Picture Books: Understanding the Middle East

~posted by Ruth

I rarely see images of people who look like my Syrian-American father, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents as I know them in the media or popular culture.  Instead of the loving, boisterous, funny, wacky family I know and love, I see negative images of Arab women as belly dancers and harem girls, and Arab men as violent terrorists, oil “sheiks,” and marauding tribesmen.  One way to counter these images is by sharing the growing–though still hard-to-find–picture books that can help children and adolescents come to a deeper and richer understanding of the Middle East and the peoples who live there.  The picture books featured below are a beginning list to start us off.   Small presses like Roaring Book Press, Sleeping Bear Press, Groundwood Books, and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers are publishers I want to highlight for readers in their future searches for contemporary multicultural pictures books.  Check them out if you like the books in this post!

Silent Music:  A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford

Ali is a young boy growing up in contemporary Baghdad.  He loves music and soccer–and the art of Arabic calligraphy.  Elegant Arabic script graces the pages, which are also illustrated in a mixed media of collage, charcoal, pencil, and watercolor.  When the bombs fall in Baghdad, Ali is inspired to work harder to master the difficult calligraphy of the word SALAM–peace.  This book brings readers a glimpse of the real world of Baghdad today, as well as a chance to see the depiction of a loving three-generational Arabic family, living, working, hoping, and caring for one another in a time of danger and strife.


Nasreen’s Secret School:  A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeannette Winter

Nasreen’s story is told by her loving grandmother, who is raising her since her father has been taken away by soldiers, and her mother has never returned from her quest to to find him.  The grandmother begins the tale by describing how art, music, and learning once flourished in Afghanistan, but since the soldiers have come and with it, the reign of the Taliban, everything is changed.  And since her parents have disappeared Nasreen will no longer speak.  The grandmother decides to risk everything and send Nasreen to a secret forbidden school for girls.  With a new friend and the chance to learn again, Nasreen slowly comes out of her shell.  A very touching and emotional story–and one that not only resonates, but informs.  The author prefaces the story with an important Author’s Note about the plight of education–especially for girls–in Afghanistan.  The illustrations are bright and bold  and rivet attention to the story as it unfolds.  Though some of the content is emotionally charged, I’ve used this book with kids as young as 5; parents, of course, know their own children best and might want to pre-read with their own family in mind.


Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammend, illustrated by Doug Chavka

Lina and Firoza are two ten-year old girls living at a refugee camp in Pakistan who each discover a wonderful sandal–one each of a pair, that is.  They become fast friends as they learn to share the pair of sandals. The authors wrote this book in response to a request from refugee girls who wanted a book about girls like themselves.  Many children around the world have been relocated to refugee camps, and it is fitting to have children’s books that reflect the reality of their lives.  Though the topic is serious and moving, it is appropriate for children as young as kindergarten.  In addition to a tender story of friendship, there are other key concepts subtly told, such as the limited resources in much of the world, human needs, and dealing with scarcity.  Wonderful for rich discussions on many different levels.


The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Ted Lewin

Readers follow Ahmed through a day in the streets of Cairo as he delivers canisters of cooking gas. Beautifully illustrated in watercolor, the book is told in Ahmed’s voice and through his eyes as he shares his daily routine and enjoyment of his family life. His secret is revealed on the last page of the book, when he demonstrates to his family that he has learned to write his name.


Mirror by Jeannie Baker

This mostly wordless picture book is really two picture books in one, with gorgeous mixed-media collage that creates landscapes with a three-dimensional feel.  The stories are parallel and follow two boys–one in urban Australia and one in  rural Morocco.  Despite large cultural differences, the stories show how similar we are as human beings.    It’s also an intriguing book design, with the Moroccan story told from right to left, and the Australian story, left-to right.  The pages open out from the middle of the book, and the few Arabic and English words are both woven in beautifully.  A wonderful book to explore similarities and differences, including those of resources.

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