“Ahead of World Refugee Day, a book for middle schoolers, Apple Cake and Baklava, by Kathrin Rohmann, translated from the German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, is just out. It’s a lovely story about Max, a boy in a village in Germany, and Leila, a recently arrived refugee from Syria. She has fled her country with her mother and two brothers, leaving behind her father, a baker, and his mother; Leila’s beloved grandmother behind. The book alternates chapters between Max’s story and Leila’s, allowing young readers to follow what’s going in the minds of both children. Rohmann deftly sets up the tenets for a budding friendship by giving Max and Leila particularly close relationships with their grandmothers. Their friendship is cemented when Leila loses a treasured walnut she has brought with her from a tree in her grandmother’s garden, and Max offers to help her find it. Loss, friendship, and the acceptance that a new life is possible, are at the heart of the book, peppered with stories of baking—always a reassuring subject—whether it’s apple cake, gingerbread or baklava, and even a few recipes at the end of the book.”
“Loss and longing, exile and grief, and the need to belong somewhere underpin this heartfelt, thoughtful refugee tale. Apple Cake and Baklava is a deeply-affecting and touching debut children’s book for older primary and younger middle-school children. Franziska Harvey’s gorgeous black-and-white illustrations give added depth to the story.”
“This is a powerful and moving book dealing with asylum, how it feels to be a refugee in a strange country and building new friendships. With an excellent flowing translation from Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, this gentle story cleverly expresses emotion through food – Grandma Gertrude’s Apple Cake that is cooked with love and holds so many memories and Hassan’s Baklava that reminds Leila’s family of home.”
Outside in World
“In Apple Cake and Baklava we meet Leila, a new girl in Max’s class in rural Germany. They soon become friends, bonding over sweet treats and an understanding that Max develops about how his family’s experience during the Second World War is not so different in some ways to that of Leila and her family 70 odd years later.
I was particularly struck by the way Rohmann contextualised the current movement of people away from their homes under duress by reflecting it against another, historical flight of people. I also really enjoyed the representation of older people – in this case Grandparents – in her novel, finely translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Her decision to keep a sprinkling of German and Arabic words in her free-flowing, easy-to-enjoy text seems entirely appropriate in a book about approaching and learning about new cultures.”
Zoe Toft, and 13-year-old co-reviewer, at Playing by the Book
“Apple Cake and Baklava sensitively depicts the heartache of a youngster desperately missing her beloved grandmother and her home. It gives equal space to Leila and Max, with alternating chapters telling the story from their contrasting viewpoints. Thus we see Max, too, struggling with the difficulty of making friends with someone very different from himself. Despite the tragic background of the war in Syria, the story is ultimately optimistic; the walnut is planted in German soil, and Leila begins to feel that it may be possible to put down roots.
This beautifully written book, in a pitch-perfect translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, will appeal to children between about eight and twelve. The narrative is complemented by Franziska Harvey’s evocative black-and-white illustrations. There is no doubt that this book deserves to be in primary schools throughout the UK and, indeed, the rest of Europe. It could hardly be more timely, or more urgent.”
Fiona Graham, European Literature Network
“We read it shortly after Son2’s school had learnt about the refugee crisis as part of Norfolk Welcomes and the story works really well as an opening to talk about some difficult issues and emotions. It deals with friendship, loneliness and homesickness and touches lightly on people-smuggling, war and the dangers faced by refugees.
Ruth’s translation leaves some traces of German and Arabic, which helps to remind young readers of the setting in a different country, and of the difficulties in learning a new language – we see that Leila is much better at this than Max.
The recipes at the end are a nice touch too!”
Rachel Ward, and son, at Discount Ticket to Everywhere
Me on Apple Cake and Baklava:
“This is a story told from two perspectives: Leila and Max. Leila has recently fled the war in Syria with her mum and brothers. When she loses a precious memento of home – a walnut from her Grandmother’s garden – Max helps her to look for it and the two become firm friends in the process. The title reflects the Syrian and German perspectives, but the theme of food is significant because it comes to symbolise home: recipes remind characters of the places they had to flee and embody memories of their loved ones; sharing food (baklava, ma’moul date pastries, apple cake, Lebkuchen honey spice biscuits…) is what brings people together. Baking baklava for the Christmas Fair also helps Leila’s brothers to settle in at their new school.
What I love about the book is how the children deal with the half truths the grown-ups tell them. Both Leila and Max worry about what they overhear, especially when they think they’re not supposed to know. Max overhears his Granny Gertrud telling Leila the story about her Lebkuchen recipe, which was a parting gift when she too was a refugee during World War II. Because Max’s family never talked about this before, this revelation that his German Granny was also once a refugee is as baffling to him as it is reassuring to Leila.”
Federation of Children’s Book Groups blog for ‘Share a Story month’, May 2018