November 18, 2017

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Patrick Ness Raised $1 Million for Refugees. But Don’t Call Him a Saint.

Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness

It’s been about five months since the two-time Carnegie Medal–winning author Patrick Ness sent the tweet that launched a hugely successful fund-raising campaign for Syrian refugees. “Okay, I don’t know if this’ll work,” Ness wrote on September 3, 2015, “but I’ll match donations up to £10k to do *something* to help this refugee crises.” Within two hours, his £10,000 had been matched by individual donors, and not long after, authors such as Derek Landy, John Green, Jojo Moyes, and Philip Pullman offered their own challenges. By September 13, the campaign that started, as Ness explained, from a place of “despair,” had raised over £600,000—more than $1,000,000—for the international aid nonprofit Save the Children UK.

Ness, who was born in Virginia and now lives with his husband in England, is a busy man. HarperCollins published his latest YA novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, in October 2015. The movie adaptation of his much lauded A Monster Calls will be in theaters October 2016, and (if one were to make an assumption based on his Twitter feed) Ness’s photogenic cat demands its share of attention. Nonetheless, Ness has found moments in-between signings, events, and the many other demands on his time to reflect on the magnificent response to his call to action and the goodness of the community of writers and readers who answered his challenge—and then some. For anyone who hasn’t already read about Ness’s fund-raising campaign in the Guardian, Bookriot, Telegraph, or elsewhere, you should know that Ness felt compelled to do something, as he said during our transatlantic phone conversation, for two reasons. The first: the heart-wrenching and unforgettable photograph of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, in the arms of a Turkish police officer who is carrying the boy away from the water, where Aylan, his brother, his mother, and many other refugees drowned while trying to reach Turkey. The second: the UK government’s “typically feeble response” (Ness’s description) to the refugee crisis. Four days before Prime Minister David Cameron formally addressed Parliament about “Syria: refugees and counter-terrorism,” Ness tweeted, “As far as I can tell, @David_Cameron has never stood for anything except getting elected. You shame us, sir, you shame this country.”

Ness said that feelings of helplessness and anger fueled his need to do “anything, something.” From the get-go, he had no illusions that raising money for Save the Children would mitigate his frustrations—never mind solve the refugee crisis. “I really didn’t do this to make myself feel better about the death of a three-year-old,” he said. “There really is despair here. There really is just a feeling of hopelessness parallel with ‘I’ve got to do something.’ If you can use that negative feeling to drive a positive, it doesn’t solve it. It doesn’t make the negative feeling go away, but it acknowledges that you can have both and that you can do something.”

The refugee crisis is clearly nowhere near “solved,” and a million dollars only goes so far, even in the hands of a nonprofit as efficient as Save the Children UK (which spends nearly 90 percent of its income on programming). In 2015, more than 250,000 child refugees entered Europe; 26,000 of them arrived on their own. In a January 7, 2016 blog post, Save the Children UK’s Chief Executive, Justin Forsyth, called the situation, “the biggest refugee crisis globally since WWII.” Fifteen days after Forsyth made this statement, 42 refugees, 11 of whom were children, drowned off the coast of Greece—a tragedy that brought the number of children who had perished that week while trying to reach Europe to 21.

Despite these grim statistics, or maybe (in part) because of them, Ness said that the outpouring of goodness from strangers and friends brought him to tears several times. “Here comes this large group of people who exist and thrive and are all willing to do something wonderful,” he said, in an accent somewhere in between American and British, “so I think that’s a really, really positive thing. The politics of fear don’t always win.”

Ness explained that his efforts also came from “another kind of hope,” the same kind readers might find in his books. “Sometimes hope for a kid, even if the book’s not a hopeful book,” Ness said, “[is] just knowing that somebody out there recognizes that the things they’re going through are hard and that things that feel hopeless can actually be hopeful.”

He added, “I try to tell the truth about what’s dark so then when I tell the truth about what is hopeful, it feels even more true because I haven’t lied about the darkness.”

Ness reiterated several times that he isn’t “any kind of saint,” just someone who “got pissed off about 30 seconds before anyone else did,” and then 6,783 other individual donors took his challenge and ran with it. “The YA community and the community of people who read novels written by women…those communities raised a million dollars,” Ness said. “Isn’t that amazing? What it says about those communities, not just in strength and size, but in intent and willingness, really does the heart happy and proud.” YA authors who stepped up included Rainbow Rowell, Maureen Johnson, Jenny Han, and many others.

“What you think is not important,” the Monster says to the protagonist in Ness’s A Monster Calls, “It is only important what you do.” Ness points out that “people are actually kind of extraordinary if you give them the chance.” And “that makes me feel quite optimistic about people. You hear the loud voices shouting the negative, but that’s not the world.”


 

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Photo: Alan MacRae

Chelsey Philpot is a former SLJ book reviews editor. Her second young adult novel, Be Good Be Real Be Crazy (HarperTeen), comes out fall 2016.

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