Hey everyone! Long time, no see! It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged, and while I’m still thinking of the best content to write to start blogging consistently again, I’m here with something amazing today! I’m thrilled that I’ve been lucky enough to be on the blog tour for the book Boy, Everywhere, which is a debut novel by A.M. Dassu. It’s a hard-hitting yet important middle grade novel about a young boy whose life is suddenly completely turned on its head, and he must navigate one of the most difficult changes he’s ever faced.
I’m thrilled to be able to bring you an interview with the author. It was a real honour to be able to ask her some questions about the inspiration of the book, as well as talking about getting into the mindset of the characters she’s created. A.M. Dassu has shared some very insightful answers about the process of writing and researching this novel too. Boy, Everywhere is out now and I highly recommend you buy it and read it. This book is perfect for readers aged 10+, and I would highly recommend young readers, teachers, librarians and others in education also read it – especially to read together as a class.
Sami is a typical 13 year-old: he loves his friends, football, PlayStation and iPad. But a bombing in a mall changes his life. Sami and his family flee their comfortable home in Damascus to make the perilous and painful journey towards a new life in the U.K. Leaving everything behind, Sami discovers a world he’d never encountered – harsh, dangerous, but also at times unexpectedly kind and hopeful.
WHERE DID YOU DRAW EXPERIENCE FROM FOR THE CHARACTERS SAMI AND SARA?
Both character’s experiences were written from various observations in my own life and also from the accounts of refugees. I’d been fundraising for Syrian refugees for a while and had therefore come across stories of children making the most of playing football while stuck in camps and seen videos of children playing in their tents, and heard parents who once worked as professionals talking about their young children who no longer spoke due to the traumatic events they’d experienced. But it was while I was watching a news interview showing refugees in a muddy camp wearing Nike trainers, holding smartphones, talking about what they’d left behind that I realised that I could easily end up there too. I realised how similar their lives were to ours and how easily a civil war could bring the same fate upon me.
And so I immediately pictured a boy, like my own son, who lived a happy, normal life; who made plans with friends, had the potential to play for the school football team, had an iPad, a PlayStation, a great school, weekends at the mall to look forward to – and who lost it all. While I was born in the UK, my family story is also one of cross-cultural relocation and immigration, so this was already a topic close to my heart. I know what it’s like to come from a wealthy, educated family that is forced to leave everything behind and start again. I wanted to create a window that would allow readers to experience how it feels to have it all and then lose it. And how easily a cruel twist of fate can bring this upon any of us.
Through my work in the courts and also as a school governor, I had seen how traumatic experiences can affect young children, and so when I saw news stories highlighting the Syrian children who had become selectively mute, I was able to imagine a girl who was chatty and full of life become withdrawn and no longer able to talk, even to her family. In 2015 when I first began to write Boy, Everywhere my youngest daughter was five years old––the same age as Sara. She had started full time school and was anxious about it. She became withdrawn and quiet, and also stuttered for a short while, so I personally knew how anxiety and fear can affect a young child.
Like Sami in Boy, Everywhere we all have at some point in our lives experienced the fear of going somewhere new and finding the strength to overcome challenges. Although not always as traumatic, it is not only refugees who experience loss and uncertainty like this. Many children will have to start again when they move to another house, a new school, when their parents divorce or when they lose a loved one. These were all experiences I could draw on for my character’s reactions.
My eldest son at the time of writing my first draft was mad about football so he helped with all of the scenes in which football is mentioned, and I was able to draw experiences from our cultural and Islamic traditions in which grandparents play a huge role in family life, elders must be respected, guests should be treated and fed well, and death and fate is not something that is shied away from. Then when my friend in Damascus who is a teacher told me the sort of conversations she’d had with her own children and how the war had affected them, she confirmed that Sami and Sara were like any child she’d met herself. Thankfully, she said it was a realistic story and that Sami could be her son, daughter or any of their friends.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of researching for this novel?
