This month we’re incredibly proud to have published No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton – a captivating story, filled with warmth and heart, with wonderfully authentic ballet writing and an important message championing the rights of refugees. The Times named it their Children’s Book of the Week, calling it “A moving, textured story … Ballet Shoes for the 21st century”, and Hilary McKay, Costa Book Prize-winning author of The Skylarks’ War, described it as “wise and kind and unputdownable”. And today we’re very pleased to share a piece by Catherine on the inspirations behind the book, which you can read below.
When I was eleven I adored Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and Pamela Brown’s The Swish of the Curtain, and was so fixated on Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells ballet books – each of which I had read at least ten times – that eventually my mum decided enough was enough. She prised my tattered copy of Veronica at the Wells out of my hands and gave me a pile of new reading material, which included The Silver Sword, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and The Diary of Anne Frank. That was when I discovered that there was a new kind of book to love – stories that could open your eyes, change the way you saw the world, make you ask questions, expand your horizons, enrich your soul – switch on lightbulbs in your head!
As an English teacher for the past twenty-five years I have had the great privilege of introducing kids to those ‘lightbulb books’ – the stories that expand their capacity for empathy and challenge their preconceptions about the world; that help them look at and come to terms with the most difficult issues of growing up in the world today.
And so as an author those are the books I have tried to write.
As the world watched the migrant crisis beginning to unfold I knew it was something I wanted – needed – to write about. Hearing Judith Kerr, the author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, speak about the parallels between her story and the current situation in Syria, I had my own lightbulb moment. I would write about a child displaced from their home by war in Syria, fleeing across Europe, and seeking asylum in the UK. A story that was a modern version of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword – a story that would make young readers look beyond the labels of ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ to see the child behind.
When I discussed the idea with my editor at Nosy Crow, we were both conscious of the difficulties of writing about events that are happening now – complex, potentially troubling issues that we would be asking young readers to confront without the distance of history. I have a quote from one of my favourite writers, Alan Gibbons, above my desk: “I never enter a dark room unless I can light the way out.” That’s what I wanted to do – to confront difficult issues, in a way that didn’t offer glib solutions or whitewash the truth, but which did offer the consolation of hope.
A charity local to me, Bristol Refugee Rights, holds a drop-in at a community centre where dance lessons are also held. I found myself imagining a young Syrian girl, just arrived in the UK, disorientated, not knowing if she’d be allowed to stay, watching a ballet class through a half-open doorway, seeing girls just like her friends from home, longing to be back at her own dance school. The story began from there.
I contacted Bath Welcomes Refugees and other refugee resettlement projects who helped me with research, and I spoke to members of the Syrian community who had come to Britain, as well as reading many, many accounts and transcripts from child refugees, but I did find myself struggling for a long time with the voice. Aya’s voice eluded me – sometimes she was there, sometimes she slipped away from me, and tying together her past narrative with her present was particularly challenging. Until I realised that of course it would be – dealing with the past and reconciling it with the present is hugely difficult for many of these children. I made the decision to tell the story of Aya’s life in Aleppo – her experiences before and during the war, her flight through Turkey, in a container, in refugee camps, crossing the Med in a storm – all in flashbacks interspersed between the story of her experiences as a young asylum seeker in the UK. At first the two stories are distinct, but gradually dance becomes a medium for Aya to work through complex suppressed memories and the two begin to come together. As she becomes more able to talk about the past and grieve for what’s lost – coming to terms with what may have happened to her father – she is also able to begin to let go of the guilt and look to the future.
Telling Aya’s story felt like a big responsibility. Sometimes I wondered if it was my story to tell – and I hope that in future years we will see stories of child migrants told by those who lived through it. But it didn’t feel like this story could wait. It has to be told now – to this generation who are growing up now. Because when you turn on your TV and see a story about a Syrian refugee who has escaped the horrors of war, only to be attacked in a school in the UK, you realise why it is so important for this generation of young readers to question the toxic definitions attached to words like ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ – to see the child, not the label.
But I hope this story might also be to young readers what Ballet Shoes and The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells series were to me – the stories of following your dreams that I adored and read over and over; that I read to my children and still pick up as old favourites today. My mum doesn’t take them off me now! She knows that the moment she pressed those lightbulb books into my hand, she helped me grow up as a reader – but it was the love of both kinds of books that made me a reader for life. If No Ballet Shoes in Syria can do that for any young readers, or if a child like Aya can read it and see themselves represented on the pages of a book – their story told, in which they are the heroine, not just a victim – then I will have done what I set out to do.
Thank you, Catherine! No Ballet Shoes in Syria is available in shops now – you can read the opening chapters below:
And here’s the first chapter of the audiobook edition of the book, available now from Audible, Amazon, and Apple.