Teacher's tale of child immigrants lands top prize

11th June 2010 at 01:00
He draws on experience in the classroom to craft his bleak tale of survival in a hostile environment

In the past two years, primary teacher Tom Avery, 26, has been rather busy.

He moved from London to work in a Birmingham secondary school, became a father and wrote his first book, Too Much Trouble.

Now the novel, about 12-year-old Emmanuel and his brother Prince, 10, illegal immigrants who are left to fend for themselves in England, has won the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices prize, netting Mr Avery #163;1,500 and a publication deal.

"I didn't write it in my PPA (planning, preparation and assessment time)," he laughs. "My wife, Chloe, is a fashion designer and we work in the evenings once our son has gone to bed - when I didn't have too much planning or marking."

Too Much Trouble draws on Oliver Twist. It begins with Emmanuel telling his story as he looks back on the events that led him to hold a gun to a man's head.

Initially, the boys, immigrants who arrive in England from an unnamed African country, live with their drug-dealer uncle, but when he decides they are too much trouble, they are left alone and get drawn into a life of crime.

Mr Avery said the birth of his Son, Caleb, was the catalyst for the book.

"That was such a big change in my life and I thought, 'What do I want? I want to be a writer, so I'd better write something.'

"The initial spark was this story I'd heard of a young man who had come to England with his sisters but no parents. I couldn't stop thinking about what that responsibility must be like."

But Mr Avery says he was also inspired by personal experiences as a teacher. "A high percentage of the characters came from bits of stories from young people that I know. In teaching, you do meet so many children and hear their stories," he said.

"You are involved in their lives to a small degree - I couldn't have helped but include some of that.

"Writing something down was a way of me kind of coping with knowing all those stories, being able to unload some of it."

But Mr Avery insists the book has lighter parts. "It sounds bleak, but the boys join a gang of pickpockets and there is some comedy in their interactions," he said.

Mr Avery, who begins a new job next year as co-ordinator of English, communication and language at Torriano Primary in London, has not yet read his class an extract from the book.

"I'm really shy about it, because for so long it was just me reading it," he said. "They are the right age, but I am a bit worried about it.

"They are a very honest audience - they would be my biggest critics, but maybe also my biggest fans."

TOO MUCH TROUBLE: A TASTER

This is not the story of how I stayed quiet, how I slipped under the radar of so many teachers. This is the story of questions being asked and trouble being encountered. It starts on my last day at my first secondary school; I was in Year 7.

It starts here because I want you to see my last ordinary day before guns and threats and 'real' crime entered my life.

That day my geography teacher, Mr Banks, was asking us all where our families come from. We were meant to be learning about why people move to different countries. He called it migration. I knew all about migration.

He had asked a few pupils before me. Some from England, some from Pakistan. A lot of the pupils that went to that school were from Pakistan. A lot were from England too. Then it was my turn.

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