In 'The Sour Cherry Tree,' a child keeps memories of her late grandfather close
The Sour Cherry Tree is a story about a little girl the day after her grandfather died. She's walking through his house, trying on his slippers, searching his pockets for mints, remembering his favorite tea and the fig cookies they used to share — finding comfort in her memories of her grandfather.
"She's sort of cherishing each moment," says author Naseem Hrab, who based The Sour Cherry Tree on memories of her own grandparents.
"My grandfather would always give me Fig Newtons, which I did not like at all," Hrab says. "But I always took one because we didn't share a language."
Her maternal grandparents are from Iran and speak Farsi, and her paternal grandparents are from Ukraine and speak Ukrainian. Hrab never learned either language.
"So we had to find other ways to share our love with one other, which was usually food, or a glance, or touch," she says. "What the little girl loves the most about her grandfather is how he found so many other ways to express his love to her. So it didn't matter that they didn't share a language; she knew that she was loved."
The Sour Cherry Tree is sprinkled throughout with Farsi; the little girl in the story, like Hrab, calls her grandfather Baba Joon or Baba Bozorg, meaning "big father," or "grandfather."
"I shuffle into the living room and slip behind the curtains," Hrab writes in the book. "This was Baba Bozorg's favorite hiding spot. I could always see his slippers peeking out, but I pretended that I couldn't. When I finally found him, he would say, 'Many good!' I liked the way he said words."
Hrab says this, too, was a way of honoring her grandparents.
"My grandmother, my Maman Bozorg, would always say 'many good,' which I always loved. Everything was 'many good! many good!" says Hrab. "So I was really excited to make a little tribute to her as well in the story."
The Sour Cherry Tree was illustrated by Nahid Kazemi, who says she loved all the cultural references in the book — including the sour cherry tree of the title.
"In the story, the grandpa actually plants a sour cherry tree in his yard," she says. "Sour cherry is a beloved fruit for most Iranians. ... it was really sweet to work on a story related to my culture."
Many of the authors and illustrators we feature in this series don't talk with each other before working on their books. But after reading the manuscript, Kazemi knew the book was based on Hrab's childhood, and wanted to talk to the author before doing any of the illustrations. "It helped to find the deeper layer of the story," says Kazemi.
Hrab sent childhood photos (Kazemi says she based the little girl on a young Naseem Hrab) and even a page from her grandfather's journal, which Kazemi replicated for the book.
"Most of the colors unconsciously came to the work," Kazemi says. "I was creating the delicate universe of a girl. The other reference for the color, for my palate, was — it was a Persian home. The colors like turquoise blue, like deep yellows, like different kinds of blue." And Persian carpets in the rooms, because "the first thing that an immigrant Persian folds and puts in their suitcase is a piece of carpet," says Kazemi.
The little girl wears a tangerine dress, vivid against the charcoal background; the walls of the house are blush pink; the Persian rugs are soft oranges and blues. And the sour cherry tree the grandfather planted outside his house is the brightest magenta.
"There is a source of light on every page," says Hrab. "Whether it's a lamp, or a window, or the sunlight, there's so much light. So, even though it's such a somber topic, there's humor in the book, and there's lightness in the book."
The end of the year is often a time for reflection on hopes and dreams for the future. But it can also be lonely and sad — especially when our thoughts turn to loved ones who are no longer with us. And talking about a subject like death can be hard, especially for kids, but illustrator Nahid Kazemi and author Naseem Hrab says this story is really about finding solace in what our loved ones leave behind.
"It's really interesting to tackle what adults perceive as difficult topics, because I think children tend to often handle things a bit more matter-of-factly," says Hrab. The little girl in the story is sad about her grandfather, of course, but she also doesn't quite realize that it's real yet. At one point she wanders downstairs and wonders what's for lunch."
"I'm treating like a way to ease someone into the subject matter, but also maybe quickly remind them that the most important thing one can do when one loses a loved one is remember them," says Hrab.
"Collect all these memories of them," she says. "And find a way to ensure that that collection of memories and moments doesn't get lost."
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