THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
A book was released yesterday. Did you notice? It’s hard to these days, isn’t it? I can’t blame you if it passed you by. I read about these new books and I worry about their creators. I worry that the books won’t find the right audience, or that they might get forgotten in the swath of news that fills up our filters and feeds. So much of that news is bad. As such, I think maybe there’s a great benefit to finding out about the good news that’s still out there. Today’s interview looks at a book that contains that exact good news of which I speak. Though, of course, an official description of the book may explain more than I can:
THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO, on sale April 14, is the courageous and true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, who in the midst of the Syrian Civil War offered safe haven to Aleppo’s abandoned cats. Alaa loves Aleppo, but when war comes his neighbors flee to safety, leaving their many pets behind. Alaa decides to stay–he can make a difference by driving an ambulance, carrying the sick and wounded to safety. One day he hears hungry cats calling out to him on his way home. They are lonely and scared, just like him. He feeds and pets them to let them know they are loved. The next day more cats come, and then even more! There are too many for Alaa to take care of on his own. Alaa has a big heart, but he will need help from others if he wants to keep all of his new friends safe.
This is a picture book that appeals to two of our purest emotions, mercy and love, and children will be taught to care for the displaced and the forgotten. THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO is also an important introduction to the Syrian Civil War, as well as hotly debated topics of asylum, immigration, and what it means to be a refugee. THE CAT MAN OF ALEPPO has already received 4 starred reviews, and Kirkus Reviews calls it “a beautifully told and illustrated story that offers a unique perspective on both war and humanity.”
I was offered a chance to interview not just the authors of this tale, but the illustrator as well. And so, from your respective social distancing locations, put your well-washed hands together and welcome Karim, Irene, and Yuko!
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much, all of you, for answering my questions today! I’m going to start us out with a pretty broad statement. Picture books about Syrian refugees are far from uncommon these days. Over the years we’ve seen them range from the metaphorical to the fantastical to those with a more realistic bent. What we have not seen, however, are many stories about real people. Once when I was working in a children’s room as its librarian a kid came in with an assignment to read a picture book biography about a living person and we found ourselves momentarily stumped. How did you hear about Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel and what gave you the idea of writing his story?
Irene Latham: Thank you, Betsy! Truly it’s an honor to write about a living hero. And you bring up a good point about the current availability of Syrian refugee stories, and refugee stories in general. One of the reasons I wanted to write about Alaa was because it’s not a refugee story; it’s a story about someone who STAYED. I think those who stay are often overlooked in literature – I guess because the adventure and heroism is more immediately evident in stories about leaving one’s home. But, obviously, there is great heroism in making the choice to stay, and also devoting time and energy to helping others who stay. So when I learned of Alaa in the news and started following his story on Twitter, I realized pretty quickly the cat factor made it an accessible story for children.
Karim Shamsi-Basha: Irene was the one who came up with the idea. When she told me about it, I was all in! I love to tell positive stories about Muslims and Arabs, and especially about my country of origin – Syria, during these days filled with negativity. The words ‘Islam‘ and ‘Arab‘ seem to connect more with negative things. So joining forces with Irene to tell a positive story of love out of my war-ravished country was an easy decision.
BB: Thank you for that clarification, guys. How did you two connect to write this book?
I & K: At the time we both lived in Birmingham, Alabama (Karim still does, but Irene has moved to a rural county northeast of the city), and we’d become friends through attending local literary readings, workshops and conferences. We worked on the book together –Irene starting with a basic structure for the story, and Karim adding the Arabic aspects of the book, including names, items, food, and culture. We both worked on it until the final version.
BB: How many iterations of this story were there in draft form? And did Alaa have notes of his own while you were writing it, or did he only ever see the finished product?
I & K: We had a couple of versions before the final one. Karim was able to speak with Alaa several times during the writing to get feel and ideas from him. One thing that was important to Alaa was that the book accurately portray Aleppo’s religious diversity – in particular he did not want readers to think all children in Aleppo are Muslim, or that all Muslim people in Aleppo are extremely conservative. This affected the art. Alaa was extremely helpful and very excited about the project. The story told itself really. Not many stories do, but this one was ample, profound, and filled with love.
BB: A balance must be struck when an author writes on a topic as serious as war for a younger audience. Were there any ideas you had to throw on the cutting room floor, so to speak, because they didn’t fit the story or the readership?
I & K: We knew we were taking a risk in telling a war story, but it’s nothing like the risks Alaa took (and still takes) every day feeding those cats. We believe it’s essential to give children stories that reflect the realities of the world. The cats gave us an “in,” and the heart of the story was Alaa standing at the intersection of something beautiful and something terrible. We’re so grateful to Stacey Barney, Cecilia Yung and the whole team at G.P. Putnam’s Sons for bringing Yuko on board. Yuko’s illustrations are astounding and hold nothing back in showing the damage from the war. Yet it’s the emotion that sings across the pages. In her art, war becomes secondary; love rises to the top.
BB: It would have made sense to accompany this book with photographs rather than illustrations. Whose idea was it to go this route instead?
I & K: As far as we know, photographs were never considered as a means to tell this story – only illustration. Though we’re aware Yuko did a tremendous amount of photo research in order to create the art, even down to details like the barrettes in the girls’ hair.
BB: By any chance are either of you cat owners yourselves?
