Please welcome my guest blogger, author Elsa Marston who has a wonderful book list for children about the Arab World including picture books, advanced picture books, chapter books, a graphic novel and young adult books.
How can we Americans hope ever to understand the Middle East? Not very easily, I’m afraid, it’s complicated. But we can gain appreciation of the PEOPLE of the Middle East from the books that have been published in just the last twenty years. I mean books written for young people, which don’t have an axe to grind (almost literally), an enemy to attack, a case to make or deflate, or an ideology to push—as do so many books published for adult readers. Good books for youth tell a story that engages not only the intellect but the heart. They introduce us to “real people” whom we can care about, even if they come from life situations very different from ours. If the story is well written, we can identify with those fictional people and want to know more about them: why they believe as they do, what they love and what they fear, how their lives as children shape the lives they may lead as adults.
What I’m focused on here is literature about the Arab world: the states and societies of the Middle East and North Africa populated mainly by people sharing a common language, Arabic, and to a certain extent a common culture. Literature for young people about the modern Arab world has had a strange history. In the decades prior to the sudden “discovery” of multicultural books in the early 1990s, books that gave a positive picture of Arab peoples could be counted on two hands, with fingers to spare. There appears to have been a definite reluctance to publish books that presented contemporary Arabs in a sympathetic light. The main reasons were political, but cultural attitudes were involved as well. “Who would want to read a book about Arabs?” a children’s librarian once said to me at a conference. “I certainly wouldn’t.”
The authors and publishers of such books as The Day of Ahmed’s Secret (Florence Parry Heide and Judith Hide Gilliland 1990); Sitti’s Secrets (Naomi Shihab Nye 1994); Magid Fasts for Ramadan (Mary Matthews 1996); and A Hand Full of Stars (Rafik Schami 1990) were pioneers. The success of those books—along with gradually changing political and social attitudes—opened a door that had been quite firmly shut. Today the range of subject matter and the breaking of long-held taboos has resulted in an ever-growing list of good books about life in the modern Arab world, including increasing numbers of Arab writers.
Here’s a list of books about the Arab world and Arab-Americans that would be fine choices not only for libraries and classrooms, but for homes. They are all realistic stories, about people in present-day Arab societies: no folk- or fairytales, Arabian Nights stories, classical texts, or cute camels. Those all have value, to be sure; and the “exotic orient” certainly inspires beautiful illustrations; but they don’t tell us about life today—and that’s what is most needed, in my opinion. I’ve chosen books about specific Arab countries, because each country has its own character. (In contrast, some fine books about Muslims in the U.S. don’t mention a country of the family’s origin. This makes sense on one level but also may give the impression that “all Muslims are the same”—something like saying “you’ve seen one European, you’ve seen ‘em all.”) Read on—
Picture Books that Teach Kids About the Arab World
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter
In 2003, a determined woman and her neighbors manage to save many of the books of the public library just before fighting reaches the town of Basra. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford
While fighting rages in the city outside, a boy finds emotional escape by practicing calligraphy—as did a famous calligrapher in medieval Iraq. [picture book ages 4 and up]
Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland
During the seemingly endless civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990), children in Beirut stage their own demonstration against war. This book and Day of Ahmed’s Secret are illustrated beautifully and with unusual attention to authentic detail (with a few inaccuracies) by Ted Lewin. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky by Claire Sidhom Matze
A young Egyptian-American boy feels a connection with Egypt from his grandfather’s visit. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Mirror by Jeannie Baker
No text but exquisite collage illustrations tell two stories set half a world apart—Morocco and Australia—which finally intersect. [Wordless picture book, ages 5 and up]
Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah Da Costa
In Jerusalem, an Israeli boy and a Palestinian boy discover that they’ve both been feeding the same stray cat. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Silence in the Mountains by Liz Rosenberg
Escaping the war in Lebanon but taking beautiful memories with them, a family settles in the western U.S. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Butter Man by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou
Based on a true story about a time of famine in a Moroccan village, narrated in a modern setting (while Papa is cooking dinner!). [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi
By the light of the full moon, a family in a Gulf State celebrates Ramadan with distinctive customs. [picture book, ages 7 and up]
The Boy and the Wall by Amal Bishara
A young boy and his mom imagine ways they can make life better, even behind walls; illustrated by children in a Palestinian refugee camp. Available here but currently out of stock. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Chapter Books and Young Adult That Teach Kids About the Muslim World
Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird
