision making processes to developing their own views. 

It's also ok not to share your view. Sometimes it's not relevant or asked for. Sometimes you need to protect yourself. Sometimes you need to give the space to your students instead.

6. Protect Yourself

Unfortunately, some people thrive on controversy and they're only too happy to 'report' a controversial discussion to your administration, district, or worse - the media. Many times they do not have the full story and it can be a scramble to make sure that you and your actions are protected.

If a controversial discussion happens or topic comes up, it can be worthwhile to let your administration know. It lets them be prepared if someone approaches them and leaves them in a better position to assist you. It's also worth keeping notes in your planner or diary to refer back to if required.

If lessons around a controversial issue are planned, it might be worth working with another teacher to deliver material to the classes together. Having another informed adult working on the same material (or even in the same classroom) can let people outside the classroom know that this is a planned, organised event - not you just sharing your opinions willy nilly.

Finally, if you're in the position to join a teachers union, they're well worth joining. Many are created to look after your rights in the workforce, including your rights to teach material others might find controversial. Unions become stronger with their members, and many have other benefits beyond the protection element.

The Boy Overboard Whole Novel Study allows students to look at how an author has presented a sometimes controversial subject. You can find it, along with more Boy Overboard resources at the Galarious Goods shop.


Exploring Author Intention

Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman is a fabulous fast-paced read, but it also covers the complex and sometimes controversial topic of refugees. While it might be tempting to stay far away from this - you don't always want extra controversy in the classroom - the topic can help to frame a deeper exploration of the book and the intentions of the author.


Who is Telling the Story?

In Boy Overboard, the narrator is Jamal, a young boy from Afghanistan who becomes a refugee on a boat to Australia.

The choice of Jamal as a first-person narrator is interesting for both the narrative and the message it gives the reader. We see the world through Jamal's eyes - the things he considers to be ordinary and the misunderstandings he has. We begin to understand why he and his family make the choices they make - we're given the opportunity to step into his shoes for a little while.

We can also explore why the author made Jamal the narrator. Was it to provoke empathy or sympathy for his situation? To make us wonder what decisions we might make in the same situation? Or is it a convention that the author has used repeatedly in his other books? How would it be different if he'd made a different choice? If he'd chosen another character to tell the story or had a separate narrator altogether?


How Do the Characters Respond to Events in the Story?

There are several different types of characters in Boy Overboard - named and nameless - and they respond to events in a wide variety of ways. Some are helpful, some make life more difficult and some are downright dangerous to our main character.

By offering a range of characters, what is the author telling us? Which of the responses does he want us to sympathise with? Which of the supporting characters does he want us to agree with? How does he want us to feel about all of his characters, not just the main ones?

Looking at the characters our protagonist interacts with can be a powerful insight into the intentions of the author. We are given a more complete view of the world in which they live and begin to assess if the author is being fair to the characters or not.


What messages is the author sending us - and should we trust them?

This is an important question for students to ask whenever they come across text which tackles complex issues. When students learn to question the intentions of the author, they begin to read more critically.

With Boy Overboard, the author is asking us to feel empathy for Jamal and the other refugees. But we should encourage students to read more on the topic - both fiction and non-fiction. This allows them to better understand the actions of those in the book - even if they don't agree with them - and to have a greater understanding of the messages the author is sending.


Students are facing a different media landscape to the one that existed when Boy Overboard was first published. These days it can be very easy to only engage with media which reinforces your view of the world. By encouraging students to explore the intentions of the author and how that might influence the reader, we can better prepare students to think about and form informed opinions on complex issues in the future.

Should Children's Authors Write About Controversial Topics?

When authors publish books including controversial topics, there are some people who feel that they have overstepped the mark, that they are introducing children to topics that are 'above them'. But what do your students think?

The latest freebie in the Galarious Goods shop allows students to explore this question through a persuasive writing task. This is a great opportunity to discuss books which might be seen as controversial - and why they are seen that way - and is the perfect accompaniment to a novel or book study or for banned book week.


Interested in Teaching Boy Overboard?

You can find the Boy Overboard Sample Pack here -  this free resource gives you activities you can use in your classroom and an introduction to the other Boy Overboard resources available at the Galarious Goods shop.

Other resources available include:


Using Boy Overboard in the Classroom

What kind of book brings together soccer, bread, the horror of living under an authoritarian regime, the importance of education and a side of humour? Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman, of course. This modern Australian classic is a classroom favourite, and it’s not hard to understand why.

But while this book deals with a particular time period - it has many universal themes which continue to be important and worthy of exploration (inside and outside our classrooms) today.

Using Boy Overboard in the Classroom - blog post examining Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman, why it is suitable for the classroom and how you can use it

Boy Overboard tells the story of Jamal, a football (soccer) mad boy who lives in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. After his family find themselves in trouble with the Taliban, they are forced to flee - first to a refugee camp and then around the world. They're aiming to build a new life in Australia - where Jamal hopes he and his sister will become famous football stars who will be able to return to Afghanistan as heroes one day.

This book deals with a particular refugee crisis which happened while the Taliban was controlling most of Afghanistan. This is history to our students, events which occurred before they were born. But the notion of refugees escaping great danger and searching for a safe place is a notion which is still - unfortunately - relevant today.


This allows our students many ways to build connections between the ‘history’ of Boy Overboard and the world in which they live today. Students can explore why people leave their home countries, willing to travel through dangerous conditions to start a new life elsewhere. No one in Jamal's family are happy to leave their home and they sacrifice many things to find safety and peace.

Jamal and his family find themselves in a refugee camp. With more than 25 million people in the world considered refugees, there are camps in many places around the world. Students can explore what conditions are like in these camps and how organisations and innovators have worked to make these conditions better.

Another element students can look at is the obligation of countries to refugees. Throughout their journey, people take advantage of Jamal and his family and the other refugees. Meanwhile, governments make decisions which can be hard to understand - especially when we get to know the individuals involved. The 1951 Refugee Convention is a legal agreement which determines the rights of refugees. This may form the basis of a discussion about rights and responsibilities and how countries can meet their responsibilities to refugees today.


Beyond refugees, students can examine what it is like to life under an authoritarian regime such as the one Jamal lives under in Afghanistan. Boy Overboard acknowledges many of the rules imposed on the citizens of Afghanistan and allows students to explore this form of government.

Students can also relate to Jamal’s situation when he often doesn’t understand the full story. Jamal isn’t written as an all-knowing creature. Instead he is a boy who doesn’t always have all the information, who doesn’t always come to the right conclusion. Students can compare him with other characters or connect this feature of Jamal with their own experiences.

Boy Overboard is truly a great classroom read, either as a read aloud, for a whole class read or for small group work. The characters are interesting and worth exploring, the events of the story allow for exploration, the choices of the author can be discussed. It tackles a serious topic, but maintains the soft humour Morris Gleitzman is well known for.

Interested in Teaching Boy Overboard?

You can find the Boy Overboard Sample Pack here -  this free resource gives you activities you can use in your classroom and an introduction to the other Boy Overboard resources available at the Galarious Goods shop.

Other resources available include: