I am a children’s author and teacher living just outside Bath with my husband and our two children. After studying English at Oxford University, I went on to teach in Africa before returning to the UK where I have been juggling life as mum, novelist and teacher ever since. I am hugely inspired by the amazing young people I have the privilege to teach and believe in the power of stories to open young readers’ eyes, widen their horizons, expand their capacity for empathy, enrich their hearts and switch on lightbulbs in their heads!
How did you first start writing?
I first started writing when I was teaching at a school in Africa in my gap year. I was in the middle of nowhere with no electricity, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no telephone, no internet and very few books. I started writing stories about the children in the school and all the strange things that went on – witch-doctors, infanticide, leopard hunts, snakes in my cupboard etc. I’ve been writing ever since.
How did you get the idea for ‘Another Twist in the Tale?
How did you get the idea for ‘No Ballet Shoes in Syria?
How did you get the idea for ‘We Can be Heroes?
In 2008, I wrote an article for ‘The Times’ about children who had lost a parent in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I included interviews with three American teenagers and a British boy who had lost his father in the 7th July London bombings. The voices of those young people really stayed with me and gave me the idea for the book.
Loads of other things inspired me after that: the Year 7 boys doodling Manga cartoons in my lessons; an article I wrote about kids who never see their mums; the Madeleine McCann abduction; re-reading ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ (my favourite novel when I was a teenager and still now); a joke somebody made about a terrorist moving in across the road; my little girl’s obsession with wheelie shoes; the film ‘Son of Rambow’; something one of my Year 10s said about drawing pictures of planes flying into towers; a Muslim wedding in our road, and loads, loads more. Sometimes I can’t even remember where I half my ideas from!
What is the best and worst thing about writing?
I love the thrill of a new story – when it pours out as if I am reading it, rather than writing. That doesn’t always happen though! I hate it when I know it’s wrong but I can’t figure out why – or how to fix it! That’s when the dementors of self doubt descend! Thank goodness for my lovely agent, great editors and amazing writing pals who help drive the dementors away!
As a teacher yourself, could you suggest ways in which No Ballet Shoes in Syria could be used in the classroom for the many teachers and primary school staff that will read this and wish to use it in their schools?
I think it can be tied in really well with Empathy Day (11th June) when all over the country, children teachers, librarians and authors share empathy boosting books as part of the #ReadforEmpathy campaign. It also ties in really well with World Refugee Week (17th- 21st June), a nationwide programme of cultural and educational activities designed to promote tolerance and understanding between communities. I know some schools are using it as part of a wider topic on refugees/asylum seekers/migration with a cross-curricular focus, so, I asked my colleagues at school for some suggestions on how it could be used for different subjects. Here goes!
History/ Current Affairs – Find out about the history of the war in Syria – when, why did it start? How did it develop? How did the rest of the world respond? Why did so many people flee the country? What can you find out about the siege of Aleppo? What is going on in Syria now? This could be explored as a newspaper article, timeline of events or cartoon.
Geography – Find out about the journeys undertaken by families like Aya’s who chose to flee Syria. Trace Aya’s journey on a map, find out what you can about the refugee camps she stayed in, the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean and other perils facing asylum seekers. Prepare a presentation/ debate asking ‘Would you risk it?’
RS/Philosophy and Ethics/Media studies – Find official definitions of the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’. Then gather articles from different magazines and newspaper articles about refugees, asylum seekers, the migrant crisis. Compare how the issues are discussed in different sections of the media. Class discussion on whether countries like the UK have a moral obligation to take in more asylum seekers.
Maths – Find out some statistics on refugees and asylum seekers (there are lots to be found via the British Refugee Council or Refugee Week website) then record them in different ways – bar chart, pie chart, ratios, percentages etc. Extension task: calculate the distance Aya and her family travelled from Aleppo to Manchester!
Literacy – My publishers have produced a lovely resource with questions designed to enhance reading comprehension and analysis skills. There are also lots of writing tasks pupils could try: what if Aya wrote a letter to her father, or to one of her old friends from Aleppo? Or pupils could try using five objects to tell ‘the story of who I am, where I come from, who I want to be’ – as Aya does in her dance. Or you could bring in unusual objects for pupils to use as story starters – that always works for me!
What is your best secret fact about yourself?
I once danced with Nelson Mandela! September 1997 – Steve Biko Cemetery, King William’s town, RSA. He complimented my red dress! It is my greatest claim to fame.