Through the looking-glass of Syrian author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan

The acclaimed artist has spoken of the life-changing moment she found herself in a story, and the hope that processing her nostalgia can help all children do the same

The author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan has become a champion of inclusive representation, determined that no child, regardless of ethnicity, sex, background or religion, will be left behind. Photo: Nadine Kaadan
Powered by automated translation

School days for a room full of Year 1 pupils inside the modernist architecture of Dartford Bridge Community Primary are usually ushered in with Ms Connelly’s warm salutation of “Good morning, Kaadan Class”.

The 5- and 6-year-olds sing-song a response to their teacher in what is still a mind-boggling occurrence for the award-winning Syrian children’s author and illustrator after whom the cohort is named.

“It is unbelievable, crazy,” she tells The National. “I almost cried when I saw Nadine Kaadan Class. It’s a brilliant school. They celebrate diversity beautifully.”

Each year, the primary school renames its classes after the great and good within a particular theme – say, science, sport or all genres of writing as in 2021/22 – to reflect the shifting ethnicities of pupils and staff.

One of the latter is Syrian, which is how Kaadan came to have the “very, very humbling” experience of walking past doors dedicated to Shakespeare, the diarist Anne Frank, author Roald Dahl and the comic book creator Stan Lee, as well as writers and poets including Rabindranath Tagore, Atinuke, Karl Nova and Humza Arshad.

Kaadan Class was equally thrilled by her visit last year, not least because theirs was the only namesake who could give a reading at the school in Kent, south-east of London.

“The pupils had studied all my work before I came and they were excited,” she says. “They knew about my books and stories, and, for me, the best part is always when they ask questions.

“They want to know everything, from what’s my favourite colour [blue] and children’s book [Le Petit Nicolas et les Copains, by Jean-Jacques Sempe and Rene Goscinny] to how I write my stories [drawings first, narrative second].

“If I can connect with even one child only, to develop his or her passion for illustrating and writing, then I feel like I’ve done my job here, which is just pushing talent to go to the max and seeing what will come of it.”

The choice of Kaadan, 37, is particularly apt. She has become a celebrated champion of inclusive representation, determined that all children are able to see themselves in a story.

“When I started, 3 per cent of children’s books featured a character of colour or ethnic minority, and now we’ve reached 12 per cent,” she says. “That’s in 10 years, so it’s changing, but very slowly.”

And not all publishers get it right, Kaadan points out, citing that some opportunistically tick the diversity box or entrench negative stereotypes.

“I’m just so tired of how every single one of these characters is the one who needs help,” she says. “I want to write a book about a Syrian, who maybe arrived in the UK because of the war, but who is not struggling. I’ve met so many of those kids: popular, learning English quickly, happy.”

Within the pages of her books, Kaadan preserves memories of the “magical” country she grew up in – the folk stories, architecture, fountains, the sky on summer nights, the unusual orange of the sunlight. “Damascus is a fairy tale in itself,” she says.

But it doesn’t begin and end with Syria. No child, if Kaadan has her way, will be left behind, regardless of sex, ethnicity, background or religion.

She has just finished an activity book as a companion to Kind, created by Alison Green and the renowned illustrator Axel Scheffler in 2019 to support the charity work of Three Peas in the migrant camps of Greece.

“Just me being in the same book as a much-loved British personality like Axel Scheffler feels like an acknowledgement of my work,” Kaadan says. “He’s doing the cover, though, but I’m not going to complain about that!”

Her 10 illustrations feature “bits and pieces” of Middle Eastern culture, such as a Damascene tile decoration and a girl in a traditional Palestinian dress, to imbue a feeling of being part of the mainstream rather than niche.

As Kaadan is speaking by Zoom from her home in London, she imperils the latest painting by knocking over a bottle of water on the desk. There is an alarmed “eek”, a dismayed “ah”, and she disappears from view.

She returns all smiles, relieved that none was damaged given the tight deadline imposed, more by the impending due date of her second child – not yet born when we spoke but who arrived last month – than by the publisher.

That she undertook a commission at such a time is testimony to her enthusiasm for the project but also the opportunity the popularity of such a book might afford.

She knows first-hand the importance of the task she has set. Not long after Kaadan was born in Paris in 1985, her father, Ghassan, a surgeon, and mother, Awatef, a teacher of French literature, moved the family back to Damascus.

Like her older siblings, Soudade, Amira and Wael, Nadine always ate at the dining table with an open book, usually after an anxious, last-second “which one, which one, which one?”.

Children’s books in Arabic were rare, so she often let the pictures tell the stories in what would later become her modus operandi as an illustrator and author.

Their scarcity gave rise to what she calls “an inferiority complex”, compelling Kaadan to westernise her own name when playing superheroes or princesses, and those of the characters in the magazine she began to make aged 10.

The publication came about after Awatef prevailed over the protestations of a shopkeeper to buy an expensive paint set designed for professional artists with an emphatic, “Well, that’s what she’ll be one day.”

Such was her belief that two years on she took her daughter to join the far older students at the Fine Arts University of Damascus, from where Kaadan would later complete a graduate degree followed by two master’s at Kingston School of Art and Goldsmiths College.

