Monday, 11 July 2016

From Syria to the UK, diversity and children's picture books by Nadine Kaadan (Guest Blogger)

Here at the Picture Book Den we're delighted that this week our guest blogger is Syrian author and illustrator, Nadine Kaadan. From a previous blog post, some of you may remember her Arab picture book on coping with the conflict in Syria. Now Nadine discusses her path into publishing, the influence of Damascus, and diversity in picture books.

Nadine Kaadan
I started writing and illustrating children’s books when I was 10 years old. I photocopied my stories, coloured them, and (tried) to sell them to whoever was interested (almost always at a 100% loss). I pretty much gave them away and just loved it. It was simply my passion, and after studying fine arts at the University of Damascus with a focus on children’s illustrations, here I am 20 years later still doing the same, as my full-time job.

My first book was published by a Jordanian publisher at the age of 21 years, and I then worked with various Arab publishers in Syria, UAE, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. In 2011, because of the conflict at home, I travelled to London and completed a Masters in Illustration at Kingston University, and then an MA in Art and Politics at Goldsmiths College.

Looking back at the magazine I created at the age of 10, I realise that almost all of the characters in my stories had western names, although there weren’t foreign children around me. I think this was simply due to a lack of local Syrian children’s books at the time, and the fact that I was surrounded by French and English children’s stories. Growing up, I made it a point to develop more of an indigenous style inspired by local aesthetics and by my lovely city, Damascus.

I always found myself fascinated by the rosy side of the oldest capital in the world, especially the architecture and feel of the old city. By its courtyard fountains and their peaceful trickle – cool and fresh in the hot Damascus summer. By the beautiful contrast that the narrow alleyways make when walking between shadows and sun. And by the sweet scent of jasmine and rose, spreading everywhere in the summer nights. I found myself discovering and imagining thousands of tales hidden in every corner of the ancient city.

Illustration by Nadine Kaadan
The unique architecture of Damascus always features in my illustrations. An example of this is my book Answer me, Leila!, a story that starts like a Rapunzel fairy tale, but ends with a twist. When Prince Sami arrives at the high orange castle and calls for Leila to dangle her hair down from the window, she doesn’t answer him. He tries again and again, until he realizes that Leila can’t hear him because she’s hard of hearing and speaks a different language, called sign language. The book is dedicated to children with hearing difficulties.

From Answer me, Leila! by Nadine Kaadan
(Box of Tales Publishing House, 2011)

When conceiving the story, naturally I drew a local-looking princess, with long black hair, in a castle inspired by colourful Damascene tiles, and with roses and plants as reoccurring decorative motives. I portrayed Leila the deaf princess as an empowered female character (not a victim) who finds a creative solution to Sami’s struggle to reach her, by writing out words with her long hair to grab his attention and communicate with him in fun Arabic calligraphy. The motto of the tale is that there are many different ways to communicate… so let’s find them together!

From Answer me, Leila! by Nadine Kaadan
(Box of Tales Publishing House, 2011)
Living in the UK for the past four years has been a wonderful learning experience, but I was surprised by the lack of topical diversity in the children’s book market. I didn’t feel that it was sufficiently reflected in a country that upholds and celebrates diversity and multiculturalism so well. This year I was part of a panel discussion at the London Book Fair under the title What works in translating children’s literature, and I argued that 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 clich├ęs 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.

I truly believe that stories should be chosen to be published or translated in the UK because they are strong, regardless of whether they are about themes of cultural diversity, or not. For example I would like to see books in the UK from the Arab world that address stories of single working mothers, or of talented artists, or of teenagers going through identity struggles. Stories such as these would better represent the diverse and more realistic representation of my region, and would indeed show more of what we have in common, and not just the differences.

