When a country is at war, it’s easy to get a distorted view of the “enemy”. The media also plays a role in showing a certain point of view meant to stir the populace into support of their government backing the war effort. But this kind of distortion trickles down to oversimplifying things to a black and white point of view. That never does justice to the true situation and is a hurdle for our kids to overcome in order to get a more balanced worldview.
One way to demystify the Middle East as religious fanatics bent on destroying the free world is to let them see the many, many stories of the Arab people, both past, and present. This collection of picture books about the Arab nation attempts to gather up these stories so please help me out by suggesting you favorites! If we all teach our children that Muslim families are no different from ours, this might pave the way for a generation that can find a way to figure out world peace. Thank you!
p.s. I had a lot of trouble naming this post. Mary Katherine from Wisdom Tales Press helped with some insights on the Arab World (which I had named this post incorrectly previously). I hope this helps you too.
AN INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: The majority of Muslims are NOT Arabs. In fact, there are 1.57 Billion Muslims in the world and Arabs are only 20 %. Most Muslims live in Asia. In fact, Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country in the world with more than 200 million, followed by Pakistan with 174,082,000 Muslims and then 3rd is India with 160,945,000 Muslims. Fourth is Bangladesh with 145,312,000 Muslims. The Arab country with the largest Muslim population is fifth and it is Egypt with 78,513,000 Muslims.
I See the Sun in Afghanistan by Dedie King
In this gentle story told in Arabic and English, a young girl goes about her day fetching water, helping with the family chores and going to school. Today, her cousins are coming to live with them. They have lost their home because of the war. The war, in fact, has changed a lot of things. In the afternoon, the young girl watches the sheep so her little brother can go to school. When the cousins arrive, they all share a delicious meal of lamb stew and naan. Somehow, they will make their small house work for so many people. These are serious times but she feels safe and happy with her family.
Afghanistan is not part of the Arab world and the people who live there are not Arabs. They come from various ethnic groups and the main languages are Pashto and Dari. (They are both Iranian languages and Dari is often called Afghan Persian.)
[picture book, ages 5 and up]
Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam updated by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, illustrated by Chiara Fedele
In this folktale, two neighbors have a lot in common. They both grow and sell dates. They both pray. And they both fast. Fatima is Muslim, and Yaffa is Jewish. They are best friends. When there is a drought and their harvest is poor, unbeknownst to each other, they secretly gift dates to their friend. When each finds the bounty of dates on their front porch, their first thought is to gift more to their friend. And so it goes, until they run into each other with their load of dates. This book does a lovely job of showing the power of friendship as well as the similarities between Arabs and Jews. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin, illustrated by Barbara Kiwak
It isn’t easy being different at school. Bilal and his sister Ayesha are born in America and they have switched schools to a new school where there are not a lot of Muslim kids. Ayesha is bullied on her first day of school by two boys who make fun of her headscarf. Bilal is frozen, unable to come to his sister’s aid. This teacher is a family friend, and he gives Bilal a book about another Bilal was born in the time of Prophet Muhammed. This Bilal was also tormented by bullies who tried to get him to denounce his god but he would not. This new-found knowledge gives Bilal strength to stand up for his sister the next day when the bullies harass her at her locker. Bilal finds a way to connect with the bullies on the basketball court and it’s there he also meets an older boy who’s also Muslim. Now Bilal can call them both to prayer, just like the Bilal of olden times.