During the civil conflict in Lebanon, a young girl braves wartorn Beirut to try to bring help for her sick grandmother. [chapter book, ages 7 and up]
Magid Feasts for Ramadan by Mary Matthews
In this Ramadan story with a real plot, an Egyptian boy secretly tries to observe religious fasting despite his parents’ orders. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
The Secret Grove by Barbara Cohen
Two young boys, Israeli and Palestinian, meet by chance and enjoy a brief friendship; an unusual and poignant book for its recognition that both sides distort the truth about the other. [chapter book, ages 8 and up]
A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird
Living under Israeli-imposed curfew during a time of violent conflict, a Palestinian boy wants to find a place to play soccer. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
The White Zone by Carolyn Marsden
The friendship of two boys in Baghdad, one Sunni Muslim and the other Shia, is nearly destroyed by sectarian conflict in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. [chapter book, ages 9 and up]
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter
A young Palestinian teen and her family find their rural way of life threatened when an Israeli settlement is built overlooking their home. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
A Stone in My Hand by Cathryn Clinton
A young Palestinian girl in Gaza faces the loss of her beloved father and her brother’s slide into violent resistance. [chapter book, ages 10 and up]
A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached
Though the children in this graphic novel are quite young, this subtle story about civilians during the fighting in Beirut, Lebanon, is a book for all ages. [middle grade graphic novel, ages 10 and up]
Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat
This memoir, mainly about a family forced to leave their home in the war of 1967, also reveals the author’s earliest beginnings as a writer. [YA memoir, ages 11 and up]
Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World by Elsa Marston
Eight stories set in Arab societies from Tunisia to Iraq, about universal “growing up” concerns that young Americans can relate to. [chapter book, ages 11 and up]
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
A teenager from Texas visits her father’s natal village in Palestine, delighting in new family and experiences but also witnessing the effects of harsh military occupation by Israel. [YA, ages 12 and up]
Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah
With a great “teen voice,” a Lebanese-Australian girl—who secretly plays in a band—chafes against the restrictions imposed by her conservative father. [YA, ages 12 and up]
A Hand Full of Stars by Rafik Schami
A boy in Damascus, as Syria is falling under dictatorial control (1960s), observes the importance of courageous journalism. [YA, ages 12 and up]
I Want to Get Married by Ghada Abdel Aal
Based on an actual blog very popular in Cairo, a young Egyptian professional woman recounts with wit and gusto her frustrating search for Mr. Right. [YA, ages 12 and up]
Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi
A Palestinian boy in an Israeli hospital gradually finds ways to relate to the Jewish kids in his ward. [YA, ages 12 and up]
Searching for the Eid Moon by Thuraya Ali
A picture book celebrating Ramadan and Eid for all the Muslim boys and girls living in the US and worldwide for Eid.
This is a selective list, chosen not just for quality but for some variety. There are many more fine books, and it pays to find them! Here’s some help in your search: I keep a comprehensive list, as up-to-date as possible, of recommended books for young readers about the contemporary Arab world (mostly fiction)—and would be glad to send it by email to anyone who contacts me. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Of course there’s always need for more good books about this part of the world, and even more so about Arab-Americans; but no longer can the complaint be made that there are no books that give a fair and accurate picture of people of the Arab world. In my view, multicultural children’s literature has a record decidedly superior to other forms of media representation of the Arab world, and that’s something to be glad about.
Elsa Marston is a New Englander who lives in southern Indiana (Bloomington) and writes about the Middle East—where she has close contacts through her late husband’s family in Lebanon, and many sojourns in Egypt, Tunisia, and Palestine. Among her most recent books are The Compassionate Warrior: Abd el-Kader of Algeria, Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories …, The Ugly Goddess, and Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change. She’s a theatre-lover, occasional artist and political activist, erstwhile tennis-player, and cat-person. Her website is www.elsamarston.com, and email: email@example.com.
The Olive Tree is a new picture book being released in 2014 by Elsa Marston!
An old olive tree growing between two families is shattered in a storm, but serves a more profound purpose.
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p.s. Arab American Book Lists for Kids
This is my collection of the best picture books I’ve read so far about the Arab world.
In the wake of the conflicts in the Middle East, I thought it especially important for kids to learn about Islam and the people of the Middle East which might also teach them tolerance in the process. There is so much negative stereotyping during a war that can color a child’s perspective.
Deborah Ellis’s Parvana series shows a realistic view of what life is like in Afghanistan for girls today. It’s heartbreaking but also so important.
Chapter book The Pharoah’s Secret by Marissa Moss discovered in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Did I find Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s love there?!