Today I am delighted to welcome Catherine Bruton to the blog to talk about the books that inspired her to write the remarkable, ‘No Ballet Shoes in Syria.’ I was incredibly touched by the story of eleven year old Aya who has fled from the war in Syria to seek asylum in England. Ava is doing what no eleven year old should ever have to do, she is holding her family together. Her mother is drowning in grief and is unable to speak English, so the burden of looking after her younger brother and trying to deal with the authorities falls to her. It would be almost unbearable to read a story that is so desperately sad but Catherine shows the reader that inside Aya is more than what others see her to be. She may be viewed as an asylum seeker but in her heart she’s a dancer and a chance encounter with a local ballet teacher changes her life forever. Hauntingly sad but ultimately hopeful this is one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read. I cried, I laughed and smiled my way through this extraordinary story which needs to be in every school. Wonderfully empathetic and incredibly inspiring, I felt emotionally wrung out by this moving story. A complete triumph in every way.
Books that Inspired Me – Catherine Bruton
In No Ballet Shoes in Syria I tell the story of 11 year old Aya who has just arrived in Britain with her mum and baby brother, seeking asylum from war in Syria. When Aya stumbles across a local ballet class, the formidable dance teacher Miss Helena spots her exceptional talent and believes Aya has the potential to earn a prestigious ballet scholarship. But at the same time Aya and her family must fight to remain in the country, to make a home for themselves and to find Aya’s father – separated from the rest of the family during the perilous journey from Syria.
Here are the books that inspired me to tell Ayas’s tale!
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr
As I watched the migrant crisis unfolding on the news, I knew immediately that it was something that I wanted – needed – to write about. And when I heard Judith Kerr talking about the parallels between her experiences of fleeing the Nazis, and the Syrian migrant crisis, I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment. I would write a story about a young girl and her family fleeing the war in Syria, escaping across Europe, seeking asylum in the UK – a story that was a modern version of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – a book which I had adored as a child – a story that would make young readers look beyond the labels of ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum’ seeker and see the child behind.
The Silver Sword – Ian Serrailler
This was the other book that was in my mind as I conceived the idea for No Ballet Shoes in Syria. This classic tale of children journeying through war-torn Europe towards Switzerland where they believe they will be reunited with their parents had a profound effect on me as a young reader, offering a remarkable insight into the reality of Europe laid waste by war. It’s not a story that shies away from difficult truths, but it is irradiated by hope, by small acts of kindness – something which I really tried to capture in No Ballet Shoes in Syria too.
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild
Very early on I decided I didn’t want Aya to be defined solely by her experiences as a refugee. I wanted readers to see her as just a young girl, with hopes and dreams, friendships and favourite teachers and hobbies, just like they have. I wasn’t sure how to do it until a fan of my Cate Shearwater Somersaults and Dreams gymnastic books asked me if I was ever going to write a book about ballet. When I told her I was writing a refugee story she replied, ‘Don’t refugees do ballet?’ This was such an important question that lies at the heart of the story I tried to tell. I simply adored Noel Streatfield’s ‘Shoes’ books when I was younger, as well as Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells series (I swear I know them all off by heart!) and the Drina Ballerina books by Jean Estoril, and I hope that No Ballet Shoes in Syria will be to young readers what those classic tales were to me – stories of following your dreams that I read over and over and which I still love today. I also hope that if a young reader like Aya picked up the book, she would see herself depicted not as a victim but as a heroine – not a war child but a beautiful ballerina!
The Swish of the Curtain – Pamela Brown
When she joins Miss Helena’s dance school, Aya befriends a young girl called Dotty, daughter of famous ballerina Bronte Buchanan who dreams of performing on stage in the West End, rather than in Covent Garden. It is Dotty who comes up with the idea of putting on a show to raise money for the Refugee Centre, and I had The Swish of the Curtain (another childhood favourite) along with Helen Peter’s The Secret Hen House Theatre (one of the most wonderful books my daughter and I had the pleasure of reading together) in the back of my mind as I wrote these bits. Classic stories that live long in the heart and the imagination and which I hope my story can live up to.
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
This is going to seem a little obscure, but I was teaching Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer prize winning classic to my lovely A Level class when I was writing the end of No Ballet Shoes in Syria and it is her beautifully delicately balanced ending that I attempted to emulate. I didn’t want ‘happy ever after’, because that would trivialise the issues I was writing about, but nor did I want the finale to be totally bleak. I wanted an ending that offered hope at the same time as breaking my readers’ hearts. Newland Archer sitting on a bench outside Ellen Olenska’s Paris apartment, not going up, but knowing that the memory of her is enough – it breaks my heart and makes me sob every time. And that was what I wanted to achieve too. I guess you’ll have to read it and decide if I succeed…
Thank you to Catherine for her hugely insightful blog post, it’s really interesting to see how writers can be influenced by the books they surround themselves with.
Why not join in with the rest of the blog tour for more reviews and special guest posts.
Thank you to Clare and Nosy Crow for sending me a gifted copy of the book in exchange for a review and for inviting me to join in the blog tour. ‘No Ballet Shoes in Syria,’ is available to buy now online or from any good bookshop.