The research for this book was intense. I had been supporting refugees by setting up various fundraising campaigns to provide food and aid for many years, but I knew this wasn’t enough. I wanted to do something long-lasting by sharing their incredible achievements, culture, and backgrounds. I began by looking at articles and footage about life inside Syria now and in refugee camps, interviews of children sharing their experiences of the bombing, the trauma, the bad dreams, and their hopes to live like other children. But this research was not enough to make my story authentic. So I watched videos online of Syrian teenagers chilling out in cafes, in schools, and on social media. I looked at photos shared by Damascenes on Instagram. I watched rap songs by Syrians on YouTube. In order to capture the English that Syrians use, I read articles and blogs on Syrian government and news websites and then also double-checked things with Syrian friends. The key reason for writing Boy, Everywhere was to challenge stereotypes. It was not enough to simply pick things that I felt were worthy to write about, and so I asked questions, listened, and tried to understand what felt unfair to Syrian refugees and the way they were represented in books and the media.
I personally supported and spent time with various Syrian families in my community, and also refugees in London, some who had spent time in detention centres. I also reached out to my wonderful friend, Nadine Kaadan, who is a picture book author and illustrator from Damascus and moved to the UK after the war began. She told me my book was important and much needed and gave me invaluable advice about how the middle class in Damascus experienced the war. Through her, I met my dear friend in Damascus who spent an unbelievable amount of time answering my questions and fact-checking my book. It was serendipitous that her family in Damascus mirrors the family in my novel: she is a teacher; her husband a surgeon and they have a son who is twelve and a younger daughter. My friend in Damascus then passed the book on to her students and son, who also gave me encouraging feedback and told me that the characters in the story could be them, and the book said exactly what they wanted the world to know. The Syrians I met wanted people to know that they had good lives and were forced to leave. And hearing it all in person from Syrians themselves made me even more passionate about challenging stereotypes and sharing another perspective to the well-known refugee ‘story’.
Even after line edits were done, I kept rechecking things in the story and friends in and from Damascus would share pictures via Whatsapp of their neighbourhoods to reassure me I’d depicted Damascus correctly. My favourite part of the research process was learning more about Damascus, meeting more Syrians and passionately discussing their lives and their country with them, reassuring them that I would do my best to let everyone know about their dignified lives, that they were not simply victims of war or reduced to a ‘refugee’ label. But the bonus of this process is that I have made life-long friends in another country whom I adore.
Boy, Everywhere of course deals with some heavy themes. Were there any particular parts of the book that overwhelmed you when writing?
I found the boat and lorry scenes the hardest. I had to try and imagine what Sami would experience and knowing it is a frightening reality for real people even now was hugely upsetting.
We see how quickly Sami goes from being upbeat to withdrawn, and his worry and guilt towards the end of the novel. How important was it to you to show this internal battle of feelings for him?
So important, because this is what some children do. They internalise their feelings and blame themselves for the things that go wrong in their lives. There are countless children who think their parents fight or divorce because of something they did that may have initially instigated a discussion, but they can’t see the actual reasons behind an adult’s decision or even just what is fate. I wanted children to be able to see that none of this was Sami’s fault, and how it was so hard for him to see that reality.
What is one key message you want readers, young and old, to take from this novel?
That this could easily happen to anyone. No one sets out to become a refugee. No matter who you are, or where you’re from, we have many similarities; we all have the same hopes and fears. We mustn’t focus our differences, but instead focus on what we have in common.
A. M. Dassu is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and is based in the heart of England. She is Deputy Editor of SCBWI-BI’s magazine, Words & Pictures, and a Director of Inclusive Minds, a unique organization for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality, and accessibility in children’s literature. Previously, she has worked in project management, marketing, and editorial. Her work has been published by The Huffington Post, Times Educational Supplement, SCOOP Magazine, Lee & Low Books, and DK Books. She won the international We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) mentorship award in 2017. A. M. Dassu has used her publishing deal advances for her debut middle grade novel Boy, Everywhere to assist Syrian refugees in her city and set up a WNDB grant to support an unpublished refugee or immigrant writer.