Katherine Marsh holds a dear spot in my heart for saying something incredibly encouraging to me, just at the time I truly needed to hear it. That she is generous and kind-hearted is not a surprise to anyone who has read her books. Once again, Katherine is being incredibly generous with Friend Friday readers. Though she has written elsewhere about her newest book, Nowhere Boy (Roaring Brook Press), such pieces have always focused on the story behind the story. And what a story it is! One that has received four starred reviews, is a Washington Post and Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2018, a NYTBR Editors’ Pick, has been featured on NPR and in People magazine (as Katherine notes: some unlikely bedfellows). Today, she is bravely and generously sharing from the heart about one of the inspirations for Nowhere Boy inspiration, something she has not shared publicly before.
My new middle-grade novel, Nowhere Boy (Roaring Brook Press), is the story of two boys—Max, an American whose parents drag him to Brussels, Belgium and enroll him in the local French school and Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who has lost his entire family and is stranded in a Red Cross camp in the center of Brussels. I won’t tell you how these two very different boys end up meeting and changing each other’s lives. But I will tell you how the book was inspired by true events.
In July 2015, my family and I moved to Brussels for my husband’s job. We weren’t the only new arrivals: over one million refugees entered Europe that year. I wish I could say that I was focused on this humanitarian crisis from the get-go but I was too busy figuring out the logistics of everyday life. I never even saw the tent city at Parc Maximilien before authorities closed it down. But for that I have a good excuse: I was with my seven-year-old son in the transplant unit of a Belgian hospital.
Susan Sontag famously described sickness as a kingdom and, after my son began having bouts of vomiting and high blood pressure, we found ourselves lost not just in Belgium but in the land of the chronically ill. On days he felt well enough, my son was wheeled down to the hospital school where he did arts and crafts with other pale children bedecked in tubes and wires. There were refugees here too but of a different sort: My son’s roommate was an Armenian boy with a failing liver whose parents had left their other child for years with grandparents in Armenia in order to get him the best possible care in Belgium.
In between doctors ruling out terrifying possibilities such as kidney failure or a brain tumor, we endured long stretches of boredom, my son queasily watching cartoons while I lay on a cot beside him. A hospital is a hard place to sleep—there is always something ringing or buzzing, someone coming in or out—but it’s an easy place to daydream. It would be months before I would let myself process my fear but on those seemingly endless hospital days, I let my mind drift to a story I might write—about boys lost in an unfamiliar land—if we made it home.
A week after we arrived, my son was discharged with a diagnosis that made our stay in one of the world’s preeminent transplant units seem laughable: abdominal migraine. We were tourists in the land of the ill, not passport holders, and we left his roommate and the other children with a feeling of elation, but also of guilt. How fortunate we were. How our eyes had been opened to the lives of others.
A few months later, I sat down to start the novel that would become Nowhere Boy. I wanted to write about kids who felt like Others; about how to transform fear into compassion. But most of all, I wanted to write a story for the boy I didn’t lose so that when he felt weak and unmoored— for there would be a next time, there always is–he used these feelings not to build a wall around himself, but a window on the world.