Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Face to Face

Helen Atunrase
London, UK

The one question that most people ask me when I am either signing books or giving interviews is, "Where do you get your ideas from?" I usually reply, "Many of the places and characters are of people I've known and events that have caught my attention."

For instance, the main character in Face to Face (2002) is loosely based on one of the survivors of a train crash at Paddington Station, London, in which 31 people died and 259 were injured. Pam Warren sustained burns on her face and hands, which resulted in her spending three months in hospital followed by several major skin grafting operations. Newspapers reported on how she and her family had been affected by this event and its consequences. She became the spokesperson for the Paddington Survivors Group and continues to campaign for improved rail safety. Her story prompted my interest and I began to research the various issues surrounding facial disfigurement. The Internet was a great resource, and I also read fictional accounts such as Face (1999) by Benjamin Zephaniah that allowed me to see how other writers had approached the subject. I noticed that books written with disabled lead characters varied in quality a great deal. I wanted to highlight disabilities in a positive way because my own experiences have made me keenly aware that young people are put under a lot of pressure to look a certain way and to wear the "right" kind of clothes. With the knowledge I was beginning to acquire, I started to write the first draft of a story.

Face to Face is about an 11-year-old girl who is disfigured in a car accident. She starts a new school and gets the lead part in the school play. This encourages her to confront all the issues about being different, from accepting her appearance to talking about the accident herself.

I wanted to convey the correct facts about disfigurement. I sent a copy of the first draft to James Partridge, who is the founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces, an organisation which helps and supports people with any type of disfigurement. Everyone there was very happy to help and they enabled me to understand the emotions that the character would go through.

Kaley clambered down and sat on the chair next to her Gran. She was aware that her scars were settling down. After the accident, she felt sore and bruised. Her face was so puffy that it hurt when she tried to smile. Now the immediate feelings of anger had been replaced with a need to be accepted for how she was. (Face to Face, p. 31)

My views towards those with disabilities have definitely changed since I started research for my first book. My lead character, Kaley, has to face not only the children and adults in school but also how she feels about herself. This is a big step for her and I have learned that the obstacles Kaley has to deal with are as much to do with other people and their ideas, as they are to do with having to manage the medical consequences of burns. I am glad to say that my book does have a happy ending and reinforces the important message that it's not what you look like on the outside that matters, but who you are on the inside.

My publishers are keen on the idea of showing disabilities in a positive way and they are confident that my first book will sell well. I hope to be able to write a series on a range of conditions, each giving a positive insight into what it's like to have a disability. I have recently finished the second book, provisionally entitled The Search for Silvarus, which concerns a character with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

As I write, it becomes more obvious to me that we are obsessed with how we look, what we wear and the houses we live in. My heroes and heroines are characters who are proud to be different. They are role models of exceptional young people that can educate the next generation to be tolerant of others and to value their differences.


Atunrase, Helen. 2002. Face to Face. London: Blackie and Co.

Atunrase, Helen. The Search for Silvarus. (forthcoming).

Partridge, James. 1994. Changing Faces, the challenge of facial disfigurement. London: A Changing Faces publication.

Zephaniah, Benjamin. 1999. Face. London: Bloomsbury.

Biographical note

Helen Atunrase is a freelance writer whose first book Face To Face was published in 2002. She holds workshops in local schools where she shows pupils how she develops ideas and characters for her stories.

Copyright (c) 2004 Helen Atunrase

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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