BooksforTopics Reading for Pleasure Recommendations
We are delighted to host a Q&A with author Catherine Bruton, whose new book No Ballet Shoes in Syria is available now.
Read on for a review of No Ballet Shoes in Syria followed by an exclusive Q&A in which we chat to Catherine all about the inspiration behind the story and the importance of helping children to question the definitions that have become attached to words like ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’.
Book Title: No Ballet Shoes in Syria (available here)
Author: Catherine Bruton
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication Date: May 2019
Most Suitable For: Years 5-6+
A superb read. This is a gripping and thought-provoking story exploring the experience of an eleven-year-old girl fleeing conflict in Syria.
Having just arrived in the UK, eleven-year-old Aya attempts to help her mother and baby brother navigate their new life as asylum seekers. With the trauma of the war back home, the long and difficult journey across land and sea and the heart-wrenching separation from her father during the crossing still fresh in Aya's mind, nothing feels easy.
Aya finds joy in the discovery of a local ballet class, reminding her of her deep-seated love for dance. When the dance teacher identifies Aya's talent, she encourages Aya to apply for a scholarship at a prestigious ballet school. Not only might this open opportunities for Aya to secure a permanent home in the UK, her audition preparation also provides means for her to process and express some of her most difficult experiences.
Aya’s tale is told with such compassion that takes the reader on a real empathy journey. The story left me with plenty to think about and I confess to shedding tears more than once while reading it!
No Ballet Shoes in Syria is an important story that is beautifully told with warmth and compassion.
Also features on:
with Catherine Bruton, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria
No Ballet Shoes in Syria is a moving story that explores one girl’s experience as a refugee. Can you tell us what inspired you to write about this topic?
Along with the rest of the world, I was profoundly moved by the news footage of the unfolding migrant crisis in the summer of 2016, and I knew right away that it was something I wanted - needed - to write about. Hearing Judith Kerr talk at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival about the parallels with her own experience of fleeing the Nazis made me want to write a story that was a modern version of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, or Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword (two of my childhood favourites). I wanted to tell a story that would make young readers look beyond the labels of ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ and see the child behind.
The book quite powerfully raises awareness of the experiences of children fleeing from war and conflict. How did you research this key aspect of the story?
My very first teaching experiences were working with refugees in Namibia, then in South Africa with children fleeing from Rwanda, and throughout my career I have encountered child migrants from around the world including from the former Yugoslavia and the Congo. I contacted local refugee resettlement projects, as well as members of the Syrian community in the UK. It felt really important to be as authentic as possible and I really hope I have done justice to the story I have tried to tell.
In the story, the main character Aya has a passion for ballet and she finds that her dancing is fundamental in her journey to find a way to process and express her experiences. Is this something to which you personally can relate?
I started ballet about Aya’s age and continued throughout my teens. I loved it – although to my great disappointment, I was pretty terrible! At only five-foot-tall with fallen arches and chronic mal-coordination, my dreams of dancing didn’t quite match the reality! My classmate Dawn went to the Northern Ballet School though, living out the dream for the rest of us (she is the inspiration behind No Ballet Shoes in Syria in some way too!) But I loved reading the Sadler’s Wells book by Lorna Hill, Jean Estoril’s Drina Books and I adored Noel Streatfeild too. I think at some point I realised that for me reading and telling stories was my way of processing and expressing emotions, just as Aya does through dance. I still wish I could do a beautiful pirouette though!
The narrative itself is very moving (I cried at various points in the story), but Aya’s tale is an important one too and you tell it very compassionately. How do you think that stories like this help children to develop empathy for others?
As an English teacher for nearly 25 years I have seen first-hand how books can help open children’s eyes to the experiences of others, expand their horizons, make them ask questions, encourage them to ‘climb into someone else’s shoes and walk around in them’ – switch on lightbulbs in their heads. I have had the great privilege to introduce many children to many wonderful ‘lightbulb’ books, and so those are very much the books I have tried to write. Children are wonderfully compassionate and open-minded readers and it’s a real privilege - and responsibility - to write for such an audience.
Throughout the story the power of kindness is celebrated, and we see the impact of small acts of generosity from strangers. Can you think of a time when the kindness of other people has made a difference to you personally?
Ooh, what a great question! My first teaching experience was at an amazing primary school in Namibia called Otjikondo which was set up by an awe-inspiring family to look after former refugee orphans after the war of independence. I think the kindness I saw and experienced there had a profound effect on me and has made me want to live my own life according to similar values. I am still involved with fundraising for the school nearly 25 years on and love hearing the incredible stories of what former pupils have achieved, testimony to the transformative power of kindness in children’s lives.
What key messages are you hoping that readers will take away from the story?
I hope that it will make young readers question the toxic definitions that have become attached to words like ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ and see the child behind, as a child with hopes and dreams just like they have. If a child like Aya were to pick up the book, I hope they would be empowered by seeing their story told – but a version in which they were the heroine, not just the victim – a beautiful ballerina, not just a war-child. If I could achieve that, I will have done what I set out to do.
For more from Catherine, follow @catherinebruton on Twitter or visit http://catherinebruton.com.
Many thanks to Catherine for answering my questions and to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.
Check out the other stops on the blog tour, too!