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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Apple Cake and Baklava
by Kathrin Rohmann
Age Range: 9-11
Apple Cake and Baklava
When Leila joins Max’s class in a school in rural Germany she feels out of her depth. Having fled Damascus in Syria with her mother Aisha and two brothers Alan and Ferhad, leaving behind her beloved grandmother and father, she has to adjust to a new life in a country far from home. Leila’s most cherished possession is a walnut from her grandmother’s garden. She carries it everywhere because it is the only thing she has to remind her of home. When one day she loses it at school, Max tries to help her find the walnut and it is the start of a budding friendship.
Max is able to understand Leila’s closeness to her grandmother; he too is close to his own grandmother, Gertrude. Leila’s sadness about losing her beloved walnut and her longing to replace it leads her to set out to return to Syria. Can Max and Gertrude stop her in time?
Apple Cake and Baklava is German author Kathrin Rohmann’s debut children’s book. She perfectly captures the loneliness of Leila, her feelings of being overwhelmed and of her desperate homesickness, but it also shows the kindness and compassion of everyone around her who try to make the family feel welcome. In particular, Max’s grandmother Gertrude is very understanding of Leila’s situation, having fled her own home in Pommern as a little girl during the Second World War, a secret she has not even shared with her grandson.
This is a powerful and moving book dealing with asylum, how it feels to be a refugee in a strange country and building new friendships. With an excellent flowing translation from Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, this gentle story cleverly expresses emotion through food – Grandma Gertrude’s Apple Cake that is cooked with love and holds so many memories and Hassan’s Baklava that reminds Leila’s family of home. Sadly, Leila’s story is a universal and timeless one. The plight of refugees is rarely out of the news and Rohmann draws parallels between Gertrude’s experience during the Second World War, over 70 years before, and the current refugee conflict in Syria, demonstrating that their experiences are not so very different.
The publisher and translator’s decision to keep a sprinkling of German and Arabic words is appropriate especially as it allows children to really engage with the story and learn about new cultures and Franziska Harvey’s black-and-white illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the story.