Boy, Everywhere: The importance of accurate, authentic representation in children's books
Published on: 02 November 2020 Author: A. M. Dassu
A. M. Dassu's new book Boy, Everywhere follows Sami, a child forced to leave his home in Syria. Here, she shares what inspired the novel and the impact she hopes it will have...
We've all been children and all of us have, at some point, learnt to read. However, not all of us have had the privilege of reading books or articles in which we could see ourselves positively or even accurately represented.
Books play a crucial role in a reader's life: they can provide moments of self-discovery where you see yourself or your friends in a story, or they can help you learn about other people's experiences.
Media representation significantly influences the way marginalised groups are perceived by society and accurate representation in books can send an important message to all readers that marginalised communities are in fact valued, and they belong.
Being inspired to write Boy, Everywhere
My novel Boy, Everywhere was inspired by a news interview that showed refugees in muddy camps wearing Nike trainers, holding smartphones and talking about what they'd left behind. Looking around my comfortable living room, I realised that it could easily have been me.
I realised that if it weren't for the war, most Syrians would never have left. It became clear their lives were very similar to ours in the West and a civil war could easily bring the same fate upon any of us.
I had been supporting refugees by setting up 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 wanted to write a book that was different to those already published about the crisis; to show the colour in contrast to the grey rubble and camps we see on TV.
I wanted to write a relatable, accurate and universal story, in which my protagonist is an ordinary boy who loves cars, playing football and his PlayStation.
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 wanted to create a window that would allow readers to experience how it feels to have it all and then lose it.
Through Boy, Everywhere I wanted to focus not only on the arduous journey a refugee takes to get to safety, but also what and who they leave behind and how difficult it is to start again. I wanted the focus to be on who they were and are, their identities as Syrians - not just the temporary political status attributed to them in their new country.
The difficult journey of writing Boy, Everywhere
When I started writing Boy, Everywhere, I knew I was taking on a huge responsibility. It soon became the book I wish I hadn't started writing, because I was desperate to make a difference right away, but I also didn't want to send it out until I was sure it represented Syrians and refugees the way they deserve to be portrayed.
It's taken five years to get to publication and I can honestly say I haven't cried about anything as much as I have about Boy, Everywhere, especially during the editing processes. Because this story was not about me - it was about people who have suffered great challenges and they deserve representation that shows their reality.
It had to be right. They had to have a voice. I wanted to do justice to everything refugees and Syrians had told me to share. I wanted to represent them holistically, as real people you could imagine meeting.
The importance of representation in fiction has been talked about a lot in recent years. It is widely accepted that children from all backgrounds should find themselves, their families and communities in books.
It's a sad reality that many children from diverse backgrounds write stories with only white, able characters because they haven't seen themselves represented. The books they have read have not been mirrors for them, and so it doesn't occur to young children (including me when I was at school) to write stories about their own experience.
They feel alone in their struggles and they look to other outlets to feel they belong. Growing up, I didn't really seek to find anyone like me in books or magazines. I'd never experienced it, and never expected it.
The importance of seeing yourself - and others - in books
Seeing yourself depicted in a story gives you a sense of belonging, a sense of place. You feel valued, however, only when representation is respectful. It is not enough to have a token cast of characters with typical names or depictions of colour. Characters should be multifaceted, not caricatures that cause more harm.
It's important that readers see through a window that accurately depicts life. Windows into the lives of others help us to understand the world and experience its beautiful diversity.
Children can be introduced to differences in culture, religion, identities, family set-ups and lifestyles through stories, and most importantly see that even though we all have differences, we all have the same hopes and fears.
The key reason for writing Boy, Everywhere was to challenge stereotypes. It was not enough to simply pick some things that I felt were worthy to write about, and so I asked questions, listened and tried to understand what felt unfair to refugees and the way they were represented in books and the media.
I spent time with various Syrian families in my community, in London and even in Damascus, who were very keen for me to shine a light on their lives. They 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'.
I hope Boy, Everywhere is a mirror for refugees and those who have had to start anew, and is a window for readers to experience and understand how difficult it is to leave everything behind. I hope it builds empathy and helps to challenge stereotypes and break down barriers in our society.
In a world where we are told to see refugees as the 'other', I hope those who have read Sami's story will agree that 'they' are also 'us'.
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