Children’s Literature Interview with A. M. Dassu

A. M. Dassu

Children’s Literature panel

Interview conducted by Drushti Sawant

A. M. Dassu, who is a writer of both nonfiction and fiction will be a part of the Children’s Literature panel at Surrey New Writer’s festival. In the interview she not only spoke about her internationally acclaimed novel Boy, Everywhere, but also shared a few insights about her inspiration behind becoming an author of children’s literature.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge faced by writers today?

Not getting disheartened and persisting despite rejections and remembering that publishing is so subjective. An agent or editor may not connect with your story, but it might be the perfect story for another. It’s a competitive industry and progress can be slow, but if you believe in your story and are willing to put in the work to improve your craft or rewrite your book, you will make it.

It really is all about persistence and getting your submission to the right person, at the right desk, at the right time – which is something you can’t control, but you can be persistent and not give up! If I’d gotten disheartened and given up on Boy, Everywhere when it first went out on submission to agents in July 2016, it wouldn’t be published today.

So, the challenge is to keep on!

Q: How do you think that stories for children have changed since you were young? In what ways do you feel that they may still need to change?

The importance of representation in fiction has been talked about a lot in recent years. It is widely accepted that children from all backgrounds should find themselves, their families and communities in books and thankfully we are now seeing more books with diverse characters.

Growing up, I didn’t really seek to find anyone like me in books or magazines. I’d never experienced it, and never expected it. Seeing yourself depicted in a story gives you a sense of belonging, a sense of place. You feel valued, however, only when representation is respectful. It is not enough to have a token cast of characters with typical names or depictions of colour. Characters should be multifaceted, not caricatures that cause more harm.

It’s important that readers see through a window that accurately depicts life. Windows into the lives of others help us to understand the world and experience its beautiful diversity. It’s important to me that readers can see through a window in my books that shows life as it truly is in real life.

Books about the lives of others help us to understand the world and they allow us to experience different cultures, religions, identities, family set-ups and lifestyles. I would like to see more authentic stories, which are well researched and explore themes that may not be comfortable for all readers but accurately depict the lives of children.

Q: Can you walk me through your process of bringing an idea for a story to life?

Before I start writing a story, I usually have an idea of how it will begin, the two or three pivotal scenes in the middle and how it will end. I try to get to know my main character before I start writing; I will know their age, family background, their interests and friends.

I LOVE writing first drafts and pouring my thoughts and ideas onto paper, I love the freedom to just write whatever comes to mind. But the real work happens during the edit. I will edit my story as much as I can myself, and then send it out to trusted readers who will give feedback. I then start pulling my story apart, moving scenes around, expanding chapters and cutting others. It’s always a great feeling to have written a complete book – and even after months of stress and crying – having rewritten it! I do find editing hard, and it always takes a lot of determination and effort to rewrite and edit a book, but it’s always worth it.

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 everyday. One of my writer friends showed me that if I was disciplined and wrote at least 800 words everyday, 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 to make it more impactful 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.

Q: What according to you is the most important aspect of writing for children?

Children’s books need to be representative, interesting and fast paced and get going from the first chapter, you can’t have slow build ups because you don’t want to lose their interest – you need to have a quick set up and dive straight into the action in order to keep them hooked and turning the page. Children have so many distractions and it’s easy to lose their attention. I’ve seen it with my own daughter, who can start off excited to read a book and after just one chapter switches off.

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 (for agents and publishers to be able to visualise how they’d sell it). When editing Boy, Everywhere I had to ensure my language was appropriate to that of a teen and didn’t sound too young or too adult. When I first started writing, my authorial voice always slipped in but thankfully my critique group would pull me up on it!

Q: What made you choose Children’s literature as your area of writing?

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. It was almost a year later in 2015 that I first started writing for children. I wrote a picture book inspired by my son’s school friend. I started looking into publishing it and realised I had finally found the job I loved.

I wanted to write books that were different to those that are already out there. 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!

Q: What advice would you give to young writers who are trying to find their genre of writing?

You need to read A LOT. The more widely you read, the more confident you’ll feel about writing in a particular genre. It’s always easier to write in a genre you enjoy.

I have had the opportunity to dabble in all sorts of genres, from non-fiction to fiction ranging from early chapter books to upper MG and I am finally after many years finding the genre I’d most like to write in.

I advise you believe in yourself and keep on writing. It’s a long journey, be patient. It’s sheer determination and belief in our stories and also in ourselves that gets us published. The writing helps!

Buy Boy, Everywhere

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’.

To find out more about A. M. Dassu go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information.

Drushti Sawant is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing the Children’s Literature Panel on the Saturday of this year’s virtual festival.

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