Stray cats wandering a city in war-torn Syria almost a decade ago led to two Birmingham writers and a New York City artist sharing one of the most prestigious awards for children’s literature this year.
“The Cat Man of Aleppo,” written by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha and illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, is one of four books chosen as a Caldecott Honor Book.
Each year, the American Library Association recognizes the nation’s top picture books for children with Caldecott awards.
“We are Water Protectors,” illustrated by Michaela Goade and written by Carole Lindstrom, was the Caldecott Medal winner.
“The Cat Man of Aleppo” is based on the true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an electrician in Aleppo, Syria, who in the middle of a civil war chose not to flee his country. Alaa became an ambulance driver and starting in 2012 used the money he earned to feed the abandoned and stray cats in Aleppo. The media covering the war took notice of Alaa’s efforts, leading to a Facebook page and donations that allowed Alaa to create a shelter for the cats.
The story of the book about the Cat Man began in 2016 when Latham saw a tweet about Alaa and his work rescuing and sheltering the abandoned felines.
Latham knew Shamsi-Basha, a native of Syria who is a regular contributor to Alabama NewsCenter.
“I just knew he would be a great partner for this story,” she said.
Shamsi-Basha contacted Alaa, “and he was thrilled and excited about us doing the book.”
Shamsi-Basha, who came to the United States in 1984, also was “very, very thrilled” about telling Alaa’s story and how the book would portray the country of his birth.
“It’s such a positive humane story out of a war-torn country, when all you hear in the media about Islam and Arabs is usually negative, but this is one humane bright light in kind of a dim world,” Shamsi-Basha said. “So it was amazing to do, very fulfilling.”
Stacey Barney, the executive editor at Penguin Random House, gave the authors three choices of illustrators to choose from, and Shimizu stood out for both Shamsi-Basha and Latham.
She had done one that was published eight years ago and wasn’t sure she’d ever do another.
“That takes a lot of commitment for someone who does one picture and then moves on to the next,” Shimizu said. “If I’m going to spend one year on a project it has to be meaningful, and this felt exactly right for me.”
To see the book “get this recognition and to share this story with children everywhere, it’s just so hopeful and positive,” Latham said. “I hope everyone is inspired to be more kind and to do things where they are and to think about people in a different way.”
“Winning this award means so many people will know the story and be exposed to the world of the unknown, and I think this is just fantastic,” Shimizu said.
– This story was edited for length by Village Living.