How did you get started in writing and illustrating children’s books?
I always knew that this is what I wanted to do; I have a great passion for tales, colors, and the magical world of children’s books. At the age of 10 I started to write and illustrate stories, photocopy them, and sell them to children in my school. Naturally, the project was a big financial loss because each copy cost me more than the selling price! But it meant a lot to me, and I celebrated every time I was able to sell a copy. I had great support and encouragement from my mother to continue doing this, she enrolled me in various art classes and taught me about the history of art from a very young age – my favorite gift was a professional painting set, even if I didn’t know how to use it.
How do you get inspiration for your stories? Are there any writers and illustrators who have influenced your work?
As someone who grew up in Damascus, the scenes of the old city naturally inspired my style; I always loved tales and legends that come from this ancient culture. I found myself drawing courtyards, water fountains, and jasmine trees in my books- elements that represent Damascus’s architecture. Even cats! Which I love to draw because they are everywhere in the city and because they consider themselves inhabitants just like the people, and sometimes even more so!
When I was young, I loved the French author René Goscinny, and particularly his collaboration with Sempe Le Petit Nicolas et les Copins – I just loved the humor and wittiness in the writing. I also enjoy Mexican author Jorge Lujan’s work, and his Sky Blue Accident is one of my favorite picture books. As for illustrators there are too many to name! But some examples include Syrian illustrator Lujaina Al Aseel, Piet Grobler, Rebecca Dautremer….
Tell us about the process you use for your illustrations.
I don’t have a specific routine in my work; I actually try to avoid being systematic in my art process. Sometimes I see an image in my mind and I immediately paint it as a final work. Other times I sketch and make hundreds of studies before I start with the final work. It really depends on the story and, simply, on my mood! That’s what is wonderful about being in the creative field- the process is both spontaneous and structured, personal and objective.
You’ve penned and illustrated books covering topics from disability to Syria’s civil war. Do you feel it’s important to communicate issues like this to children?
Absolutely, it is very important to address these issues with children. Sadness, death, and war are all part of reality – and children are not excluded from what is going on around them, no matter how hard we try to protect them. I believe that children’s books are some of the most effective tools in explaining these sensitive topics that young people may experience in their lives. I feel that addressing difficult experiences in books can give kids a healthier approach in dealing with whatever else life will bring, especially later in life. It will also help them learn how to deal with different emotions like sadness and frustration, and how to overcome them and self-soothe.
Of course, the same principles apply with regards to children with disabilities. All kids need to read about characters and protagonists that have disabilities, so that this group is not alienated when other kids are meeting and interacting with them in the real world. I strongly believe that special needs characters should be portrayed as empowered, not as different and struggling to fit in with their wider environment, as I see in too many children’s books.
How do you approach difficult topics like this in your work while being sensitive to a young audience?
It is not easy to strike the delicate balance between being truthful and realistic, and being cautious and responsible when addressing sensitive topics for children.
When writing my book Tomorrow for example, I chose to focus on the daily life issues of a little boy during wartime: how his life changes little by little; how he starts going to school less and less and then not at all; how he doesn’t play in the park anymore and that he misses it. Focusing on these details creates a safe environment to make sense of and explain the war from a child’s point of view, without necessarily needing to address the violence and the dreadfulness of wartime.
Analogies and metaphors can also be powerful, and can touch on taboo issues in symbolic ways that can gently address sensitive topics- making it easier for children to engage with them.
At the moment, I’m writing a new picture book that touches on the reality of the ‘refugee journey’ and being forced to leave home. I’m developing the character of a fish who had to leave their little river to find a new home to live in in the streets of the city.
How have children responded to your work from your experience in running story reading workshops?
When I read my book Tomorrow for Syrian children who had to leave their homes, I felt that the book helped them to open up and tell their own stories of the conflict and the anxieties they went through. It was beautiful to see their reactions when I asked them why they thought I titled the book Tomorrow – they immediately answered: because tomorrow will be better.
However, I was quite nervous when I read the book in the UK, I didn’t know how children here would react to such a challenging and distant topic. But in the end, I once again learned that children are the same, because they enjoy story telling, and are full of curiosity about things that they don’t know about. I was touched that they were so full of sympathy for what children in Syria are going through, and they showed so much love and support. There were even kids that could on some level relate to the disappointment that the boy in the story is going through. When I finished reading the book in a school visit in Littlehampton, one of the kids said: It happened to me! I asked, how? She answered, well I couldn’t go to the park because it was raining, and I felt very sad!
You are passionate about encouraging reading culture in the Arab world. How do you incorporate Syrian culture and heritage into your illustrations and stories?
As someone who grew up in Damascus, Syrian culture and heritage just seem to naturally feature in my artwork and my books. It is simply impossible not to be inspired and fascinated by the beautiful architecture of this ancient city- one with layer upon layer of civilizations and ancient tales! I am hoping to create as many children’s books as possible about its themes and aesthetic, and I believe that this can play a small part in preserving and documenting our culture, which is being endangered and destroyed at the moment because of this brutal war.
I am also passionate about spreading reading culture in the Arab world, but unfortunately, reading habits are not as strong as they should be in the Middle East. Encouraging Syrian and Arab families to make reading a regular part of the lives of their children is as important as playing sports and eating healthy. Though I am happy to see a growing number of inspiring publishing houses for children in the Arab world that encourage children to read in Arabic, I believe we still have a long way to go.
What’s next for you?
After being involved in publishing over 15 books in Arabic, I’ve just now completed my first title in English, and I’m very excited about it! The book is called The Jasmine Sneeze, published by Lantana Publishing, and it will be one of the first books in the UK that highlights Syrian culture and heritage for a younger age group. It will be a departure from the clichés and orientalist images that too many western children’s books project on the Middle East.
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. Damascus is known as the City of Jasmine, the sweet-scented jasmine flowers are a much-loved feature of the city’s courtyards and ancient alleyways and give the city its distinct odor, especially on cool summer nights.
Many people in Damascus – like my mom – like to believe that the jasmine tree 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. Equally, when something lovely is happening in people’s lives, the jasmine blooms and spread a stronger sweeter scent.
I always thought that this old jasmine tale could inspire a wonderful children’s book someday, and indeed today it has with Lantana Publishing’s The Jasmine Sneeze!
Discover more of Nadine Kaadan’s beautiful work here.