The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan
(Lantana Publishing, 2015)

I was privileged to be able to publish a story here in the UK, The Jasmine Sneeze, by Lantana Publishing, and my first one in English. The Jasmine Sneeze is about Haroun, the cat, who likes nothing better than to spend his days sleeping in the sunlit courtyards of Damascus. But one thing always ruins his sleep: jasmine! Haroun can’t stand the sweet-scented flowers. Their pollen sends him into fits of sneezes! Haroun hatches a plan to fix the problem. But little does he know that in doing so he deeply angers the Jasmine Spirit who plans her revenge in her own crafty way.

From The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan
I chose jasmine for my story simply because Damascus is known as the City of Jasmine – the flowers are a much-loved feature of the city’s courtyards and alleyways and give the city its distinct odor, especially on cool summer nights. As part of their morning ritual, Damascenes will wake and collect fallen jasmine flowers and place the petals on their water fountains so that the smell can be carried all over the house.

Many people in my city like to believe that the jasmine plant reacts to and reflects what is happening in their homes and lives, in good times and bad. They often associate the drooping jasmine stems with grieving and loss, and when a member of their family passes, they believe that the jasmine mourns after him or her. The idea for this story came to me when I thought back on how often my mother used to tell me about her grandmother’s jasmine tree. My mother speaks of how, a day before her grandmother passed away, the jasmine in their courtyard suddenly became harsh and wild, as though in warning that something sad was about to happen. When my mother’s grandmother passed, the jasmine died the day after. This story stayed in mind and when I was young I always wondered: who lives inside the jasmine tree?

Who lives in the jasmine tree?
From The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan (Lantana Publishing, 2015)
I hope my story is a small beginning to more Syrian stories in the UK, especially during a time of devastating war, prejudice and misrepresentation of the Syrian people. Diversity and variety in picture books benefits everyone.

Nadine Kaadan
For more on Nadine and The Jasmine Sneeze (UK) and her 15 Arab picture books, please visit


Mimi Zorz said...

Great post!

Jane Clarke said...

Very interested to hear about your publishing experiences and the fragrant city that inspires your stories, such a welcome contrast to the Syria we hear about in our news. Currently sniffling with hay fever, so I've just got to find out what happens in The Jasmine Sneeze!

Michelle Robinson said...

What a thoughtful and thought provoking post, Nadine. It's so true that the UK book market's (and it's not alone) current attempts at diversity are actually not at all diverse. I'm now off to consider the sorry state of my jasmine plant...

Moira Butterfield said...

What a beautifully written blog, and very thought-provoking. Thank you. Your stories sound highly-original (and look fantastic). Good luck to you Nadine, and to other Arab artists and writers.

Unknown said...

This was a really enjoyable piece, I can smell the jasmine and feel the air. I'm going to look for your books since they are so evocative of a very special and magical place.

Anne Booth said...

What a lovely post. I love the positive and beautiful images of Damascus - so important for us to be ware of at this time and a gift to Syrian children and to children learning about Syria. I want to look for your books now. Thank you.

ptnozell said...

What a lovely and thought-provoking post. I look forward to finding & sharing your books in the US, especially with my Arabic-speaking daughter & her friends & colleagues from the Syrian diaspora. I had no idea of the importance of jasmine in Syrian culture - I hope the jasmine plants flourish!

Kim P said...

This is a lovely way for us to view a part of Syria that we would not know. Looking forward to finding your books and to opening up more channels of diversity.

Paeony Lewis said...

Many thanks for such a thoughtful and interesting blog post, Nadine, and you’ve got me thinking about diversity in a more subtle, natural way.. The Damascus you evoke is so different to the tragic images that bombard us via western media (and now the media images are even more heart-breaking). Your post is a positive reminder and the myth of the fragrant jasmine tree is poignant.

Kathy Halsey said...

I must find this book. I, too, did not know the significance of the jasmine.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Really interesting post, Nadine. I'm looking forward to reading your stories. Clare.

George said...

Great talent. You have got a different style of Story telling

Unknown said...

Beautiful, Syria is proud of you Nadine.

Anonymous said...

Inspiring. Just bought the Jasmine Sneeze for my daughter's school library in Ealing, London.

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