Many thanks to Savita Kalhan for inviting me to guest blog on her monthly ABBA slot. Savita is an author who writes gritty fiction without any compromises - and that's a promise!!
It's so lovely having a new book out; the cover, the type face, the layout. Everything is such a delight and of course then all you want to do is take your brand new book into schools and share it with the students.
But what happens if your book is actually only aimed at a small group of students? Students who for one reason or another find reading so difficult that your book is limited to 5000 words and those words need to be carefully selected so that they retain the interest level of a teenager but the reading level of a seven year old? How many students in an average group of 200 Y8/9 students in those serried rows in front of you would be interested in such a book?
These were the questions I asked myself when my book Yasmin's Journey (Ransom Books, 2016) was published.
Ransom had asked me to write a book about a Syrian girl running away from the war, aimed at teenage girls with a reading age of around 7. What a challenge, was my immediate thought. My next thought was, Right, I'm not leaving anything out even though I only have 5000 words. I was a special needs teacher for 25 years, heading up departments. I know how these students read, the things they stumble over and their hunger for age-appropriate material. I was going to make sure I covered all bases.
I was already following the plight of the Syrian refugees very closely on television so I started to research individual accounts to ensure my story was authentic. I read about one 4 year old who became separated from his family and cried until he vomited. I was moved to tears because I kept my little grandson. Fortunately a charity reunited him with his family further down the road.
But all those images of people on the road, crossing the sea, ending up in camps and being cheated along the way, as well as meeting people who would give the shirt off their back to help- I wanted to make sure that the essence of all these stories appeared in my book. From the reaction I think I achieved it.
Yasmin’s Journey begins in a normal family apartment somewhere in Syria with the main character Yasmin on her What’s App group, The Fun Girls. She mentions that because of the war they can’t gather in each other’s homes in the evening. It’s so unsafe outside. Yasmin has a six year old brother, Ali.
The family settle down for dinner.
This is the second half of Chapter 1 :-
“That’s too much,” says Dad.
“Just tonight,” says Mum and she and Dad look at each other.
Something’s wrong, I think.
Then Dad says, “Yasmin, Ali, listen to me. The war’s very bad and life’s getting more and more dangerous. The flats at the park were bombed last night.”
“That’s so near to us!” I gasp.
Dad nods. “We can’t stay here any longer. You are leaving tomorrow with your Mum.”
“Leaving our flat?” says Ali.
“Leaving Syria,” says Dad, “for a new life where it’s safe.”
“What about you?” I say.
“I’m going ahead tonight to someone who will help us,” says Dad.
No way! I think. “I don’t want to go,” I say. “What about school and all my friends?”
“That’s not important now,” says Dad.
“When will we come home?” asks Ali with a sob.
“Never,” says Dad and Mum starts to weep too.
Yasmin’s Journey is part of an 8 book pack, Promises, published by Ransom Books last year for teenage girls with low reading ages. Sassies, Sue Purkiss, Jo Cotterill and Rosemary Hayes also have books in the same pack and I was delighted to be published with them. I assumed that my book would not attract much interest with large groups of students and at first didn’t consider reading it in schools.
But this year when I mentioned to librarians, teachers and festival directors that I have this book, they often say they have already bought it and they encourage me to include it in my programme. So I have started to talk about Yasmin’s Journey, my story about a Syrian girl who has to take care of her little brother when they flee the war in Syria. It sits rather well alongside my presentation about Hidden, my Y.A. novel about two teens who rescue an asylum seeker from the sea and hide him to save him from being deported.
I present Yasmin as a short read and then I read Chapter 1 which is just 500 words. The first time I did a reading for a Y8/9 group in an independent school, I could see the students completely absorbed. When I finished one boy called out, “Very powerful!”
After my presentation the librarian came up and said that a row of girls in the front would find the book just the right reading level and interest and she had decided to buy a set for the school.
This kind of reaction has continued throughout all my visits this year around World Book Day and beyond. But the most gratifying aspect has been those students authors rarely meet in the signing queue – the ones who don’t buy full length YA novels because they don’t have the stamina or reading ability to cope with these texts.
In Yasmin’s Journey these students have a book they can buy with confidence and they join their place in the queue equally alongside their fellow students, talking to me and having their book signed.
I am so pleased I took up the challenge to present Yasmin's Journey as a book alongside all the others I have written. The book was reviewed in the JC, “Halahmy enables readers to connect emotionally with the characters despite the restrictions of text... a gentle upbeat ending." It was great to see this review alongside mainstream books and I couldn’t be more proud.
Note to self –must have some Yasmin’s Journey postcards made up as a bookmark for future visits.