A. M. Dassu is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction books and is based in the heart of England and… her middle grade novel Boy, Everywhere has just launched! I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy of this book. And. I still think about it. Alot. It’s a powerful, empathetic read about one boy’s journey from his comfortable home in Damascus, to England as a refugee. It shows how quickly things can change, literally overnight. It shows the devestating, life-transforming effects of war on young people. It’s a must-read. Here, A.M. Dassu shares her Journey to Publication…
I was a creative child and grew up writing poems and short (very short) stories. I always dreamed about publishing a book, but thought it was something I wouldn’t be able to do easily––and I certainly wasn’t wrong there!
You could say I first embarked on my literary career aged eleven while working as a library assistant in my school library for five years. I enjoyed English at secondary school and played Juliet in the Romeo and Juliet school production and knew right then that literature and performing was my passion.
However, much to my later regret, I instead studied Economics and pursued a career in management in the creative and education sectors. I continued to write poems and short stories in my free time, but it was only after having my first child in 2006 that I began wishing I’d pursued my love of writing and literature earlier in life.
Six years ago, while writing some copy for a friend’s website, I rediscovered my love of writing for an audience and set up a blog which was nominated for the UK Blog Awards in the same year. That gave me the confidence to submit a piece to The Huffington Post for which I became a featured writer. My very first piece was published on the front-page, alongside Barack Obama and Lenny Henry.
In 2015, I wrote a picture book inspired by my son’s school friend. I started looking into publishing it and I’ve never looked back.
I had finally found the dream career I’d been looking for.
One of the best things I did as a novice writer was to naïvely ask Sheena Dempsey to illustrate my draft picture book. She kindly explained the process and told me that I’d need an agent first; she recommended I join The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and added me to a supportive Facebook group, through which I met the most wonderful, encouraging people.
I became an active SCBWI member, and worked up from being Events Editor to Deputy Editor for its magazine, Words & Pictures. I soon learnt via SCBWI and my own personal rejections that it was harder to get an agent for picture books than novels, so I started writing one. It was inspired by a grooming case I’d dealt with in court and because I didn’t know how to pace it, I stopped writing it after a few chapters. Then one day as I watched the news, I felt compelled to write a story about a boy who once had everything and lost it all due to war. I wanted to make a difference and challenge the negative narrative about refugees. My first chapters were ‘told’ like articles––my brilliant critique group patiently reminded me to show and not tell each month!
I had probably written half of Boy, Everywhere when author Jo Franklin set up the 29ers, a group to motivate friends to write THE END by 29/02/2016 (a leap year). I managed to meet the deadline by the end of January and began editing it.
I started submitting it to agents that summer and was really lucky to get personal rejections from almost all the agents I submitted to (about thirteen). They all said the story had huge potential but wasn’t ready yet. Instead of getting disheartened, this gave me the confidence to rewrite it. I applied for two mentorships and was lucky enough to win both. In January 2017, I won the international We Need Diverse Books YA mentorship award and was also selected for the Writing East Midlands Mentorship to support me with my publishing goals. One mentor only read the first chapter and helped me to analyse it, and the other mentor highlighted all of the scenes I could cut and the others I could expand on. She showed me my book could be saved and I was so impatient to get the book published to help refugees, I rewrote it in two months. And when I say rewrite, I mean, moving the first chapter (boat scene) into the middle, rewriting the beginning, the ending and so on. It was months of work squeezed into weeks!
I met my agent at the SCBWI Agents’ party in September 2016. She loved the concept the moment we met in London and insisted I send my manuscript to her inbox before she landed in New York. I told her it needed rewriting and I’d send it as soon as it was ready. Six months later, in March 2017 I finally submitted it. My agent called while ill and barely able to speak to tell me she couldn’t put it down and offered representation. I was so relieved––I could finally send my work to publishers.
Boy, Everywhere went to Bologna Book Fair in 2018. Every publisher my agent met wanted to read it. In came the most beautiful rejections because they loved the story and my writing and wanted to work with me, but it either wasn’t right for this year’s list or they had something similar.
Heartened by the rejections, I decided to attend more courses and started editing Book Two. I was determined to work on my craft and get published. Then in August 2018 the tables turned. Out of nowhere, just after we’d moved to another house and I had no Internet connection (!), US editor Cheryl Klein commissioned me to write additional chapters for a non-fiction book about Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus for Lee & Low in America (published in August 2019). This led to more freelance work and just when I’d resigned myself to thinking that Boy, Everywhere would probably be my second or third book (I still believed it would sell one day), an offer from the US came in!
As soon as the deal was announced in Publishers Weekly, the UK market sat up and Boy, Everywhere went to acquisitions with four publishers! And here we are!
It’s been an incredible journey and I wouldn’t change it for the world. If I hadn’t rewritten it again, and edited it after sending it to people actually living in Damascus, it would not be the book it is today. I now understand that it needed more time for me to add layers to it, and to give it the attention it needed to make it more authentic.
The great thing is a commissioning editor who loved Boy, Everywhere so much and took it to acquisitions saw the UK announcement after she’d gone freelance. She asked my UK publisher if she could be the editor for it and we ended up working together on it anyway!
In July 2020, it was featured out of a bumper 180 titles (the most ever reviewed) as ‘The One to Watch’ in The Bookseller. There has been so much anticipation for Boy, Everywhere and I can’t wait to see it read in schools. I hope it starts discussions, enlightens and changes perceptions. I have already spent my advances on helping Syrians in my city and also on setting up a grant for a refugee or immigrant writer. I intend to spend my royalties (if I get there) on Syrians too. For this book was always written for and to help Syrians. Once Boy, Everywhere has been launched, I will go back to editing Book Two and begin the endless cycle of hoping and crying about getting a book deal again!
A. M. Dassu is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction books and is based in the heart of England. She is Deputy Editor of SCBWI-BI’s magazine, Words & Pictures and a Director of Inclusive Minds. Her work has been published by The Huffington Post, Times Educational Supplement, SCOOP Magazine, Lee & Low Books, and DK Books. A. M. Dassu has used her publishing advances for Boy, Everywhere to assist Syrian refugees in her city and set up a grant to support an unpublished refugee or immigrant writer. Her debut middle grade novel BOY, EVERYWHERE is out now.
You can find her on Twitter @a_reflective , Instagram @a.m.dassu or at www.amdassu.com.
Read more in My Book Corner’s Journey to Publication series, here.