By Alaina Leary
Today we are thrilled to reveal the cover for Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu. The book will be released on October 22, 2020, by Old Barn Books, and will be published in the US by Lee & Low Books in spring 2021. The cover artist for Boy, Everywhere is Daby Zainab Faidhi, and the book was designed by Sheila Smallwood. Preorder here and here, and add the book on Goodreads.
This debut middle-grade novel chronicles the harrowing journey taken by Sami and his family from privilege to poverty, across countries and continents, from a comfortable life in Damascus, via a smuggler’s den in Turkey, to a prison in Manchester. A story of survival, of family, of bravery … In a world where we are told to see refugees as the ‘other’, this story will remind readers that ‘they’ are also ‘us’.
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.
What was your journey to publication? Do you have any advice for debut authors?
Boy, Everywhere is the first novel I ever wrote and I started writing it in 2015. The journey was definitely not a smooth one, but I couldn’t let this book, the book of my heart, go so I kept on. I was impatient about publishing it because I wanted to challenge growing stereotypes and make a difference right away, and I was lucky during my first agent submission round to get really helpful rejection letters from agents. I was told the story was important and had huge potential but I had to work on it a bit more. This gave me confidence and I started rewriting it in 2016. I applied for two mentorships including one with WNDB. I won both!
Through them, I learned that every book can be saved if you’re willing to put the work in. I learned that writing is rewriting. I met my agent at a SCBWI Agents’ party while I was rewriting it, and asked her to wait six months until I was ready to send her an updated manuscript. Thankfully, she loved it and signed me in 2017. My agent took it to Bologna Book Fair in 2018, and I hoped it would get a pre-emptive offer so I could spend my advance on helping refugees straightaway. Alas, it didn’t but all the publishers wanted to read it, and they took a while to send responses back. My US publisher expressed interest later that year, and I signed two worldwide book deals by early 2020.
My advice for debut authors is to be ready for more uncertainty. As aspiring authors, we think that once we sign a book deal, everything will become easier and clearer. Publishing is an evolving and responsive business. The pandemic threw all my plans for my international debut launch out of the window!
Also, make sure you lift and support aspiring writers who are behind you. Never forget how lonely and scary publishing seemed when you first started out. I’m currently mentoring three writers, two of them are Black writers of adult books, a genre I don’t write—they shared in my happiness when I tweeted my book news and said they needed the inspiration to keep going. I offered to help if they needed it and they took up my offer. I’m regularly answering submission questions, offering suggestions on plot, reading work, and sharing publishing opportunities. It doesn’t take long and nothing makes me happier than to be there for someone who needs it to keep going. If we all make time for this, we’ll have more diverse books on our shelves.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am a plotantser—I like to plot but not so detailed that I know exactly what will happen. I need to know my main characters and have an opening, middle and an ending, and perhaps some vivid scenes in between, then everything else develops as I go via critiques and more reading around my themed subject.
What was your research process like for this book?
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. Because of my family’s story of cross-cultural relocation and immigration, I know what it’s like to leave everything behind and start again. Through Boy, Everywhere, I wanted to focus not only on the arduous journey a refugee takes to get to safety but also about 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 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 looked at articles and footage about life in Syria and in refugee camps, I watched interviews of children sharing their experiences of the bombing, the trauma, the bad dreams, and their hopes to live like other children.
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 centers. I also reached out to a wonderful friend who is a picture book author and illustrator from Damascus who 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. 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.
Did anything about writing Boy, Everywhere surprise you? Tell us about one of your favorite facts learned from the research.
I love telling people that there is a Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus and seeing the shock on their faces. For years we’ve only seen grey rubble on the news, or refugees on boats—it’s easy to forget that Syria is one of the oldest civilized countries. They had high-end hotels, McDonald’s, KFC’s, Nike shops, and Costas before the war began. And this is what I want kids to know too. I want them to know that Syrians had lives just like ours, and the media’s focus on the conflict wasn’t the full story.
Did any real-life refugees inspire Boy, Everywhere?
Boy, Everywhere, was inspired by a news interview that showed refugees in muddy camps wearing Nike trainers and holding smartphones, talking about what they’d left behind. Looking around my comfortable living room, I realized that it could easily have been me. The more Syrian people I met and the more research I did, I realized 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.
Boy, Everywhere was further motivated by the stories of three Damascene refugees. Nawar Nemeh was a sixteen-year-old boy from an English- and French-speaking private school in Damascus who escaped the war and eventually settled in San Diego, California, where he became a rising star in his high school. Razan Alsous was a Syrian mother of three who fled Damascus in 2012 when her husband’s office block was blown up. Even though Razan had two degrees, she struggled to find work in the UK. But she didn’t give up and established the multi-award-winning Dama Cheese Company, which has provided jobs to people in the UK. And then there was Ahmed, who featured in a CBBC documentary about four Syrian boys who had settled in the UK. Ahmed had four bedrooms in his house in Syria, yet now lived in just one room. He never went out because his parents were anxious about their new surroundings. I felt compelled to amplify the voices of boys like Ahmed.
What other books do you think Boy, Everywhere is in conversation with?
And do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming kidlit, especially MG?
One MG novel that I really loved was Pie In the Sky by Remy Lai. It’s a wonderfully illustrated story about a Chinese family migrating to Australia and eleven-year-old, Jingwen’s struggle to settle into his new country and learn English. It’s a charming story in which food and cooking are used as comfort and a coping mechanism. I think if there was one book I wish I’d written, it’d be this. Remy Lai has written about serious, life-changing events in a humorous and light manner. I’m glad I read it after I’d written my book, otherwise, I’d have never have written mine!
I also recommend Samya Kullab and Jackie Roche’s graphic story Escape from Syria. It succinctly shows six years in the life of a Syrian family who are forced to flee the war through intense dialogue and vivid images.
Similarly, recently published When Stars Are Scattered, a graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, who is a refugee from Somalia. It is a heartbreaking and inspiring true story, which I hope everyone will read to learn more about how slowly time passes in a refugee camp and the difficult choices children from war-torn countries have to make.
I have not read any recent children’s novels specifically about refugees because I didn’t want them to influence my work or my writing. Now that Boy, Everywhere is finally due to be published I am really looking forward to catching up and reading Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai, and Refugee by Alan Gratz.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Would you like to write for us and sign this multiple book deal contract? Answer: YES, PLEASE! ☺
A. M. Dassu is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction books 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 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. Boy, Everywhere will be published in the UK and Commonwealth in October 2020 and USA in Spring 2021. You can find her on Twitter @a_reflective and Instagram @a.m.dassu.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. They also teach in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and are a book reviewer for Booklist. They received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for their work in the publishing industry. Their writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. Alaina currently lives in Boston with their wife and two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.