An Interview with Ben Morley
Asylum seekers. A topic that writers for young readers usually do not cross into....except for Ben Morley.
Asylum seekers. A topic that writers for young readers usually do not cross into….except for Ben Morley. The story is about Joe and how he reacts to a new family that moves in next door. Joe’s mum explains that they are asylum seekers. Joe hears that they are silence seekers, especially as Mum adds that they need peace and quiet. When he sees a young boy from the family sitting disconsolately on the steps, Joe decides to help him find a quiet place in the noisy and chaotic city.
Morley, born and raised in London, has been calling Singapore home for almost three years now with is wife, Heloise and their two children. He currently works at EtonHouse Orchard where he combines his role as class teacher with that of PYP Coordinator / Assistant Director.
Eager to find out more about the book and why Morley decided on this subject metter, we hopped down to ask him about it.
TheAsianparent.com: What stirred you to write a book about Asylum Seekers for children?
Ben Morley: Many years ago, I was living and working back home in inner-city London. I was a teacher at a large, state primary school. It was many, many miles from Singapore in so many ways…not just geographically. The intake of the children in the school was a true reflection of the surrounding area. A surrounding area that still includes some of the most deprived housing estates in London, if not the entire UK.
I would often share books with the children at this school and feel the stories they told were so far removed from the children’s lives that they found it really difficult to connect with them. I wanted to write something that these children could relate to. Something they might believe. I wanted them to see children like themselves on the front cover of a book and I thought that, perhaps, this might persuade them to open it and have a look.
As you can imagine, many of the children in the school had first hand experience of immigration and others were asylum seekers or had very real connections to asylum seekers. These children had already been through so much in spite of their young age. Unsurprisingly, the subject of asylum seekers often came up during class discussions, particularly with the older children, and it was incredible to hear these children share their stories with their new found friends. These stories were often hard to fathom, frequently desperately sad but what I sensed time and again in the children was hope.
It was this sense of hope that inspired me to write a story about asylum seekers. However, it is not necessarily about asylum seekers, it is more about belonging and the possibilities of friendship. I believe the story celebrates how children embrace a shared humanity that seems to come so naturally to them.
TheAsianparent.com: Tell us more about the book. How did you research and prepare for it?
Ben Morley: My ‘research’ for the book stemmed from my own experiences growing up, living and working in central London. As a teacher, classroom discussions with children at the school I was working at were a big part of the thought process. This issue is never far from the front pages at the moment and I also read a great deal of newspaper stories about immigration and interviews with asylum seekers to try and put myself in their shoes. However, more often than not, the voice of the children was not represented.
TheAsianparent.com: Did your daughter like it? How did she react to it?
Ben Morley: My daughter, Lyra, she really likes the pictures!! She has heard the story so many times that she keeps asking me to write a new book! When I first shared it with her she said the book made her feel “a little bit sad but not to sad.” I didn’t write the story with a particular age range in mind. I believe that picture books are for everybody and not necessarily for younger children. As many of you know, a good picture book is read or heard a thousand times, night after night, and I wanted to write a story that might offer something new on each reading. As the Children’s Laureate in the UK, Anthony Browne, put it, “A gradually expanding sense of understanding.”
To this end, I hope there is something for us all to think about in the story. Lyra is 3, so when she hears the story, she will probably get something very different out of it than, say, an 11 year old.
TheAsianparent.com: Why is it important for a child to be exposed to this subject?
Ben Morley: I believe it is important because this is real life to so many children out there. My hope is that this book will serve as a springboard for discussions about this important issue, no matter how far removed from that reality the listener may feel they are, be they in the UK, Singapore or wherever. I hope this is something they will think about, reflect on and, ultimately, act upon. If our children better understand these global issues, the world can only become a more tolerant, understanding place.
Ultimately, I think back to the children I taught in London, I think of my own children and I think of the children I have known in many, many schools across the globe and I know that, if we were to put them all in a big room together, the vast majority of them would get on like a house on fire! Sometimes as adults we forget this and I strongly believe this is something we need to embrace.
TheAsianparent.com: Share with us some of the feedback that you received from parents and children who have been touched by this book.
Ben Morley: I have received so much positive feedback about the book. Parents tell me their children have requested the story night after night and, with each reading, are coming up with new questions and ideas. I wanted the story to have space in it for the reader or listener to think and it looks like they are doing just that.
I have also shared this book at international schools in Singapore with children from as young as 3 to as old as 12 and the insightful, thought-provoking discussions it has generated have been wonderful. Many of the classroom teachers have used the book with their students as a means of addressing immigration, belonging, community, friendship (including friendship without words), differences etc.
On a larger scale, the book has been a recommended read on both the Random House website in the UK and the Diversity in Publishing Network. It has received 11 (out of 11!) five star reviews on amazon…so far! It was selected as one of only 2 picture books for The Reading Agency’s “Spotlight” initiative in September, across all UK public and school libraries. Recently, it has also been shortlisted for the Inaugural Red Dot Award here in Singapore.
TheAsianparent.com:Tell us about your family and your experiences as an expat parent in Singapore? Some memorable incidents / anecdotes etc. What do you like and not like about Singapore as a parent.
Ben Morley: My family and I LOVE living in Singapore. As expats, we are always made to feel welcome and are very much at home here. My wife and I feel the country has a very strong family ethic and there is so much that is set up for families. My children are both very active and we are always out exploring the island. We love to be out and about in the great outdoors. Our favourite spots are the zoo (where my daughter would live given half a chance), Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, Pulau Ubin and MacRitchie Reservoir. The nature on your doorstep in Singapore is breathtaking and sometimes it can get a little too close for comfort. Like the time my wife almost tripped over a Paradise Tree Snake on our front door mat!
We love the fact that Singapore is so truly multicultural and that people from different countries and of different cultures live, work and play side by side. One of the best places to witness this is in any of the fantastic food courts that are literally everywhere! I don’t think we have had a bad meal yet and, if you wanted to, you could eat at a different one every day. The many celebrations that you become part of living and working here are wonderful and it is so great that our children are growing up as a part of all that. We also feel Singapore is a very safe place to be and perhaps this is one of the reasons it is so appealing to us at this stage in our lives.
TheAsianparent.com: How would you contrast the life of an immigrant family in the UK and in Singapore?
Ben Morley: That is a very difficult question as I am lucky enough to have chosen to live here, whereas many immigrant families move because, ultimately, they have no choice. I would imagine there are many similarities between the two but I am not really qualified to answer.
TheAsianparent.com: Apart from immigration, what are the other big subjects that kids need to be aware of?
Ben Morley:The list is endless! I think children are a lot more aware than many of us adults believe. They are competent, capable individuals and are very sensitive to the world around them although they often understand things on a different level to us. One of the most topical issues of the day is the environment and the idea of sustainability. The idea that we all have an ongoing responsibility to the world and each other.
TheAsianparent.com: What are you working on now? Your next book?
Ben Morley: I have many books in the pipeline but finding the time to ‘work on them’ is easier said than done. However, I have a few things on the horizon, so, watch this space!