In Naseem Hrab’s picture book The Sour Cherry Tree, grief – an emotion profound in its universality – is depicted in the specific sadness of a young girl mourning the loss of her baba bozorg.
We meet the unnamed toddler as she confesses, “I bit my mom on the toe this morning.” On the accompanying spread, she appears wide-eyed with anticipation as she stands next to her sleeping mother, gingerly touching her hand, willing the “not too hard” bite to do the trick of waking her. It is what she wished someone had done for her beloved baba bozorg who “forgot to wake up.”
The trace of humour in this seemingly mischievous opening act is a signature of Hrab’s; delivering a dose of empathy that remains throughout the book. From that moment on, loss, grief, and love are experienced through the eyes of a child who favours chicken fingers dipped in plum sauce. The author’s epigrammatic style will no doubt resonate with a diverse readership.
As we travel with the young storyteller through the rituals she enjoyed with her grandfather, memory – how and what we remember of those we have loved and lost – takes centre stage. Jumping on his bed, rifling through his pockets for mints, putting on his slippers: she tries to recreate these activities now that he is gone, but she soon realizes that they are no longer the same.
Kazemi’s ethereal illustrations of chalky pastels and pencil etchings deepen these moments. A dusty rose, with the occasional highlight of bright red or deep orange, washes almost every page. This is an inspired choice that harkens back to the book’s title: the sour cherry, which features heavily in Persian cuisine, is an ode to this family’s culture, customs, and language. Through the voice of the protagonist, Hrab reminds us: all languages matter.
The Sour Cherry Tree lives on beyond the page. From the expanse of grief to a message of hope, it embodies what the young girl perhaps most loved about her grandfather: that he loved her.