An insight into writing a novel by the author of Boy, Everywhere A. M. Dassu

Boy Everywhere Oxford Rollercoasters edition

Boy, Everywhere is a story of survival, of family, of bravery. It looks at the refugee crisis from a new perspective, and through Sami’s eyes shows that we are all one cruel twist of fate away from becoming refugees ourselves: it can happen to anyone.

Historical context

By 2015, the war in Syria had been raging for almost five years and countless news broadcasts discussed the waves of refugees arriving in Europe, many of which portrayed the refugees as scary and a threat to our way of life. Many of us sat in our comfortable living rooms watching these reports; some saw refugees as different to us and so struggled to help them. 

One interview showed refugees in a muddy camp wearing Nike trainers, holding smartphones, talking about what they’d left behind. I suddenly became aware that it could easily have been me. I looked around my living room and realised if a bomb were to drop on my street, I would be that person with an iPhone and Nike trainers but with no home to go back to.

I would become that refugee on my screen.

I recognised how similar their lives were to ours and how easily a war in our country could bring the same fate upon me. And in that moment, I decided I wanted to challenge the narrative that refugees choose to flee for a better lifestyle in Europe and instead show the reality of their lives; the choices they’re forced to make.

How Boy, Everywhere came to life…

I wanted to write a relatable, accurate and universal story, in which my main character is an ordinary boy who loves cars, playing football and his PlayStation, and create a window that would allow readers to experience how it feels to have it all and then lose it. I had no idea how it might be received and I am delighted that we now have a new Rollercoasters edition of Boy, Everywhere, which includes additional material to explore the context and language of the novel as a KS3 class reader. It’s more than I could’ve wished for!

I hope this book will encourage readers to focus on what we have in common instead of our differences, and to build empathy and break down barriers in our increasingly judgmental society. It might even encourage you to find out more about the millions of refugees all over the world who have been forced to leave their homes and explore how you can help them, whether by raising money or by spreading awareness.

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 till I was sure it represented Syrians and refugees the way they deserve to be portrayed. This story was not about me, it was about people who have suffered great challenges and they deserve representation that shows their reality. It was important the story reflected and amplified the voices of not just one, but many refugee experiences and 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. 

Why Boy, Everywhere?

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 Damascus, who were keen for me to shine a light on their lives. They wanted people to know that they had had good lives and were forced to leave their country.

I have met so many refugees in England whose stories I’ll always remember: some who are studying again so they can use their skills in the UK too, some who aren’t allowed to work and so are growing vegetables to retain their dignity while they wait for the government to decide if they can live here, and some who are working in restaurants when they used to be department store buyers.

The one story that stayed with me is from a refugee who had lived in the suburbs of Damascus and worked as an architect there, and was now doing a master’s in architecture in the UK. He told me they were discussing plumbing during one of his workshops at university and when he shared his thoughts on how to solve a particular problem, his tutor said, “How would you know, you don’t have bathrooms in Syria.” This man had left behind a big house with four bathrooms!

It was clear that the stereotypes that had taken hold over the years due to media reports were deep-rooted and were continuing to impact refugees even after resettlement. I wanted to challenge them and show the real people I knew: people who wouldn’t have left home had their lives not been upended by war, people with a wide range of occupations, backgrounds and skill sets, people who had dignified lives, and were not simply victims of war who had been reduced to a “refugee” label.

I want to write stories that show readers a different side to a story that we all think we know. Boy, Everywhere shows that what you see in the news isn’t always the full story and encourages readers to focus on what and who refugees leave behind and how hard it is to start again.

Boy, Everywhere as a KS3 class reader

Oxford’s Rollercoaster edition of Boy, Everywhere features a section called ‘Endmatter’ which includes novel insights, a vocabulary list and a section on ‘Language and Style’ to further develop and challenge students’ reading skills. A particularly innovative feature of the Language and Style section are the Word clouds, which focus on different categories of word and their use in the book. These help students to improve their lexical knowledge and gain greater understanding of how writers choose their words for specific reasons.

Teacher Resource Pack

Oxford’s Boy, Everywhere Rollercoaster edition is also accompanied by a free, downloadable Teacher Resource Pack, which helps to ameliorate some of the planning and preparation work involved with introducing it as a new class reader. This editable pack includes lesson plans, resource sheets and customisable activities so you can amend them according to the time available in class and your students’ needs. Whether your class is a set or mixed ability, there are suggestions in the Resource Pack for both ‘Support’ and ‘Stretch’ activities. These build on the main teaching points and enable learners to independently tackle a different aspect of the text.

About the author

A. M. Dassu is the internationally acclaimed author of Boy, Everywhere, which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, nominated for the Carnegie Medal, is the 2021 winner of The Little Rebels Award for Radical Fiction and is also an American Library Association Notable Book.

She is former deputy editor, now an Advisory Board Member of SCBWI British Isles’ Words & Pictures magazine; a director at Inclusive Minds, which is an organization for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature; and one of The National Literacy Trust’s Connecting Stories campaign authors, aiming to help inspire a love of reading and writing in children and young people.