Sue McGonigle talks to Na’ima B. Robert and Nadine Kaadan about their new book A Child Like You.
A celebration and a story of hope is how author Na’ima B. Robert and illustrator Nadine Kaadan describe their new book A Child Like You. Speaking over Zoom from their homes in Zimbabwe and London respectively, they tell me that their aim is to celebrate real life heroes for children, individuals who have said no to unfairness and made a change in their worlds by demonstrating resilience and empowerment.
I wanted to know exactly how the concept for A Child Like You came about and Na’ima was delighted to explain. ‘I love this story! It was initially conceived as something quite different. The book started as essentially a little poem I wrote for my three boys. I wanted to open my children’s eyes to difficult realities of children abroad.’
It was taken up by a publisher and Nadine was brought on board as illustrator. However, when she read the text, Nadine had concerns, which came from her own experience of leaving Syria because of the war and, more recently, of visiting refugee camps.
‘I don’t want children who arrive as refugees to feel other kids looking at them and feeling pity, instead (I want them to) look at their resilience, look at the empowering stories that comes from these difficult situations.’
Nadine’s reaction made Na’ima think again. She recognised the original text could appear ‘quite othering, feeding into unhealthy ideas we may have in our more privileged position.’ She considered tweaking the text but, in the end, decided on a complete re write.
‘I am really grateful to Nadine for speaking up, it has allowed me to write a book that was more powerful.’
Nadine expanded on her concerns about books featuring children from war zones, refugees, and others from less affluent countries, arguing that here is a fine line between empathy and pity.
‘Saying, “Look at this sad child from the Middle East, let’s bring a kind European child to help them” – this is disempowering. But there are so many stories that are empowering, that show resilience. So, when we want to spark empathy, let’s do it in an empowering way. Let’s do it in a way that celebrates these people. They need help, but they also have so much to offer. So that’s what I love about this book.’
Na’ima agrees, adding that if the focus is not firmly on the refugee child there is a danger that they could be portrayed as simply the catalyst for the main protagonist, who is often a western child, and their growth.
The final book was the result of a collaborative project and a great deal of discussion between writer, illustrator and publisher.
Nadine says, ‘I just really enjoyed working with Na’ima and Janetta from Otter-Barry Books because they enabled an open conversation and were kind enough to let me voice my opinion, we worked on the book together with conversations over Zoom. Na’ima came back with this beautiful poem representing four difficult situations. I suggested illustrating these situations with real life examples. I picked four kids, real life heroes for children from around the world.’
They both felt that this broad lens was important, because it is a universal story – there is unfairness all over the world, and children trying to make change all over the world.
The four individuals featured in the book are: Greta Thunberg, likely to be the most well-known for speaking out against climate change and demanding action. Next Yusra Mardini Syrian swimmer and refugee. When escaping Syria her boat got stuck, she bravely helped push it to safety and went on to become an Olympic swimmer and UN ambassador working to help refugees. Thirdly, Marley Dias from the United States who built the hashtag #1000blackgirllibrary and is now speaking about diversity and inclusivity in children’s books. Finally, Iqbal Masih from Pakistan, a child labourer who escaped and became a spokesperson for the abolition of child slavery until his assassination.
The book is in two sections: the first part describes the challenges, trials, difficulties, unfairness these children experience and the second shows how they each spoke out or took action.
One of the key features of A Child Like You is the poetic text. It is patterned with a clear structure, rhythm and a repeated refrain making it perfect for reading aloud or performing. Nadine loves Na’ima’s poetic writing, she has one of her books and enjoys reading it to her son.
I ask Na’ima about her writing style and she explains that as a child she loved patterned stories and sees their potential for engaging young readers.
‘When you have a pattern, and open the loop at the beginning, then it is interrupted and you close it at the end it is like fairy dust! It is so satisfying when it comes together. That is what I love about writing for children, you take them on a journey, and you bring them safely home.’
Na’ima teaches writing for children, introducing the importance of structure, refrain, rhyme and rhythm. When she read A Child Like You at the launch, she was pleased to realise she was practising what she was preaching.
How does this structure influence Nadine’s approach to illustrating the text? She loves the structure and when translating it into illustration used this to inform her colour palette; the first part is darker and the second brighter. She aimed to include symbolic touches, for example hinting that Iqbal was behind prison bars with the threads he was weaving and including a little bird on his shoulder to suggest hope, that freedom might come later.
As an illustrator she feels strongly that illustrations should not just translate words into pictures, because ‘children don’t need this’, they can use their imaginations. She particularly enjoys illustrating poetic texts because of their inherent openness.
‘I think illustrations are very important to prompt conversations on the deeper meaning of the book. The illustrations should be stimulating, they should be symbolic. That is what I love about poems and poetic texts, they allow you to be free.’
They are both very pleased with the final book and hope it will shine a light in a child- friendly way on some of the difficulties of the human experience and demonstrate that there is hope. They hope to show children you don’t need to be an adult to make a change, you can start now with the support of the adults around you.
Na’ima and Nadine are very busy people with lots of plans and projects on the go, however it is clear that their collaboration has been very rewarding for them both. They are very interested in the idea of working together again in the future, musing on the idea of the potential of a similar project perhaps shining light on children who are not currently in the spotlight but quietly making a difference in their communities across the world.
A Child Like You by Na’ima B. Robert and Nadine Kaadan is published by Otter-Barry Books, 978-1913074173, £12.99 hbk
Sue McGonigle is an independent consultant and co-creator of Lovemybooks.