Emboldened, the young Nadine soon began writing and illustrating stories that she distributed to fellow pupils until a disapproving headteacher stepped in.

At around this time, Awatef noticed her fondness for Al Moghameron Al Khamsa (The Five Adventurers), a series by Egyptian author Mahmoud Salem, and snapped up all 16 titles available in the local bookshop. Kaadan still remembers the excitement of lying in her bedroom binge-reading one after the other.

But it wasn’t until encountering the Syrian novelist Ulfat Idilbi that she could at last, in her teens, connect with a writer. “I found myself in a story and realised how therapeutic it is, and how the best way to find your identity and yourself is through reading stories that speak to you personally. It was life-changing.”

When Kaadan was 21, her first book was printed in Jordan, and she has since worked with publishing houses in Syria, the UAE, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, America and Britain.

While on an author visit to the Damascus Community School, a member of the board approached her as she signed books to discuss purchasing some for a charitable cause.

“Of course, that wasn’t the case,” she says, drily. “He’s still saying, ‘but I did want to buy your books for charity’ even now after more than 10 years of marriage. I’m still waiting!”

Throughout our conversation, Kaadan laughs easily and often, especially when asked to explain a recent Tweet about the giant puppetry spectacle last year when 8,000 people thronged the streets of Oxford for Amal Meets Alice.

Overwhelmed by the response to the story written both in tribute to Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass and to help highlight the plight of unaccompanied refugee children, she posted a thank-you thread: “Finally, my very naughty husband – I wouldn’t have done any of this without you. Love you, habibi.”

Her husband, Karim, has a penchant for “adding spices” to family life, Kaadan says, as she recounts an incident during a childbirth education class in which the instructor asked what the expectant parents would most like to foster in their offspring.

“Everyone was saying they want to teach them to be kind or happy or to play tennis or whatever, and my husband said: ‘I want to teach him how to be very naughty and get away with it’. And it is happening – I have two naughty boys now.”

The couple married in Damascus but fled for London in 2011, leaving behind Awatef and Ghassan, who felt a responsibility as one of the country’s few doctors to stay.

Back then, Kaadan thought it would be “a little conflict”. Her book Tomorrow, written in Arabic in 2012 and later published in English, does not once mention the word “war” despite being about a boy called Yazan who can’t go to the park because of the constant explosions.

“We were in denial and thought it would end in a year’s time,” she says. “We were proven wrong.”

It marked a drastic change in Kaadan’s illustrations, from a surreal, dreamy pastel-coloured style to a more realist approach. She now feels that they are a mix of both.

“There is more maturity,” she says. “I’m not afraid to use very, very dark colours and experience proved to me that children need that.”

Feeling that need acutely during a visit to family in Lebanon, Kaadan bought a box of cookies and went to “knock on the door” of the Shatila refugee camp to ask if she might read to the Syrians there.

Subsequent stints volunteering with NGOs such as Turquoise Mountain and the Mercy Corps were more structured, and she consulted child psychologists to overcome her fear of unintentionally compounding trauma.

“It was very beautiful and very sad at the same time,” she says. “It gives you first-hand experience about what war does to children, but also what stories do to children; that a simple story can help, and can empower.

“They have an unbelievable capacity to give children or adults a way to process their feelings, to feel better about their situation, and to get over it.

“It happened to me when I was 16, when I started to read stories about myself, and it’s doing it now to Syrian refugees and to every child feeling lonely in the pandemic lockdowns.”

The sustained efforts on inclusivity and helping young people earned Kaadan a place on the BBC 100 Women 2020 list of those leading change around the world.

“Sometimes you do need to remind people about the importance of children’s books, what they do for a generation,” she says. “I think the BBC nomination did that … Yes, a children’s book author can be on the same list as a scientist, a great politician, a famous activist.

“I loved being part of that. Feminism and the empowerment of women is something I’m passionate about.”

There was never any doubt that Kaadan would become a working mother, she says; it felt entirely normal because of the examples set by her mother and her grandmother, a radio journalist.

It is, though, a whole different world being a children’s author with a child. Three-year-old Mahran favours stories about firefighters, monsters or those in Young, Gifted and Black about the likes of Nelson Mandela.

“People keep telling you to find the child’s voice in your story. Now it’s easier for me because I can see my son, and his personality and how he interacts with things.

“You’d be surprised what your child wants to read. You’d think that they would only like picture books or that something is too big or too young for them. It’s not for us to decide. Let them choose, let them explore.”

That is not quite how things went with the selection of Mahran’s outfit last time for World Book Day. He set off for nursery as Haroun, the cat from The Jasmine Sneeze, a little bit upset – and not because the tale was inspired by a wildly blooming vine forewarning of the death of his great-great-grandmother.

Mahran just didn’t want to wear it. “He was not happy,” she says. “I have a picture of him crying. I felt really bad ... he’s very opinionated about what he wants.”

That will is evident during their almost daily visits to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington, the centrepiece of which – a Peter Pan-eque wooden ship surrounded by teepees on a beach – stimulates hours of Pirates versus Crocodiles play.

“He’s such a little dictator,” Kaadan laments, revealing that she is regularly cast as the baddie.

Long may this continue if the small but resolute captain of the brig is in any way displeased with this year’s World Book Day costume.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:18 AM