All Stories is an initiative that offers free opportunities for underrepresented children's book writers to develop their work. The second programme began in October last year and will end in June '23. Every fortnight, a new mentee introduces themselves and tells us about their experience so far. Please welcome Habon Jama.


I became a reader when I took my writing seriously.


I know, it’s strange, because it seems every writer starts out as a reader. Writers often say things like, ‘I started reading in the womb’ or ‘when I was a child, I’d spend more time in the library than in front of the television’ and... that just wasn’t the case for me. I always saw myself as a visual person. It took watching a movie in the cinema and then finding out it was based on a book for me to claim, ‘I’m going to be an author’ as an eight-year-old.


Even though I was a reluctant reader, I’ve always enjoyed stories, and for most of my life I quenched that thirst through movies, television shows, articles in teen magazines and by listening to the wild stories my relatives either made up or the true ones they embellished a little too much.


My favourite story as a child was an oral folktale from my Somali culture about a cannibal called Dhegdheer that eats children (because I was that kind of kid. An odd one).


From the age of sixteen to twenty-two I thought I’d become a graphic designer, a make-up artist, a guitarist in a rock band (don’t ask), a film reviewer, an animator at Pixar (because why not aim ridiculously high when I struggle to draw stick figures), a professional photographer, and an art director at an advertising agency. But it wasn’t until I completed my BA in Advertising with the feeling that I needed to cleanse my soul that an idea hit me. It was Ramadan 2018, and I randomly thought ‘Maybe I should write a book? I used to love writing as a kid, what happened?’ So I bought two extremely outdated craft books (that I’ve still never read from cover to cover), and I set out on this journey. I made all the cliché mistakes first time writers do. I wrote a picture book in RHYME! It took eight months, and it was so bad, a freelance editor refused to take my money to edit it. I realised that in order to write, I had to read books. I went to my local library for the first time, aged twenty-five. Before that I didn’t read books by choice, only the assigned readings in school and university.


At the library, I picked up Violet and the Pearl of the Orient by Harriet Whitehorn. I was mind blown. I was there with Violet as she played a detective in order to help her neighbour Dee Dee Derota recover a jewel that was stolen. As I read, I could see the characters and almost touch them.


And that’s when I came to this conclusion. Books are movies in your head, and if it’s a duology, trilogy or quartet, then it’s a television series in your head. It doesn’t matter if the dog, cat or house you imagine differs from the one someone else reading that same book imagines, because it’s a private movie. Reading is a collaboration between you and the writer. The author has trusted you to fill in the blank spaces of a story and its world with your life experiences, your view of the world and your imagination.


After reading Violet and the Pearl of the Orient, I went back to the library and borrowed more books and then I started going into bookshops and get this... buying books! I went from not really owning any books to having my own mini library with 200+.


One of the first books I purchased was Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, and that was the first time I’d seen South London in art.


Books can inspire.


Because of Queenie, I felt able to write a YA novel with a Somali girl from South London as the protagonist and put my community on the page.


Reading made me a better writer. I read not only for entertainment but to learn. I enjoy nothing more than dissecting the first page/chapter of a novel and learning the techniques the author uses to reveal a character’s needs and wants, backstory, history, and how they set a scene and create atmosphere.


I’m glad I become a reader later in life. I like to think that all those years of consuming visual media have helped me become the writer that I am today. I am an extremely visual person; I want my stories to be filmic and so I often carefully pick words that will create the most vivid images in a reader’s mind.


There is great power in books, in words.


I’d like to finish by saying that it wasn’t only hard work that got me to the place I am today but also the generosity and patience of so many great people and organisations (which I shall save for the acknowledgements page(s) when my novel is published!). I am incredibly grateful for this mentorship opportunity with All Stories. A huge thank you to the creator and extraordinaire Catherine Coe for championing underrepresented writers and my truly amazing and compassionate editor, Nicki Marshall for believing in my words and me.

Header image credit: All Stories





Habon Jama is a writer from South London. She has a master's in children’s literature from Goldsmiths University. As a black Muslim woman, she is a passionate about representation in literature. She writes middle grade, young adult and short stories for adults. Her work has been awarded the Mo Siewcharran prize by Faber, and longlisted for The New Writers prize by #Merkybooks Penguin and the V.S Pritchett Short Story Prize by The Royal Society of Literature. Recently she was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. In her free time, she enjoys painting and going for long walks.


Twitter handle: @HabonJama

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