Muslim-American kids will surely be able to relate to this story and those who are not can develop empathy for what it is like being different by reading this book. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Never Say a Mean Word Again: A Tale from Medieval Spain by Jacqueline Jules
In Medieval Spain, the son of the Jewish Vizier, Samuel, accidentally bumps and spills on the Muslim tax collector’s son, Hamza, who is furious and insulting. Instead of punishing Hamza, the Vizier advises his son to make sure Hamza never says a mean word to him again. But how to accomplish this? Samuel thinks about punishments but decides none would work. Should he try to make him eat a lemon or write an apology? Instead, they end up playing and having fun. When his father asks if Samuel has kept his promise to make sure Hamza never says a mean word again, Samuel realizes he has kept his promise. They are friends now and it won’t ever happen again! [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston
Now that the Civil War in Lebanon is over, the neighbors can finally return to their house. Sameer hopes the family will have a boy for him to play within the great olive tree that spans both their yards. But when the family arrives, the little girl does not want to play with him and does not want to share the olives. It’s not until the tree is destroyed by lightning that they learn to get past their differences and work together. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
A young Muslim girl is on a school field trip. She’s new to the school, to this country and is learning English. At first, she feels out-of-place, like a small green apple on a tree. When it’s time to pick one apple to make into cider, she chooses that odd man out green apple. A student tried to correct her, but her teacher allows her to place her apple into the cider press. As the cider comes out, she realizes that although all the apples were different, when they were mixed up in the press, it came out as a delicious beverage. Soon, some classmates reach out to her with kind gestures. And for the first time, she feels like she belongs. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland
10-year-old Sami and his family down the basement when the guns and bombs break out in Beirut. On calm days, they can venture outside and Sami can go to school. His father was killed by a random bomb when he was at the market so even calm days make his mother nervous. The bombs go off too close to home, but when it stops, he is allowed to go outside. And miraculously, the people return to the life they had before the violence, if only for the briefest amount of time. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Lebanese Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulting in an estimated 120,000 fatalities. Today, approximately 76,000 people remain displaced within Lebanon. Wikipedia
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter
Alia Muhammad Baker is the librarian of Basra, Iraq, where all who love books come to gather and talk. But now in 2003, the talk is of war and bombings. Alia is worried that the books in her library might be destroyed by fires of war so she asks permission to move them but she is denied. Alia takes matters into her own hands and moves some of the precious books to safer quarters. As war approaches, she gets her neighbors to help save the books in a human brigade moving them over a seven-foot wall. It’s just in time too because nine days later, a fire burns the library to the ground. She has saved thirty thousand books! And until a new library can be built, they are safe … in her house stuffed to the gills with books and in the homes of her friends. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky by Claire Sidhom Matze
Alex, a young Egyptian-American boy is excited about his Geddoh’s (grandfather) visit. He brings gifts for everyone including a camel saddle! They cook together — stuffed grape leaves and konafa for dessert. Geddoh describes his homeland with plump date palms, his mosque and delicious food prepared in stone ovens. When the visit nears its end, Alex doesn’t want him to leave. Geddoh must return for he wants to be buried in his land but he shares a way for his grandson to stay close to him through the stars in the sky. A group of stars called Aquila, “eagle”, is a beacon to stay connected. And letters too, of course! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Mirror by Jeannie Baker
This wordless picture book tells two stories side by side. It’s actually two books attached to one book jacket. The book to the right is a story set in Morocco. The story to the left is about Australia in which a boy and his dad go about working on a home improvement project which includes a “magic carpet”. In the Moroccan story which is read back to front like a Japanese book, a weaver and her family set about to sell the beautiful rug she has completed and a lamb they have raised. Baker’s exquisite collage illustrations tell of similarities and connections. The two stories are designed to be read side by side as the reader discovers the surprise intersecting ending. This is a wonderful book for kids to discover that we are more similar than different! [wordless picture book, ages 4 and up]
Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah Da Costa
Jerusalem is today divided into four sections: the Jewish quarter, the Muslim (Arab) quarter, the Armenian quarter, and the Christian quarter. Referred to as the Center of the Universe, the Eternal City, it is also known as the City of Peace. In this picture book, Avi, a Jewish boy, and Hamundi, a Muslim boy, feed the same beautiful white cat in their sector of the city. But one day, the cat does not appear and both boys are worried. When she appears, Avi follows her to the Muslim quarter when he runs into Hamundi. As they fight over her, she runs off again into the Christian quarter and then into the Armenian section. To their surprise, they discover she has had kittens. Then, a true miracle happens. It begins to snow in Jerusalem … and the boys figure out a way to stop fighting over who will take the mama cat and her kittens. The miracle is also that Jerusalem can indeed be a city that inspires peace. [picture book, ages 5 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. Still the young boy misses his homeland and asks to return. The new truck doesn’t distract him, or the scrap wood, or even grandmother’s freshly baked cookies. His grandfather knows what to do. He takes his grandson to the deep into the woods where the silence over the mountains wasn’t quite the same as back home, but still good. Finally, the boy is at peace. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Butter Man by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou
While Nora waits for her father to prepare couscous for dinner, she tells him that she’s starving. He, of course, wants her to save her appetite for dinner so he tells her a story about his childhood when there was famine in Northern Morocco and not enough to eat. His family had to sell the cow which gave them milk and butter and his father had to leave them in search of work. His meager piece of hard bread wasn’t enough to fill his tummy so when he asked for butter, his mother told him to wait for the butter man (a merchant who walked through their area) to ask for a bit of butter. The butter man never came, but soon his father returned with flour, vegetables, and meat. The butter man never came but the drought ended, and eventually his family was able to buy a new cow that gave them butter.