Irene: I don’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a cat! Currently my husband and I have a senior tortoiseshell cat named Maggie who is queen of the house… and a neighbor’s outdoor cat we call Snickers who has adopted us (probably because of the feeder and heated bed we leave on the porch for her. 🙂
Karim: I used to have two cats about 15 years ago: Purr Kitty, and Oliver Lawrence of Arabia! We called him Olive Boy! They were beautiful and sweet.
BB: What are you both working on next?
Irene: I have three other books releasing this year – all of them poetry! – and quite a few more in the publishing pipeline coming over the next few years. And in an effort to self-medicate during this pandemic, I’m currently revising a middle grade fantasy and finding great comfort in my story’s love, light and mischief.
Karim: I am finishing revisions on my YA novel: CACTUS PEAR, a tale of a 15-year-old Muslim boy in love with a Christian girl amid the Syrian civil war. I want people to know that labels should not stop people from loving each other.
BB: Let’s switch gears a little and have a few works with you, Yuko. If I may gush a little, I’ve been a fan of yours for years, ever since I saw your work on Marissa Moss’s Barbed Wire Baseball. That book, like this one, was a work of picture book biography. So much of your work is in the adult sphere. Why the return to children’s books?
Yuko Shimizu: Thank you so much Betsy! When I was still in graduate school (School of Visual Arts, MFA Illustration as Visual Essay), one of the professors I respect the most told us “You are an artist because you have a good intuition. Trust your intuition.” I keep going back to that phrase over and over for the last 17 years or so I have been professionally working as an illustrator. Some illustrators decide their genre. Some only do editorial, some only do character design, and some kids books. I decided I don’t go by genre, I go by what is excitingly challenging, speaks to my heart and what tells my intuition to go or it.
I didn’t set out to be a picture book artist. I took on Barbed Wire Baseball, because I felt the sense of duty in telling this story and putting it out to the world and I thought I can help. What’s funny is… is it OK to say this? I thought the book won’t sell. It’s about Japanese American internment camps. Not a topic many people are interested in. I knew it, and it was fine with me. The book came out, and it really didn’t sell all that well. I got negative amount of royalty statements for years.
But after many years, the book hasn’t gone out of print, and it started selling. People started to get interested in learning about hardships US citizens had to go through just because of their background, and learning from the history because of current events that are similar but happening again in USA to people of different backgrounds. This is something I never expected. But, yes, I did believe in the message of the book, and I am happy kids are learning the story and history from it. I received my first royalty check about a year ago.
After Barbed Wire, I got contacted about many picture books. Nothing clicked. Lots of Japanese themes. Lots of World War 2 themes. I felt I have done that already and I didn’t set out to be pigeonholed into a very specific genre. When I got contacted about The Cat Man, my intuition told me this is right. I knew it was going to be very challenging, because I had never set a foot in Middle East, let alone Syria. (that finally changed right before the quarantine, I went to Egypt and spent about a week with local friends who helped me with Arabic writings for the book. ) But I thought it was an important story worth telling, and that it was unlike any other projects I have ever taken on. I quit my corporate PR job, because I wanted every day to be challenging and fresh and new, and grow each day as a better artist. This felt right.
BB: You quit your PR job? I doff my cap to your dedication. So, when you’re offered assignments, do you incline towards the ones based on true stories more than the fantastical?
YS: It’s hard to say. If it is a really good story worth telling and kids can learn from it. I don’t think it matters what it is. Actually, for the first time, I think I have a story I want to write and illustrate. It is an early stage of thinking, and I am not sure if it is ever going to happen. It is less serious, loosely based on reality but also fiction. So, going back to it again…, I trust my intuition. And also it’s important that it’s a new challenge for me.
BB: Your job with this book seems monumentally difficult. The text demands that you portray peace and war and desperation . . . and cute kitties. It’s enough to give an artist whiplash. Your audience is young so how do you decide how to portray these darker elements?
YS: We discussed and went back and forth multiple times over how to depict the war and desperation. Don’t go too dramatic “CNN version of war” in any of the pages, people may have some injuries but not to traumatize kids who are reading. Also, kids in pages whenever they fit! I keep remembering and reminding myself with this memorable comment a Bosnian friend said in Sarajevo: “I don’t know what to answer when people ask me how it was growing up during the war. We were kids. We only knew the reality we lived in. And kids always find ways to have fun”. So smiling kids, despite hardship kept the book going. (of course, cute cats help too!)
BB: Do you own a cat yourself? You seem to have a good feel for them.
YS: I am more of a dog person in reality. I live with a rescued senior dog named Bear who is probably smaller than the average cat. But I love animals in general. It was so much fun giving characters to all the cats. I learned so much how to make cats believable in the economic line strokes. I drew hundreds of them! And if people look at the book and think cats have good feel, then I think I did something right.
BB: Do you have plans for any future books for kids?
YS: If the right project comes my way, yes. And if I decide to pursue the beginning of a story I have in my head and someone wants to publish it, also yes. I am not in rush to find the next project. When my intuition says yes, there is the new project.
Man. That was epic. I can’t thank Karim, Irene, and Yuko enough for taking this amount of time and energy answering my questions. Thanks too to Lizzie Goodell and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for bringing Alaa’s story to picture book life.
The Cat Man of Aleppo is on shelves, virtually, everywhere as of yesterday. Find it and give it a great big read.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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