Today’s Perfect Picture Book is one that I’ve been meaning to read, and review, for some time. It’s set during the Syrian war, a conflict that I think we all thought would be history by now, but that, sadly, endures to this day.
Title: The Cat Man of Aleppo
Written By: Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha
Illustrated By: Yuko Shimizu
Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020
Suitable for Ages: 4-8
Themes/Topics: Syrian Civil War, cats, compassion, animal rescue, non-fiction
Alaa loves his city of Aleppo. He loves its narrow alleys and covered bazaars selling pistachios, jasmine soap, and green za’atar. He loves the boiled corn and dried figs offered on the stree.t Most of all, he loves the people of Aleppo. They are gentle, polite, and loving—like him.
Brief Synopsis: This is the true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver who rescued cats and helped orphans and others as war raged in the city of Aleppo, Syria.
Links to Resources:
- Learn about the history, culture, and geography of Syria (information is all pre-war) and Aleppo;
- Have you ever visited a spice market or bazaar? Describe the spices you saw and smelled;
- Ask an adult to help you bake Za’tar bread;
- Learn more about Alaa’s efforts and the animal sanctuary that now exists on the outskirts of Aleppo;
- Enjoy coloring the detailed coloring pages.
Why I Like this Book:
War is always a difficult topic in children’s literature, especially in picture books. But compassion in the face of adversity, and especially compassion for defenseless animals, is a very kid-friendly topic. By focusing on the heart-warming, and true, story of a man who rescued hundreds of cats left behind when their owners fled the war-torn city, Latham and Shamsi-Basha have written a picture book that enables children to learn about the ongoing struggles in Syria and to feel hopeful that people like Alaa are caring for the animals and people affected by the conflict.
I love how the story begins before war broke out and how the authors highlight what Alaa loves about the fascinating city of Aleppo, a city most readers will not have visited. While not sugar-coating the horrors of war and its effect on Alaa, the story quickly turns to the cats left behind, the cats with “lonely, confused faces” that remind Alaa of “loved ones he has lost”.
Once he meets a few of these cats, Alaa realizes that he can’t change the world and the situation in Aleppo, but that he can do something: he can take care of these abandoned animals. Starting small, with just a few cats, he soon expands his efforts, and gains support, both from people still in Aleppo and from people around the globe. An international not-for-profit now exists to support this work!
This is a wonderful lesson for children wanting to make a difference in the world of how one person can help others, and how they can do even more when they join forces and work together with others. From helping cats, readers learn that Alaa built a playground for children, dug a well, and helped feed people in need. By the end of the book, I felt hopeful that Alaa and people like him will help Aleppo return to its pre-war condition. And when the refugees return, hopefully someday soon, it’s comforting to know that the pets left behind will be there for them.
Shimizu’s award-winning, realistic, and very detailed illustrations bring Aleppo, Alaa, and the many cats to life.
A Note about Craft:
In an author’s note, Latham reveals that she was moved by the story of the cat man of Aleppo, but she was not from Syria nor had she ever visited the country, ie, she was not an #OwnVoices author. When she met a “striving children’s book author” who had emigrated from Syria and who had visited Aleppo before the war, Latham joined forces with Shamsi-Basha, and together they wrote the story.
Similarly, Shimizu, a Japanese illustrator based in the US, explains in an illustrator’s note, that she had never visited Syria. To make the illustrations authentic, she “spent half of the nine months I had to complete this book solely on research”. That The Cat Man of Aleppo is a 2021 Caldecott Honor Book is a testament to her diligence and attention to detail.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!