Meet A.M. Dassu, the British Muslim children's author leading the charge for representation in books

Meet A.M. Dassu, the British Muslim children's author leading the charge for representation in books
The New Arab Meets: British author A.M. Dassu, who seeks to show Muslim children that they, too, can see themselves as protagonists in stories.
5 min read
10 April, 2020
A. M. Dassu talking about delivering school workshops [C Gourlay]
We are all, at heart, interested in people and stories, and the way we relate to one another is crucial in the coronavirus era, where forming connections has posed new and unexpected challenges.

A.M. Dassu is an author born in the UK, whose tireless advocacy for representation in children's books led her to write Boy, Everywhere, her upcoming debut about a child torn from his Damascus home after a bomb attack.

Dassu has a rich cultural tapestry to draw on – she is descended from a mixed heritage originally from Iraq's Baghdad, India, Burma and Pakistan – with her father born in Tanzania. 

Dassu seeks to show Muslim children that they, too, can see themselves as protagonists in their own stories.

"It is more important than ever for our children to see themselves portrayed in literature, to know that they can also aspire and dream," Dassu told The New Arab.

"Media representation significantly influences the way Muslims are perceived by society. Where there was integration, division has been sown by politicians, media and extremists.

A.M. Dassu is an advocate for representation in children's books

"I wanted to humanise us – 'the other', whilst challenging stereotypes, show how we interact, become friends, and the expectations of others upon us."

There's certainly a gap in the market, with British authors of colour being consistently underrepresented in the publishing scene – Muslim authors even more so. 

The Book Trust, the UK's largest children's reading charity, found that less than two per cent of published authors and illustrators in Britain are writers of colour.

More damning still, a 2018 research project that is the first of its kind funded by Arts Council England and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) found that of the 9,115 children's books published in 2017, only four percent – 391 books – featured BAME characters.

Of those, only one per cent had a BAME main character.

This comes despite 32.1 per cent of school children in the UK being of minority ethnic origins that year, according to the Department of Education.

It is unfortunately a privilege for Muslims to read books or articles in which we see ourselves positively or even accurately represented

Boy, Everywhere is about thirteen-year-old Sami, whose privileged life in Damascus is torn apart after a bomb attack on a shopping mall, which forces his family to leave his home in Syria, bound for England.

From privilege to poverty, across countries and continents, locked up in a smuggler's apartment, imprisoned and bullied at home in the UK, it is a coming-of-age story of friendship, family, belonging and fighting for a better future.

"Boy, Everywhere was inspired by a news interview in which I saw refugees in muddy camps holding their smart phones, talking about what they'd left behind," Dassu explained.

Read more: Planet Omar: Why it's about time young Muslims saw themselves in children's literature 

"It shows the colour in contrast to the grey rubble and dust we've seen on TV. It is a universal story, in which my protagonist is a normal boy who loves cars, playing football and his PlayStation."

Fiction mirrors reality not only in the refugee crisis, but in the global crisis brought about by Covid-19.

With coronavirus sweeping across the UK and tens of thousands infected, the government has imposed stringent measures to curb its spread.

I wanted to humanise us, 'the other', whilst challenging stereotypes, show how we interact, become friends, and the expectations of others upon us

Social distancing measures are being enforced by police, and public spaces like libraries have closed. In some households children may find it difficult to access books.

"This virus has caused much destruction but it has also brought people together and show much generosity," Dassu said.

"There are so many online resources that are usually paid for that have been made free while school are closed."

Here are a few Dassu recommends: 

  • Neil Gaiman's official website for young readers has games, printable activities, and full readalouds of his books such as The Graveyard Book and Coraline.
  • Parents and children can use the Teach Your Monster To Read website, which makes learning to read fun through games. It covers everything from letters and sounds to reading full sentences.
  • Oxford Owl provides educational resources and free eBooks for children aged 3 – 11. They use resources from Oxford University Press
  • Audible Stories has given free access to over 200 full-length audiobooks for the duration of school closures.

"I've been listening to Winnie the Pooh stories with my daughter every morning after breakfast, which has given us both a chance to bond and have a calming start to our day," Dassu added.

Read More: Meet Amani Saeed, the poet championing women and confronting Islamophobia, one verse at a time

"It's a really challenging time for us all. We can't see our friends or our families as we normally would, and children and the elderly can find this especially difficult. I make sure that my children are in touch with their school friends via MS Teams (which was set up for school work) and also via Facetime.

"We Facetime my mum everyday and I ensure that my children are up-to-date with what's going on in our neighbourhood. I am part of a local Facebook group, so I'll tell them what paintings children are sticking in their windows.

"I want my children to know they're not alone in this, and that literally everyone around the world is figuring out ways to stay in touch and connect. Children find it reassuring to hear this. In fact I think we're more connected than before!"

A. M. Dassu is a writer and magistrate. She is the deputy editor of SCBWI-BI's Words & Pictures magazine and a director at Inclusive Minds. She won the international We Need Diverse Books mentorship award in 2017.

A. M. Dassu's debut middle grade novel 'Boy, Everywhere' will be published worldwide in October 2020. You can connect with her on Twitter @a_reflective 

Narjas Zatat is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @Narjas_Zatat

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