Writing for children: AM Dassu

Boy, Everywhere by AM Dassu chronicles the harrowing journey taken from Syria to the UK by teenager Sami and his family. From privilege to poverty, across countries and continents, from a smuggler’s den in Turkey to a prison in Manchester, it is a story of survival, of family, of bravery. Dassu says she was inspired to write a story which went beyond the headlines of the Syrian refugee crisis as well as challenge common misconceptions of refugees. For our spotlight on children authors, we spoke to AM Dassu to find out more…

How long did your book take to write?

A long time! It took me five years to get Boy, Everywhere completed and published, but of course I was working on different things and not just this book every day. One of my writer friends taught me that if I was disciplined and wrote at least two pages every day, I’d have a full novel written in 75 days. I used this method when writing Boy, Everywhere in 2015 and managed to write my first draft in six weeks. But of course, editing is an entirely different beast, and that took me YEARS! I had to rewrite it and then edit it, again and again, to really make readers feel like they were in Sami’s shoes, seeing the world as he does. 

What factors did you take into account when writing for children?

Writing for children is so much harder than writing for any other audience as you need to be aware of the various genres, age groups, comprehension levels, and comparative titles or where the book might sit on a shelf. Children’s books need to be fast-paced and get going from the first chapter because you don’t want to lose their interest – you need to dive straight into the action in order to keep them hooked and turning the page.

When editing I had to ensure my language was appropriate to that of a teen and didn’t sound too young or too old. When I first started writing, my authorial voice always slipped in but thankfully my critique group would pull me up on it! I also had to remove swearing and scenes that were too dark and pulled the story into an older category.

What inspired you to put pen to paper?

I’ve always loved writing but had forgotten how much after I left college. And even though I continued to write poems and short stories in my free time, I didn’t really think about getting them published. I thought it would be too hard. Seven years ago, when a friend asked me to write a little for his website, I remembered how much I enjoyed writing for an audience. I started off by writing blog posts and articles and was lucky enough to have my first piece published on the front page of The Huffington Post.

I went on to write a picture book inspired by my son’s school friend. I started looking into publishing and realised I had found a job I loved. I wanted to write stories that would show a different side to a story that we all think we know. Boy, Everywhere challenges stereotypes; it shows that what you see in the news isn’t always the full story. So once I’d decided I wanted to publish books, I did lots of short courses to understand what publishers wanted and read lots of children’s books. I rewrote lots of drafts and did a lot of editing (and crying), and here I am!

Was this the first time you attempted to write this story?

I first started writing it in October 2015. As I watched the news, I felt compelled to write a story about a boy who once had everything and lost it all due to war. I wanted to make a difference and challenge the negative narrative about refugees. My first chapters were ‘told’ like articles – my brilliant critique group patiently reminded me to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ each month! I managed to meet a self-imposed deadline after which I began editing.

I started submitting it to agents that summer and was really lucky to get personal rejections from almost all of them (about thirteen). They all said the story had huge potential but wasn’t ready yet. Instead of getting disheartened, this gave me the confidence to rewrite it. I was so impatient to get the book published to help refugees, I rewrote it in two months. It was months of work squeezed into weeks!

In March 2017 I finally submitted it to my second round of agents. My agent called while ill at a conference and barely able to speak to tell me she couldn’t put it down and offered representation. I was so relieved.

What did you enjoy most about the writing process?

I LOVE writing first drafts and pouring my thoughts and ideas onto paper, I love the freedom to just write whatever comes to mind. And it’s always a great feeling to have written a complete book even after months of stress and crying! I do find editing hard, and it took a lot of determination and effort to rewrite and edit a book as long as Boy, Everywhere. The best thing of all has been connecting with readers and being told I’ve helped them see refugees in a new light, and the bonus of doing research for the book was that I have made life-long friends whom I adore.

AM Dassu is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, including the highly acclaimed novel Boy, Everywhere which is one of The Guardian’sBookriot’s, BookTrust’s and CLPE’s Best Children’s Books of 2020. It also featured as one of The Guardian’s ‘Children’s Best New Novels’ on publication in October 2020 and on Amnesty’s ‘Books That Inspire Activism’ list. She is Deputy Editor of SCBWI-BI’s magazine, Words & Pictures, and a Director of Inclusive Minds, a unique organisation for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality, and accessibility in children’s literature. A. M. Dassu is also one of the lead authors in The Literacy Trust’s Connecting Stories campaign, which aims to help inspire a love of reading and writing in children and young people. When she isn’t battling emails or writing, she mentors aspiring authors and loves to shout about other people’s books. You can find her on Twitter: a_reflective and Instagram @a.m.dassu.