“An open door is like an open heart” – Granny Gertrud (p. 58).
To celebrate the UK’s #RefugeeWeek2018, I was invited to read Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s recent English translation of Kathrin Rohmann’s middle grade German novel Afelkuchen und Baklava Oder Eine Neue Heimat für Leila. In a world where the deliberate and systematic dehumanization of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers is the subject of daily headlines, I know as an international school librarian and professional reader of children’s literature that building empathy through reading fiction is a simple act young readers can take to “help change the way we see refugees, and ourselves”. Our homes, schools, and libraries need more stories that help us understand the experience of exile and, in particular, how the experience of exile impacts children. And exploring stories about exile and what it means to lose your home is a powerful way to build empathy for other human beings, improving our ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Rohmann’s debut novel for children ages 8 and up is a realistic story, with deep roots in world history and the human condition, that does just that.
In Apple Cake and Baklava, we meet Leila, an eleven-year-old Syrian girl who has fled her war-torn country with her mother and two brothers, and Max, a German boy who lives a very comfortable life in his rural village of Grossbödecke, playing football with his friends and baking Lebkuchen with his Granny Gertrud according to the family recipe handed down by Granny’s grandmother. Leila is glad to be in a new, safe, and clean country, but is deeply troubled by leaving her father Hassan, a well-known baker famous for his baklava, and her beloved Grandma, who is very ill, behind. Everything is unfamiliar at first, so Leila treasures the walnut she has brought with her all the way from her grandmother’s garden in Syria, and uses it to stay connected to her Syrian life and Grandma as she tries to adjust to her new home, often talking to it to seek her grandmother’s guidance or to help her feel brave when she is sad and missing her father and old life. When Leila joins Max’s class, Max becomes incredibly curious about his new classmate and starts to understand that his life has been very different from Leila’s, in English class during a lesson on “Moving House” realizing that he has never had to move house in his life and that he has never had to accept presents from strangers.
Max starts to question his own comfort and story as he learns more about how Leila and her family were granted asylum in Germany, how different his life is in comparison to Leila’s. What Leila and Max have in common, though, are close relationships with their grandmothers, with both children relying on their grandmothers for love, companionship, and advice. So when Lelia faints at school and loses the walnut her grandmother had given her, the walnut that she has carefully kept with her throughout her harrowing journey by boat from Syria to Germany, Max understands the importance of the walnut and Leila’s connection to her Grandma, and sets out to help her find it, in the process coming to see that Leila’s story has a very important connection to his own family’s story of exile during World War II, a story that Max might not ever have been aware of without Leila’s friendship. Although there are no easy answers for Leila and her family at the end of the story, her growing friendship with Max and his Granny hints that Leila’s family will also be reunited in some way before long. In a concluding, hopeful act of resilience and generosity, Leila and Max choose to honor their lives both past and present as they hope for a more peaceful future for Leila and her family.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp’s fluid and engaging English translation from the original German includes just the right amount of cultural detail mixed with German and Arabic words and phrases to bring Leila and Max’s distinct linguistic worlds together. This is a captivating and timely translation, helping to bring a unique German-Syrian story based in the here and now yet tied to other historical migrations to a global audience of children.
Franziska Harvey’s illustrations are quite accessible for younger children and truly lovely, with full-page scenes from Leila’s life punctuating the narrative and presenting both the horrors of Leila’s flight from Syria and the daily beauty of her life there with her family in a warm, culturally respectful way that allows younger readers to step further into her world, sharing some of the remembered scenes that helped Leila deal with her new life in Germany. One poignant scene is from Granny Gertrud’s story and hints at the shared family experiences that Leila and Max discover together.
Apple Cake and Baklava also includes delicious-sounding recipes for Granny Gertrude’s Apple Cake and Leila’s father Hassan’s Baklava. And it also includes Granny’s recipe for Pomeranian Lebkuchen, the gingerbread recipe that brings Leila and Max’s two very different stories together into a shared story of exile, loving memories, and lifelong celebrations of the old lives and the new through baking.
For more books about the experience of exile, please see the Fiction Resources for children and young people from the Refugee Week site. See also 20 Simple Acts to celebrate 20 years of Refugee Week for more ideas to help change the way we see ourselves and refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, not just during Refugee Week but all year long! I will continue to review and tag refugee and immigrant stories on The Uncommon Reader from my international school library’s growing collection of middle grade and Young Adult titles: https://bit.ly/2HBoxWD.
The best books leave us with important questions. Here are some questions to stay with a little while after reading reading Apple Cake and Baklava, the questions that Max asks himself:
“What is it like when you have to flee from somewhere? Do you know where you want to go, or do you only care about leaving as soon as possible? Where do you sleep when you are on the road? And how do you decide, and when, that you’re going to stop somewhere and stay? Is it just a matter of saying this is your new home?” (p. 148)
As Granny Gertrud tells Max, there are no easy answers to these questions. But with open doors and open hearts, we can help answer the call of home and refuge for our friends old and new.