This picture book tells the story of the Bergers or Imazighen, the native people of North Africa. The author’s note in the back has more information on life in a village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco was like, and continues to be like for some. [advanced picture book, ages 6 and up]
The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi
Noor lives in the Persian Gulf and she’s very excited because it’s Ramadan as soon as the moon rises. Her little brothers love the Girgian (candy) that they help their mother make. The musaher wakes up their neighborhood before dawn so that they make take their suhoor (pre-dawn) meal. It will sustain them until sundown when they can eat again. Ramadan is about many things besides candy; it is also spending time with family, praying at the mosque, and sharing with those less fortunate. But now that the evening meal is done, the children dress up for three “white nights” where they can go door to door and collect candy! [picture book, ages 4 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]
Time to Pray by Maha Addasi, translation by Nuha Albitar, illustrated by Ned Gannon Yasmin.
A young girl is visiting her grandmother in the Middle East and hears the meuzzin, the call to prayer. To be able to pray at the mosque, her grandmother takes her shopping to buy her fabric for a special prayer outfit and rug. Through her grandmother’s gentle tutelage, she learns about spirituality and what it means to be Muslim. When she returns home where there are no mosques, her grandmother has surprised her with a special prayer clock. This would be a great book to read if your child has questions about the Muslim faith. [advanced picture book, ages 7-10]
The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide
This is one of my favorite books and an important book to expose children to so that they can understand how other children live around the world. Ahmed is a young boy living in Cairo whose job is to deliver canisters of butane gas using his donkey cart. He has a special secret: today he has learned to write his name in Arabic. This is a good book for discussion that other children around the world don’t have the ability to go to school because they have to earn money for their family and how important an education is. [picture book, ages 4-8]
Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford
A gorgeously illustrated picture book about Ali who lives in war-torn Baghdad. He loves soccer and music, dancing, and calligraphy which reminds him of soccer. Calligraphy is soothing to his and helps him block out the bombs and noise of war. He reminds his mother of Yakut, the most famous calligrapher in the world who lived in Baghdad 800 years ago during turbulent times. It’s a beautiful human story of the cost of war and the need for peace. [picture book, ages 6-10]
The House of Wisdom by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gillialnd, illustrated by Mary Grandpré
During the time of Europe’s Dark Ages, when only monks hidden away in caves were literate, there was an intellectual Renaissance happening across the globe. No, it wasn’t the Italian Renaissance that is part of the Common Core Curriculum. It’s in Baghdad at the time of Caliph al-Ma’mun who built a House of Wisdom that wasn’t just a library of books gathered and translated from around the world. It was also a center of intellect that drew scholars in from all parts of the globe.
Young Ishaq’s father is the most famous translator, working to bring Aristotle’s teachings to the Arab speaking world. Ishaq is not sure if he is meant to be a scholar or an adventurer but he is able to find his way by traveling great distances in search of new books.
The A.D. 830, the contributions of Caliph al-Ma’mum included not just creating The House of Wisdom and a climate for intellectual development, but also the invention of algebra and the calculation of the circumference of the earth. In fact, the Italian Renaissance might not have happened if not for the scholars at The House of Wisdom introducing Greek thought to Europe. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
Mosque by David Macaulay
Sinan was the chief court architect for more than fifty years, designing and constructing more than three hundred buildings, bridges, and aqueducts in Istanbul alone. While Macaulay’s building complex, patro,n and architect are fictional, the individual structures in his book are based on some of Sinan’s buildings.
Kids interested in history, architecture, and engineering will be fascinated with this book about how an Ottoman mosque is built in the late sixteen century. This is about Turkey (The Ottoman Empire). [nonfiction, ages 12 and up]
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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?!