Nasseem Hrab’s ‘The Sour Cherry Tree’ helps children cope with loss and grief : NPR

The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi
The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi

The sour cherry tree is a story about a little girl the day after her grandfather died. She walks through his house, adjusts his slippers, searches his pockets for mints, remembers his favorite tea and the fig biscuits they used to share – taking comfort in her memories of her grandfather.

“She cherishes every moment a little bit,” says author Naseem Hrab, who relied on The sour cherry tree on memories of her own grandparents.

“My grandfather would always feed me figs Newtons, which I didn’t 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 did not learn either language.

The sour cherry tree

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“So we had to find other ways to share our love, which was usually food, or a look, or touch,” she says. “What the little girl likes most about her grandfather is that he found so many other ways to express his love for her. So it didn’t matter that they didn’t share a language; she knew she was loved.”

The sour cherry tree is sprinkled all over with Farsi; the little girl in the story calls her grandfather, just like Hrab, Baba Joon, or Baba Bozorg, meaning “great father” or “grandfather.”

“I shuffle into the living room and crawl behind the curtains,” Hrab writes in the book. “This was Baba Bozorg’s favorite hiding place. I could always see his slippers peeking out, but I pretended I couldn’t. When I finally found him, he said, ‘Very good!’ I loved the way he said words.”

Hrab says this was also a way to honor her grandparents.

“My grandmother, my Maman Bozorg, used to say ‘much good’, which I have always loved. Everything was ‘much good! much good!’ says Hrab, “So I was really excited to put a little tribute to her in the story as well.”

The sour cherry tree was illustrated by Nahid Kazemi, who says she loved all of the cultural references in the book — including the sour cherry tree from the title.

“In the story, Grandpa actually plants a sour cherry tree in his yard,” she says. “Sour cherry is a beloved fruit for most Iranians. … it was very sweet to work on a story related to my culture.”

The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi
The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi

Many of the authors and illustrators we use in this series don’t talk to 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,” Kazemi says.

Hrab sent childhood photos (Kazemi says she based the little girl on a young Naseem Hrab) and even a page from her grandfather’s diary, which Kazemi replicated for the book.

“Most of the colors came to work unconsciously,” Kazemi says. “I created the delicate universe of a girl. The other reference for the color, for my palate, was – it was a Persian house. The colors like turquoise blue, like deep yellow, like different kinds of blue.” And Persian carpets in the rooms, because “the first thing an immigrant Persian folds up and puts in his suitcase is a piece of carpet,” Kazemi says.

The little girl is wearing a tangerine dress, vibrant against the charcoal background; the walls of the house are blush pink; the Persian carpets are soft orange and blue. And the sour cherry tree the grandfather planted in front of his house is the brightest magenta.

The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi
The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi

“There is a light source 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 subject, there’s humor in the book and there’s lightness in the book.”

The end of the year is often a time to reflect 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 topic like death can be difficult, especially for children, but illustrator Nahid Kazemi and author Naseem Hrab say this story is really about finding comfort in what our loved ones leave behind.

“It’s really interesting to tackle what adults see as difficult topics because I think kids tend to be a little more sober a lot of the time,” Hrab says. The little girl in the story is obviously sad about her grandfather, but she doesn’t quite realize it’s real either. At one point she wanders downstairs and wonders what’s for lunch.”

“I treat it as a way to help someone on the subject, but I may also be quick to remind them that the most important thing you can do when you lose a loved one is to remember them,” Hrab says.

“Collect all these memories of them,” she says. “And find a way to make sure that collection of memories and moments isn’t lost.”

The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi
The Sour Cherry Tree, written by Naseem Hrab and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi

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