Birmingham authors win nation’s highest honor in children’s illustration and literature

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Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, The Cat Man of Aleppo, books
Photo via Irene Latham

Local authors Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham have received the 2021 Caldecott Honor for their illustrated children’s book, The Cat Man of Aleppo. Find out why this book will give you all the feels and where you can purchase it locally in Birmingham.

What is the Caldecott Honor?

Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, The Cat Man of Aleppo, books
Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, authors of The Cat Man of Aleppo. Photo via Irene Latham

The Randolph Caldecott Honor, often shorted to the Caldecott, annually recognizes the most distinguished American picture book for children. It is awarded to the illustrator by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. 

“What a delight! The Caldecott is the most prestigious award for children’s illustrated books, so it’s humbling to find our book honored. I hope the recognition brings many more people to learn about Alaa, the Cat Man of Aleppo, and his efforts to help animals, people and his community.”

Irene Latham, Author, The Cat Man of Aleppo

The decision for who wins the Caldecott Honor is no simple task either. According to Gloria Repolesk, Head of the Children’s Department at the O’Neal Library and former selector of the Caldecott Award Committee, selectors read hundreds of books each year and volunteer their time to choose the books that most exemplify excellence in children’s literature and illustration.

“As a former selector for the Caldecott Award Committee, I have witnessed first-hand how this honor changes the careers of authors and illustrators. The Caldecott and Newberry Awards are equivalent to the Oscar Awards for children’s illustration and literature.”

Gloria Repolesk, Head of Children’s Department, O’Neal Library

About the Book

Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, The Cat Man of Aleppo, books
Photo via Irene Latham

The Cat Man of Aleppo is based on the courageous and true story of Syrian Ambulance Driver and Paramedic Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel. In the midst of the Syrian Civil War, which broke out in 2012, Alaa decided to help the abandoned cats of the city of Aleppo, Syria by offering them a safe haven.

The story of Alaa holds special meaning for Karim. In 1984, he immigrated to the United States from Damascus, Syria. When Irene approached him to help with the book, he was instantly sold on the idea.

“Here is a man, from my own country of Syria, who is saving cats during the war… how unusually sweet is that?”

Karim Shamsi-Basha, Author/Journalist, The Cat Man of Aleppo
The Cat Man of Aleppo
Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel with children at his orphanage in Aleppo, Syria. Photo via Photo via Karim Shamsi-Basha

It is unusually sweet. Heartwarming, in fact. Through The Cat Man of Aleppo, the story is brought to life. It’s a beautiful story with marvelous illustrations by New York City illustrator Yuko Shimizu.

“This is a story that really needs to be told. It’s very important to me for people in the West to see positive stories from my homeland. Most of what you hear about Muslims and Arabs here is negative. Shining a bright light on one positive story helps… I hope people realize that good things happen everywhere, that good people are everywhere.”

Karim Shamsi-Basha, Author + Freelance Journalist, The Cat Man of Aleppo

Today, Alaa still lives in Aleppo, Syria where he not only continues to save cats, but also orphans and refugee children.

Where to Purchase The Cat Man of Aleppo

Want your very own copy of The Cat Man of Aleppo? Good news—it can be purchased wherever books are sold. 

You can even score a first-edition copy signed by both authors at Alabama Booksmith in Homewood

One last thing before you go

Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, The Cat Man of Aleppo, books
Irene Latham’s cat, Maggie. Photo via Irene Latham

Considering how many cat lovers there are in Birmingham—me being one of them—I had to ask Karim and Irene if they are feline fans, too. It turns out, they are.

“I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t share it with a cat. Currently, my husband and I have a senior cat named Maggie, who rules the house.”

Irene Latham, Author, The Cat Man of Aleppo

Karim also said he loves cats, and used to have two. While he doesn’t currently have any, he says that could change at any time.

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