A perfect twenty-first century version of children’s classics such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or Ballet Shoes.
Eleven-year-old Aya used to have a normal life in Aleppo in Syria. She had lots of friends and she was learning to dance. Then the fighting started and everything was turned upside down. Some of her friends and their families fled straight away but others, like Aya, didn’t escape in time and found themselves trapped in the city’s siege. Finally, Aya and her family start their escape to Europe. Aya, her mum and baby brother make it safely to Britain but they don’t know whether they will be granted asylum. They’re also desperate to hear news of Aya’s father who was separated from them on their journey from Syria. When Aya stumbles across a local ballet class, the teacher spots her talent and suggests Aya try for a scholarship at the prestigious Royal Northern Ballet School. Is it possible Aya’s dreams could finally come true? But what if she’s offered a place by the school while her family are told they’re not welcome in the country?
I was a huge fan of ballet stories as a child, including the Sadler’s Wells stories, the Drina Ballerina series and, of course, the Noel Streatfeild classics Ballet Shoes and Ballet Shoes for Anna. I was, therefore, delighted to discover a perfect twenty-first century version in No Ballet Shoes for Syria. This new book from Catherine Bruton has all the classic elements of the ballet stories that I loved as a child with the added element of Aya’s story as an asylum seeker.
Indeed, while this is a story of one girl’s desire to dance, it’s also heart-wrenching account of what it’s like to be forced to flee your home. The inclusion of regular flashbacks describing Aya’s former life and her journey to the UK are hugely powerful, making the horrors of civil war and the dangers of the journey frighteningly real. The detail in these scenes is impressive and, without preaching, they will serve to raise awareness in readers. In fact, before reading this book, I didn’t truly understand that difference between an asylum seeker and refugee.
The characterisation throughout the book is incredibly strong. This includes the main characters such as Aya herself and each member of her family. (I found her mother’s struggle to cope with the upheaval particularly moving). However, it also includes the large cast of supporting characters, from the other asylum seekers in the community centre to the British students who find it so hard to understand what Aya has been through.
My comments in this review could make this book sound depressing. It is not. In many respects this is a story of hope, resilience and generosity. For example, Aya’s new dance teacher – Miss Helena – describes how, as a Jew feeling Nazi Germany, she had to go on living and dancing and how she was welcomed in Britain. Similarly, Aya’s own story demonstrates it’s possible to live through, and move on from, the most horrible things. It’s also incredibly heart-warming to read about so many people going out of their way to help Aya and her family.
If you enjoyed this, I’d strongly recommend you read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. Alternatively, if you want to keep to the ballet theme, you can’t go wrong with the classic Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.
Publication date: May 2019
Publisher: Nosy Crow