We are delighted to welcome author Catherine Bruton to Story Snug as part of her No Ballet Shoes in Syria blogtour. We absolutely love this book, it’s a real page turner and we couldn’t put it down. As well as being an entertaining and moving story it also gave us a fascinating insight into the experiences, challenges and difficulties faced by families who have been forced to flee from their home countries and resettle in new and unfamiliar lands.
The Story: Eleven year old Aya has fled war torn Syria with her mother and baby brother. While visiting a community centre Aya hears ballet music. She is welcomed into the class by teacher, Miss Helena, and through dancing she makes friends who support her as she adapts to her new situation.
Aya’s story is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Her mother is traumatised by her experiences and much of the responsibility for the family falls on Aya who seeks solace in dancing and a new friendship with Dotty.
Alongside Aya’s story of life in the UK we learn about her life in Syria before and during the war. The difficulties that the family faces, their struggles in a new country and the uncertainties surrounding Aya’s father’s disappearance gave us an interesting insight into the difficulties that many refugees may face.
How authors develop characters and find their individual voices intrigues us and it’s really interesting to hear how Catherine developed Aya’s character and found a way to tell her story. Thank you so much for sharing your thought process and writing experience with us Catherine. It’s always interesting to hear the story behind the story.
Finding a story is a writer’s first challenge; finding a voice is the second. Sometimes I start writing a book and the voice comes immediately – unbidden, clear and true, pouring through me as I were a conduit – I feel like I’m reading rather than writing. Or like I’m like Whoopi Goldberg, the psychic in Ghost (only with less painful contortions and no pottery!) – as if there’s a voice inside me, demanding to be heard and I can’t rest till I get it down on the page.
Sometimes it takes a little longer and then I turn into Charles Dickens, who famously acted out all his characters in front of a mirror. I find myself muttering in funny accents as I walk around the supermarket, or playing out the character on the school run. I would compare this to the improvisation process an actor goes through before they start working on a script, inhabiting the character, acting out different scenarios and playing around until they find the voice.
But with some books the voice eludes you. For ages. Until you begin wonder if it will ever come! No Ballet Shoes In Syria was like that for me, and I think it was partly because for a long time I was struggling with one of the biggest questions a writer has to face: was this really my story to tell?
The answer is not straightforward – really No Ballet Shoes is the story of the 11.5 million refugee children around the globe today who are looking for somewhere to belong, and I really hope that one day we will hear the stories of child migrants told by those children themselves. But right now – as a father who had fled with his family from Damascus said to me – those children have no voice. And I suppose that’s what I wanted to give them. I wanted to write a story which would give children like Aya a voice.
But still Aya’s voice eluded me – sometimes she was there, sometimes she slipped out of my grasp. And I found it particularly challenging trying to reconcile past narrative with her present. Until I realised that of course it was. Processing the traumas of the past, reconciling it with the present can be incredibly difficult for young people like Aya.
And so I decided to tell the story of Aya’s life before and after the war in Aleppo – escaping in a container, in refugee camps, crossing the Mediterranean in a storm, the last time she saw her father – in a series of flashbacks interspersed within the narrative of her life as an asylum seeker and a young dancer in the UK. At first the two voices are quite distinct – but as dance becomes a medium for Aya to work through complex memories of the past, to start letting go of guilt and allowing herself to look to the future – the two voices come together. By the end of the novel they are almost indistinguishable. Not quite, but almost.
Finding Aya’s voice was difficult but I think it needed to be. Ultimately it became a way of exploring her journey – in ways that were unexpected and humbling and eye-opening. And if No Ballet Shoes in Syria goes in any small way to give voice to the experience of the 11.5 million refugee children in the world today then I will have done what I set out to do.
Thank you Catherine for giving a voice to refugee children and also for introducing refugees’ experiences to young readers in a sensitive way. Aya’s story is very moving and thought provoking, she is a likeable character and we really cared about her and her family. Her story stimulated interesting discussions and helped us understand more about the challenges and problems that refugees moving into our town may have faced.
About Catherine Bruton
Catherine studied English at Oxford University and has been juggling life as a teacher, children’s author and mum for the past fifteen years. As an English teacher she sees first hand the impact stories can have on young readers – opening their eyes, expanding their horizons, making them ask questions and see the world differently. Her books tackle some of the big issues faced by young people today – terrorism, immigration, the cult of celebrity, the refugee crisis – in ways that are heart-breaking, often hilarious, but invariably hopeful. Her novel We Can Be Heroes was made into a family feature film starring Alison Steadman and Phil Davies. As her alter-ego Cate Shearwater, she is also the author of the much-loved Somersaults and Dreams series.
You can read more about Catherine and No Ballet Shoes in Syria on the other blogs participating in the tour and also follow the #NoBalletShoesInSyria hashtag on Twitter.
- Monday 29th April: The Reader Teacher
- Wednesday 1st May: Serendipity Viv
- Thursday 2nd May: Minerva Moan
- Friday 3rd May: Booklover Jo
- Tuesday 7th May: Madge Eekal Reviews
- Wednesday 8th May: Books For Topics
- Thursday 9th May: Nosy Crow Books
Thank you to Clare Hall-Craggs and Nosy Crow for sending us a proof copy of No Ballet Shoes in Syria. We absolutely love the story!