Wednesday 5 April 2017

Author visits are for all students, aren't they?

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 :-

After dinner I make tea. Ali puts a spoon of sugar in his cup and then takes one more.
          “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.

Miriam Halahmy


Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm a teacher librarian at a disadvantaged school, one that doesn't often get author visits. We can't afford them. But high interest low reading level books are precious to me. There just aren't enough of them being published. And we have a literacy program that has kids reading from Grade 1 level to Year 12. I've had to write my own stories sometimes, for lack of appropriate published material!

If these books are available in Australia I will keep an eye out for the series.

Lynne Benton said...

Excellent post, Miriam - and if your book helps all children to think about the plight of people forced to leave their homes, it will be doing a grand job. Well done you, and I hope the book does really well!

Joan Lennon said...

I agree - unconsidered hate can be changed! Thanks for writing your books, Miriam.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Thanks folks - if I ever come to Oz I will definitely visit your school Sue. You can probably buy directly from the publisher or Amazon. All the very best.

Rosemary Hayes said...

Sounds a wonderful story, Miriam, and so good that it's accessible to less able readers. Thanks
for mentioning the series. I'll try and follow your example and get 'My Sister's Perfect Husband' out there, too xx

Susan Price said...

Miriam, your book sounds terrific but I'm puzzled why you would think you shouldn't read it in schools. It sounds perfect for the job- short, to the point, impactful, absorbing.
I think few people, of any age group or reading level, stop to worry about the reading-age of a text when they come across a good story, especially one with emotional appeal. They just enjoy the story.
For instance, I've read several Barrington Stokes books and forgot that they were aimed at teenagers with low reading ages - though when I remembered, I did admire the skill of writers who had told the stories so simply and so well.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Yes, you're quite right Susan and I just needed to give it a chance instead of worrying that most kids wouldn't be interested. And Rosemary - do read your lovely book out in schools - the kids will love it.

Jenny Ertle said...

Thanks Miriam a lovely blog. We are so pleased to have published Yasmin's Journey. It made me cry! For Sue in Australia you can order the book through Educon. If you need the details email me They are just about to ship stock over.

Mel Green said...

This is so interesting and thought-provoking, Miriam, and what a fantastic story to have written! I'm really glad SCBWI's 10 Minute Blog Break this week brought me here :-)