I first learned of today’s Perfect Picture Book when I read a blog post last summer on the Picture Book Den, a blog written by an independent group of professional children’s authors based in the UK and Scotland that focuses on picture books (but does not review them). In that post, Nadine Kaadan, the author/illustrator of today’s selection, addressed the issue of diversity in children’s books. While the post most directly addressed the UK market, I think the issue raised also is evident in the US market. In Kaadan’s words:
…even when there is an attempt by UK publishers to publish more inclusive and diverse books, they still fall into the danger of the single story. For example, looking at UK children’s books that feature Arab or Middle Eastern culture, I feel that there is an exaggerated focus on ‘cultural differences’ (in the name of cultural richness). Too many of these books strike me as quite orientalist, and seem to depict overly stereotypical clichés about Arab culture, such as the typical camels in the desert and fasting in Ramadan. Although these elements are very much a part of our culture, and the stories are absolutely worthy of publication, the problem is that they only present one aspect of who we are.
As I continue to feature picture books from areas experiencing conflict, relating the experiences of children fleeing those areas, and/or written or illustrated by persons affected by travel restrictions to the US and other regions, I will keep Kaadan’s words in mind and look for those universal aspects of the stories that reflect multiple aspects of the culture of the characters. And now, today’s Perfect Picture Book:
Title: The Jasmine Sneeze
Written & Illustrated By: Nadine Kaadan
Publisher/date: Lantana Publishing/2016
Suitable for Ages: 4-8
Themes/Topics: cats, jasmine, sneezing, solving problems, Damascus, Syria, community, diverse books
Haroun is the happiest cat in the world. He lives in Damascus, the city of a million and one cats. He spends most of his time sleeping on the marble floor next to the fountain in his favourite courtyard.
Sometimes he stays up late for a karaoke party with the other cats in the moonlight.
Brief Synopsis: Haroun the cat lives happily in Damascus, except it’s a city filled with jasmine flowers and he sneezes at the scent. When he tries to get rid of the scent, he sets off a series of misfortunes that he then must reverse.
Links to Resources:
- Lantana Publishing provides education resources, including how to design tiles like those featured in The Jasmine Sneeze;
- Learn about the geography and rich history of Syria before the current conflicts;
- Discover jasmine flowers.
Why I Like this Book:
The Jasmine Sneeze is a sweet and humorous story of Haroun the cat with a sneezing problem who tries to solve it to the detriment of others in the community. There is a fairy tale quality to the story including a touch of magic with a Jasmine Spirit who punishes Haroun for his selfish mistreatment of jasmine plants.
I especially loved the setting of the story, Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, and Kaadan’s depiction and lovely watercolour illustrations of it as a city filled with winding jasmine vines, karaoke cats, tiled courtyards with fountains, and most importantly, a community that cares about the cats, the plants and one another. In many ways, the setting itself is a character as are the jasmine plants, several of which are depicted with eyes. This vision of Damascus is a refreshing reminder of the culture and beauty of Syria that will be more accessible again someday, hopefully soon.
A Note about Craft:
This is Kaadan’s first English-language picture book as author and illustrator. I love that she has written a story about a region that currently few of us will visit, that presents a universal problem and that highlights everyday features that a child would care about, regardless of where he or she lives. By choosing a non-human main character, Kaadan more easily fosters empathy and encourages readers to focus on the similarities of the situation rather than on what’s different about life in Haroun’s Damascus.
Interestingly, the conflict Kaadan sets up is between two positive features of Damascus, one of the “million and one cats” and the beloved jasmine plant, that, Kaadan informs the reader, is treated like a member of “family” and is watched over by a Jasmine Spirit. Only when these two positive aspects are in balance, when Haroun realizes that his sneezes should not be a reason to deprive his community of the jasmine plants, can the problem be resolved – a resolution that I think presents a positive message for children.
Learn more about Nadine Kaadan and her other books (to date, all in Arabic) on her website.
Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing company in the UK “producing award-winning diverse and multicultural children’s books”, has been nominated for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year 2017.
While not currently available in bookshops in the US, you can order The Jasmine Sneeze from the Book Depository, which offers free worldwide shipping (payment can be made via credit card in US dollars).
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!