Salma the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan & Anna Bron (Illustrator)

Thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this book. It was released March 10, 2020, by Annick Press Ltd.

We first meet Salma staring out her window at the rain as she tries to pronounce ‘Vancouver.’ Her entertaining struggles to get the word correct reflect the authentic challenges faced by new immigrants, refugees, and all of us trying to learn a new language. (You don't want to hear me butcher Korean.)

Salma and her mother live in an apartment in a Welcome Center in Vancouver, Canada. Life is hard, especially for Mama. Not only does she have to look after Salma, she is trying to find work and learn English. Both of them miss Papa back in Syria. Mama hardly laughs anymore, so Salma tries to cheer her up, but no matter what she does, ‘all she gets is Mama’s sad smile, full of love but empty of joy.”

At the Welcome Center daycare, Salma “draws her home back in Damascus: a yellow house with a garden surrounding it like a necklace.” While drawing she comes up with an idea for how to cheer her mother up.

If you have ever been out of the country for a while, you will know what it is to miss the flavours of home. Everyone at the center, adults and children alike, miss special food from their own cultures. For Salma, it is ‘foul shami.’ With the help of adults, she gets a recipe from the internet, goes shopping for ingredients, and proceeds to prepare her mother’s favourite dish. When it is nearly done she realizes she is missing sumac, the final ingredient. Thankfully another adult, Granny Donya, comes to the rescue. Unfortunately, there are more near disasters before it all comes together.

When presented with the final dish, Salma’s mother reminds her, and us, that home is much more than food or place, it’s about being with people you love.

Salma the Syrian Chef is a story about being forced to leave a land you love. It's about what we miss when we are away from our roots, and reminds us to be thankful for the diverse, multicultural communities we live in now.

Both the author and illustrator live here in Vancouver. A sense of place is integral to the book. It is a delight to see this city I call home presented, yet at the same time, I am conscious of Salma and others, aching for their far away places they call home. Anna Bron's vibrant art pulls all of this together. Just as Salma's Syrian culture frames her experiences in her new country, Anna Bron's Syrian style borders frame the illustrations and words in this book. They are stunning. In some places the text and illustrations are separated by additional borders. While admiring them, my fingers itched to get hold of some fabric and start making a quilt.

Look at this two page spread to see what I mean!

I wish I could tell you how Anna Bron creates her art but my ARC doesn't provide any details and I couldn't find anything in my internet search. However,  I encourage you to go check out her website to see more of her work. I hope you can carve out time to watch her animated short films. Just Wow!

Danny Ramadan's gorgeous writing is full of swoonworthy lines. Salma is a character you won't forget for a long time. If you are looking for mentor text that highlights metaphor, look no further than this: "Salma's heart aches like a tiny fire in her chest when she thinks of Papa. She wonders if Mama's heart is burning too."  After reading this, I plan to track down a copy of Danny Ramadan's first novel, The Clothesline Swing. It won all kinds of awards. I can hardly wait to get started.

I have two minor quibbles with this book. First, the text is smallish for a picture book, but that might be just because I am basing this on a digital ARC. Second, there is no recipe for foul shami in it and I can't find one online! If you are like me, you will want to make it as soon as you finish reading.

(Danny Ramadan sent me this recipe on twitter

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