No Ballet Shoes in Syria tells the story of Aya, an eleven year old asylum seeker from Aleppo in Syria. It is a story of hope and of kindness. Aya provides a voice for all the millions of child refugees seeking a safe haven in our world today. This moving and thoughtfully told story for today’s generation of young readers contains echoes of the stories of previous generations of children who searched for a place they could call home. A wonderful and important children’s book.
We meet Aya as she waits in the local community centre with her mother and baby brother for information and advice about their application to stay in England and to receive aid from the volunteers who run the food bank. Her mother is traumatised and defeated by the family’s recent experiences so much of the decision making is falling on Aya who is too young to cope with these responsibilities. It is at this centre she discovers the local ballet class. The music, the voice of the teacher and the movements and attitudes of the young girls remind Aya of happy times in Syria before war struck. Gradually she is drawn into their midst when one of the pupils, Dotty, a whirlwind of enthusiasm, befriends her. Then the principal of the ballet school, Miss Helena, spots Aya’s talent and suggests a plan that may allow her to achieve her dreams. But at the same time Aya and her family must fight to remain in the country that she is slowly beginning to think of as home.
This moving and well told story builds up to an emotional climax slowly and carefully. The trauma of Aya’s escape from Aleppo and the subsequent journey to freedom is gradually revealed as her memories of the events are triggered by her situation in England. These are brief initially but expand to provide more details as the story progresses. This results in the reader getting to know Aya in a similar way to her new friends in the ballet class which allows for a dawning realisation of what she and her family have endured. This is always handled appropriately for the target age group for this lovely book but as a parent I ached for both Aya and her mother. The absence of Aya’s father is at the heart of their sad situation and this is poignantly portrayed by the author.
Catherine Bruton wanted to tell a story that would make young readers look beyond the labels “refugee” and “asylum seeker” and I believe she has achieved this. Aya is an engaging, thoughtful character and I particularly liked her relationship with Moosa, her baby brother. The cast of supporting characters, including Mr Abdul, the kindly old man from Somalia and Mrs Massoud, desperate for news of her son in Damascus but ready and willing to look after little Moosa and sympathetic to Aya’s mum’s situation, all give a sense of real people enduring an intolerable situation.
The growing friendship between Aya and the other girls in the ballet class would be an interesting topic for discussion in the classroom. They are not all welcoming initially and the use of labels and that attitude of “otherness” that can be so damaging is well drawn. It is a thoughtful touch to provide a back story for Dotty too, as this helps strengthen the girls’ friendship.
Ballet loving readers will adore all the dance related references. I thought Miss Helena was a wonderful character and it is her story that provides the link to history and the way in which, sadly, the world has a way of repeating mistakes. Yet this is a story full of hope. It is a celebration of how much the kindness of others can achieve in the darkest of times for those in need. A valuable lesson for today’s young readers.
I loved this story very much. In her introduction Catherine Bruton refers to the importance of books such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr for opening children’s eyes to important issues and broadening their horizons. No Ballet Shoes in Syria is a book that you could definitely add to the list. Highly recommended.
Thank you very much to Clare Hall-Craggs and the publishers, Nosy Crow Books for kindly providing my proof copy. The eye catching cover is by Elisabetta Barbazza.
No Ballet Shoes in Syria is published on 2nd May.