The Cat Man of Aleppo by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, illustrated by Yuko Shinizu (9781984813787)
Alaa lives in Aleppo, a city torn apart by war. He loves the city with its alleys, bazaars and caring people. When the war came, Alaa didn’t flee. Instead, he kept working as an ambulance driver on the rubble-filled streets of the city. Alaa misses his family and loved ones. The cats of the city, left behind by their owners, remind him of his family. Alaa begins to feed the cats, at first only a few but soon many start coming to be fed. Alaa must find a special place for the cats. Donations come from all over the world to help and soon Alaa has enough money to create a sanctuary for them. Alaa is then able to save more types of animals as the donations continue. He builds a playground for children and well for fresh water. Through his big and aching heart, Alaa is able to share hope and sustenance with the cats and people of Aleppo.
This nonfiction picture book tells such a powerful story of resilience and how one person’s actions can impact an entire community. The text focuses on Alaa’s love for Aleppo but also on his big heart and willingness to give his own small amount of money to care for the cats of the city. Readers will celebrate his victories with him on the pages, marveling at how one person could help so many.
Shinizu’s illustrations capture the city of Aleppo both before the war and afterwards. The finely detailed illustrations show bustling bazaars and then the torn and vacant streets. The cats are beautifully drawn, each one has a character of their own, even in a crowded scene.
An important book about war, hope and resilience. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan, illustrated by Anna Bron (9781773213750)
Salma and her mother moved to Vancouver from Syria together. Salma’s father is still in Syria and planning to join them soon. Mama seems worried and tired all the time now, not smiling the way she did in the refugee camp with her friends. Salma tries many things to get her mother to smile or even laugh, but nothing seems to work. She heads to the Welcome Center and her teacher has her think about the last time she saw her mother happy. Salma realizes that it may be Syrian food that her mother is missing, since the last time she smiled she had been carrying a bowl of foul shami. So Salma decides that she will make her mother foul shami to bring back her happiness. Salma must figure out how to take the recipe in Arabic and get others to understand what she needs. She realizes that she can draw the various vegetables and ingredients and show them to the people at the supermarket. With her ingredients, now she must do the cooking, but not without plenty of help from others at the Welcome Center who are missing delicacies from their own lands too.
So often picture books depict the end of a family’s story as leaving the refugee camp. It is a pleasure to see a picture book grapple with how it feels to have come to a new country as a refugee and having your family still separated. The clear connection of food and culture is beautifully depicted here. Salma’s enthusiasm for her solution to her mother’s sadness and worry is moving, giving her something to focus on and actually do to help. The difficulty of the recipe and its many steps serves as a great challenge for Salma, and one that will bring her community together to help.
The illustrations have borders and geometric shapes that echo the tiles of Syria and Damascus. The color palettes change as the emotions on the page change, with blues showing the worry and concern and merry yellows flooding the pages with community and hope.
A marvelous look at food, family and community. Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Annick Press.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (9780062747808)
Jude lives in Syria with her beloved older brother and her parents. As her older brother gets involved in the political battles around them, her parents decide that it is too dangerous for Jude and her pregnant mother to stay in Syria. So Jude and her mother move to Cincinnati to live with Jude’s uncle. America is very different than Syria, much louder and faster, and filled with a language that Jude barely understands. As Jude gets acclimated to living in the United States, she steadily makes new friends along the way. Her love of movies and desire to perform lead her to audition for the school musical. But when the attacks of 9-11 occur, the country that Jude has grown comfortable in changes to be more hostile to Muslims. Jude needs to rediscover what she loves about both Syria and the United States, her two homes.
This novel is written in verse, making for a very readable work. Told in Jude’s voice, the poetry allows readers to see how she feels about leaving Syria, how lost she feels when she comes to Cincinnati, and how she starts to find her way. The importance of English Language Learner classes are emphasized, both in learning the language but also in finding a group of friends. Jude also finds friends in other ways, connecting over shared cultures and shared interests.
Jude’s voice is vital to find in a middle grade novel. My favorite chapters are where Jude gets angry and voices her pain at the injustice of being labeled in a certain way, feared because of her religion, judged because of her headscarf. Those moments are powerful and raw, ringing with truth on the page.
Beautifully written with an amazing Syrian heroine at its center, this book is a great read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (9781328810151)
This graphic novel tells the stories of Syrian refugees in their own voices. Based on interviews and visits to refugee camps around the region, the book clearly tells the story of the basis of the refugee crisis in Syria. As the flood of refugees begins and then continues, the nations taking in the refugees see sentiments in their populations shift to be anti-immigrant due to the overwhelming costs and disruption. Still, the refugees need a place to live in peace, a place to make a home and a place to feel safe.
Brown returns with another gripping nonfiction graphic novel. He uses the refugees’ own stories to really create a book that is heart-wrenchingly realistic. Young readers will benefit from hearing how the crisis began and will learn a lot about refugees, the dangers they face and the risks they are willing to take for freedom. The art in the book is done in limited colors, often filled with sandy yellows and deep browns. The faces of the refugees are compellingly depicted, often with expressions of deep fear, loss and grief.
A strong and important look at the Syrian refugee crisis in a format that makes the content very readable. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from library copy.
Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini, illustrated by Dan Williams (9780525539094)
The author of The Kite Runner has created a poetic work of short fiction that speaks to the plight of refugees around the world. Written as a letter from father to son, the book reflects on the beauty of the land they are leaving. The loveliness of life in Homs, Syria shows the vibrant world that was destroyed by bombs and war. As their lives crumble along with the buildings, they are forced to flee. The letter is written just as father and son enter the boat that will hopefully carry them to a new life in a safe country.
Hosseini was inspired to write this heart-wrenching piece by the death of the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was found on a Turkish beach. Throughout the short fiction, there is a sense of loss and grief, of a land lost and a future abandoned. Yet there is also a slim thread of hope, a hope that compels them aboard a small boat and out onto the sea.
The illustrations help make this a more approachable book for younger readers who will find themselves drawn to the emotions of the text and the desperation on its pages. Williams uses sweeping colors to convey both the beauty of Syria but also the dark haunting nature of war and being torn from your country.
A devastating piece of fiction appropriate for ages 8 and up.
Reviewed from library copy.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr (InfoSoup)
Told in both English and Arabic, this picture shares the story of a family of Syrian refugees. The book begins with Rama talking about their life in Syria and how things have changed and freedoms have been lost. War arrived with a lack of food and people began to leave. Still, Rama and her family stayed until bombs fell too close to their home and they joined “the river of people.” They walked and walked until they reached the sea where they boarded a small boat. People died aboard but Rama’s family survived. They walked farther, no longer in a world torn by war until they came to their new home and were greeted by smiling new neighbors.
This picture book is simple enough to share with children. It speaks to the horrors of war but with a delicate touch. Still, it is a book that will spark questions and discussion for children who will want to understand if they will ever need to be refugees themselves and how they can help. It is a picture book that speaks to our universal humanity, the power of war and the courage of hope.
The illustrations are spectacular. Ruurs opens the book with an explanation of discovering his art on Facebook and reaching out to him to see if he would do a book with her on Syrian refugees. His art is moving and emotional, the faceless rocks somehow capturing fear, strain, despair and eventually joy. Done with subtle natural colors, the art is powerful and wrenching.
A noteworthy and extraordinary picture book on the refugee crisis, this picture book belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.