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Mop-mop-swoosh-plop it's rug-washing day in 'Bábo'

Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan

A whole book about a bunch of kids washing rugs with their grandmother? Author Astrid Kamalyan says she'd understand if you heard that pitch and thought, "Huh?"

But — of course — it is so much more than that.

"It's actually a book about Armenian joy and the beauty of Armenian family," says Kamalyan. "It has so much of what made our childhoods so happy."

In Bábo: A Tale of Armenian Rug-Washing Day, a little girl named Tato steals some cherry plums before grabbing a brush. She joins friends and siblings outside, where they soak, soap, and wash the rugs.

"We scrub. Brushes bop-bop-bop," Kamalyan writes. "Until our hands are warm. Until our knees and toes tingle a little. Until it's time to clear the foam. Time to slide!"

"I think it's the most favorite activity in Armenia," says Anait Semirdzhyan, who illustrated Bábo. Both Kamalyan and Semirdzhyan are from Armenia — they moved to the United States within three years of each other — and they both grew up washing rugs with their grandmothers.

Semirdzhyan says her grandmother would usually set it all up, and then leave her and her cousins to it. "And then she would come back and check if everything is done properly," she says.

"There is no formal rules or ways," Kamalyan explains. "You kind of just do it and have fun with it."

"Swoosh. We glide. Swoosh. Droplets splash," she writes. "We twirl. Bubbles pop-pop-pop."

<em>Bábo</em>
/ Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan
/
Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan
Bábo

Kamalyan wrote Bábo in 2020, right before conflict broke out in Armenia. She says it was important to have her book illustrated by someone who shared her background. She recommended Semirdzhyan, whose work she had long admired.

Semirdzhyan was thrilled when she got the manuscript. "I never, ever expected that I will illustrate a book about my childhood," she says. Plus, here was a story she could draw from memory — she didn't need to research what the buildings or streets would look like, or what Armenian kids would wear. Kamalyan says she recognized so much of her own childhood in the illustrations, it was almost like they had communicated telepathically.

That balcony that Semirdzhyan based on her grandma's house? "The balcony looks so much like my mom's balcony," says Kamalyan.

The gata — an Armenian pastry — on the table at the end of the story, when all the kids sit down for a treat? Kamalyan hadn't even told Semirdzhyan about her grandma's favorite gata recipe.

Even Semirdzhyan's rendition of a chicken coop rang familiar to Kamalyan's dad, who grew up in an Armenian village. "Apparently, what you have there is the classical — the right — way of doing a chicken coop," Kamalyan says.

One thing both author and illustrator had to research in order to make this story ring true? The rugs.

"Because we never pay attention to what colors and patterns are used on the rugs," says Semirdzhyan.

So Astrid Kamalyan met with a carpet weaving expert — and learned about pattern sizes and color combinations. One of the rugs in her story has a dragon motif — it's red, white, and blue — a red curve weaves up and down and forms an S-shape. "If it were green, brown, and purple you would know something is a little off," Kamalyan says she knows now, after looking at thousands of carpets.

/ Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan
/
Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan

Another assist came from her grandmother — who caught one crucial omittance: in an early version of the story that Kamalyan was relaying, Tato and Bábo forgot to wash both sides of the rug.

"I felt like a five year-old girl again," says Kamalyan. "You know, when parents say, 'Don't forget to wash behind your ears.'" So she added it to the book.

"'Areg, help me turn this one over?' Sevan asks. The pale mysterious backs of the carpets are like behind our ears. We must wash them, too."

Anait Semirdzhyan illustrated Bábo digitally — she said the hardest part was that most of the action in this story centers around a single activity that takes place primarily in a single location. How to keep it from becoming boring?

"I realized, oh God, this is so difficult to illustrate," Kamalyan says. "How do you show all the beauty?"

Semirdzhyan used perspective and angles. Some scenes zoom in on Tato's feet, as she walks down stone steps to meet her grandmother. Other illustrations zoom out on a scene of the whole neighborhood chasing escaped chickens. There's a bird's eye view of the carpets as the kids roll them up — "Figures and patterns all shine bright — dragons, eagles, diamonds and crosses, leaves and flowers in wondrous weaves."

After the rugs are clean, the kids roll them up and lay them on a bench. Once the water drips off, they'll open them up to dry. Meanwhile, everyone hurries off for treats — gata, fruit, apricot pie, walnut preserves.

"What you see on the table is what I usually would eat at my grandma's house," says Semirdzhyan.

/ Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan
/
Illustrations © 2023 by Anait Semirdzhyan

Even though Kamalyan has very faithfully and accurately described the process of rug-washing, she does have one word of caution for readers: Do not try this at home!

"If you have heirloom carpets, have them professionally cleaned," Astrid Kamalyan says. "You have to be careful with the dyes and everything. You can spoil the rug."

But if you choose to ignore this advice, at least listen to Anait Semirdzhyan.

"When the rug is soaped, it's very slippery," she cautions. "So be careful running on that rug."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.