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Archive for the ‘Birth and up’ Category

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.

 

 

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Journey

By Aaron Becker

Candlewick Press, 2013

40 pages

Wordless picture books fascinate me. Perhaps because words are my “thing,” I’m somewhat in awe of someone who can tell a story – a fully-realized, rich, deep story – without them.

I didn’t read (is that the right term?) wordless picture books as a kid. In fact, I read very few picture books at all. I started with A Child’s Garden of Verses at age 3, but by age 7, I was reading A Christmas Carol. And once I’d discovered novels, I almost never looked back. Something about the immersiveness of fiction pulled me in and held me.

I rediscovered picture books as a high school senior, when I was looking for inspiration for an assignment. I remembered how much I had loved A Child’s Garden of Verses and went back to it. There was something entrancing in the spareness of the words and the way they nevertheless managed to tell an entire story. Intrigued, I started reading the occasional picture book in between my dates with Dickens and Steinbeck and other “grownup” favorites.

Then, my first year in college, I encountered my first wordless picture book (really). It was David Wiesner’s Tuesday, one of the wittiest, most imaginative works in the genre. I was hooked. Ever since, I’ve kept a weather eye out for more.

And that’s how I discovered Aaron Becker’s Journey. I was reading the ALA’s announcement of this year’s Caldecott books, and the description caught my eye. A wordless picture book that had nabbed a Caldecott Honor? Count me in! And there was a girl on the cover – bonus! (Yes, I’m a geek.) So, the next time I went to the library, I picked it up.

Journey is the story of a bored, lonely young girl who discovers a magical red crayon and uses it to create an adventure for herself. She visits an enchanted wood and a sprawling castle, rescues a beautiful bird from a greedy emperor, takes a magic carpet ride through the desert, and makes a new friend.

The book is full of clever allusions, some that older elementary-age kids might catch, and others probably only apparent to grownups. I saw shades of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, M.C. Escher, and Lord of the Rings, to name a few. The characters and settings are a fascinating blend of steampunk and medieval-cum-early-20th-century Asian, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, and European.

Yet Becker somehow combines all these elements into an original, integral, captivating whole. I was virtually on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what the girl would do next, how she would solve a particular problem, or where she would go.

And that’s partly where the inspirational aspect of Journey lies. Becker’s heroine is a true adventurer – and girl adventurers still aren’t all that common in picture books. This little girl is curious, bold, and inventive: just the role model to encourage little girls to get out there, discover, and do.

The art is inspiring, too. And I’m not just talking about Becker’s breathtakingly beautiful illustrations. The heroine moves from place to place by creating art of her own, always in a blazing shade of red. Her art is elegant in its simplicity, but forceful and active. She’s an encouragement to girls to make and create, to let art take their spirits to new and wild places.

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Ladybug Girl

by David Soman and Jacky Davis

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2008

40 pages

I have a confession to make: I’m a book snob. I usually avoid bestsellers like the plague.

This is partly due to experience. When I have tried to read John Grisham, Tom Clancy, or the like, I’ve found them unappealing. They just don’t suit my tastes as a reader. Ditto celebrity-authored picture books. But sometimes the prejudice is nothing more than orneriness. I didn’t read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone until about 2001, for instance, simply because everyone else was reading it.

David Soman and Jacky Davis’ Ladybug Girl was one of those books, one I avoided reading just because it was popular. I assumed it would be like Fancy Nancy or Junie B. Jones: another bestselling book girls read in stages. Entertaining but formulaic, not certifiably “bad” but certainly not inspiring.

But then I saw the book showcased at our local library, and I had second thoughts. First, our children’s librarian doesn’t usually showcase mediocre books. Second, that cover! The title character has pride of place; she looks confident, energetic, and just a little mischievous.

So I checked it out. And I was very, very pleasantly surprised.

The story is simple: Ladybug Girl, also known as Lulu, is left to “figure out her own fun time” one morning. Mama and Papa have projects to do, and Older Brother says Lulu’s “too little” to play baseball with him and his friends.

She mopes for a bit, then slowly makes her way outside, where she discovers that she really can make her own fun. Accompanied by Bingo the basset hound, she jumps into puddles, climbs trees, and turns an old stone wall into a fort. In the process, she recovers her sense of self and ultimately returns home “feeling as big as the whole outdoors.”

I love this book for so many reasons. First, the story follows an authentic trajectory–like any normal little girl, Lulu is irritated and somewhat hurt by being left on her own. She only gradually transitions from dejection and uncertainty to self-direction and confidence. The message? It’s normal to feel sad when people let you down, and it’s normal to heal gradually from disappointment. But heal you will, if you give yourself space to do it.

I also love that Lulu gets a sidekick. Girl characters rarely have sidekicks–authors tend to give them friends or companions instead (or to make them into sidekicks). It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. You partner with friends or companions; you lead sidekicks. By giving Lulu a sidekick, Soman and Davis make her a leader–thus showing little girls that they can be leaders, too.

And then there’s Lulu’s reaction to her brother’s dismissal of her as “too little.” Early in the book, she takes it to heart. But later, when he repeats it, she reconsiders. Her confidence bolstered by her outdoor explorations, she decides that her brother is the little one–for being mean and combative.

In other words, she refuses to let someone else’s unkindness define who she is. Instead, she considers what she knows about herself and forms her own opinion. She realizes that her inner qualities are more important than outward stature, and she takes pride in her own helpfulness, courage, and resourcefulness.

When no one else inspires her, she finds a way to inspire herself.

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