Alice's Academy

Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor

The Arab/Muslim World: How It Looks in Books for American Children

Elsa Marston

Elsa Marston grew up in Massachusetts. She attended Vassar College for two years and finished her BA in American civilization at the University of Iowa. Then she earned an MA in international affairs at Harvard University, studied Middle Eastern history at the American University of Beirut, and got another Master's degree--in art education--at Indiana University. Marston is a prolific author of books, stories, and articles for young readers. She also gives talks about children's literature concerning the Middle East and has had essays and reviews appear in a number of publications. She currently lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and has three grown sons.

A lot of my writing is about the Middle East and Arab-Americans. That's because my husband, Iliya Harik, is from Lebanon; family connections and his work as a political scientist have taken us to that part of the world many times. I want to share with young readers my own interest in those lands and peoples, and equally important, contribute to better understanding of the Arab/Muslim world.


Whenever things really heat up in the Middle East, we hear a familiar refrain in the U.S.: Americans don't know enough about those countries--we really ought to know more. After all, as enlightened educators are well aware, the world is getting smaller all the time. Our children have to live in the Global Village and learn to get along with all sorts of people.

As a children's author who has specialized in writing about the Middle East for more than 25 years, I couldn't agree more. Stereotypes, false notions, and downright prejudice concerning Arab/Muslim peoples still abound in this country--despite decades of American involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, despite years of talk about diversity and tolerance. By now it should be obvious that the U.S. cannot play an effective role overseas without adequate understanding and acceptance of the peoples with whom we interact. Yet that awareness seems to be notoriously lacking among many of our policy-makers and much of the public at large. The last few years have seen increasing hostility toward people of the Arab/Muslim world, including students from abroad and immigrant Americans.

How to take a significant step toward lessening that culture gap? Education is one answer. Can literature--the books intended for young Americans--encourage more positive interest in peoples of the Arab/Muslim world? (For the purposes of this article, the term "Arab/Muslim" encompasses peoples of the region who are Muslim but not Arab; Iran and Afghanistan are included but not Turkey or the Sudan, simply to keep the scope of discussion from becoming unwieldy.)

Fortunately, thanks to the surge of interest in multicultural literature starting 15 to 20 years ago, today there is far more available than in even the very recent past. The picture is decidedly better than in 1990, when I made my first thorough survey of books about the Middle East/North Africa. But we still have a distance to go in providing books that offer not only information but the sort of appeal that can shape a young person's thinking.

Several publishers produce factual "country" books, which typically are both attractive and reasonably accurate. My focus, however, is on fiction, because I believe a good story with sympathetic characters can have a far more meaningful effect on a young reader than a book that offers information alone. A friendly feeling for a country and its people acquired in this way tends to stay with a person much longer. If, for instance, we read a story about a Syrian girl whom we come to care about and whose story grips us, we may very well want to know more about the society she represents. Further, because we valued the story, we are in a positive frame of mind, thus better able to form fair judgments.

In this article I'll survey books about the Arab/Muslim world published specifically for young readers in the United States during the last 15 years or so. Except for those discussed just below, they do not depict the "exotic past" but the contemporary world--because that, after all, is what we need to know about. Books by religious publishers are not included, as they are typically intended to promote a certain type of education or attitude.

Picture-perfect Picture Books

By far the largest number is picture books. It's not hard to see why. The glamorous "oriental" ambiance is hard to resist. Fairy tales and folk tales in the romantic settings of tents and temples, desert oases, golden palaces, and quaint old alleys provide delightful inspiration for both writers and illustrators. (Myself included!) The great majority of picture books are, indeed, about the never-never land of the Arabian Nights and similar fantasy settings.

But they tell us nothing whatever about the Arab/Muslim world today and the realities of people's lives, especially children's lives. It's almost as though young Americans are being told, "This is the Middle East. Only the past is of interest, only the exotic. There's no modern Arab world worthy of your notice."

The following list of picture books based on the Arabian Nights, folk and fairy tales, and moral tales from medieval Arab writers will illustrate my point: Sindbad's Secret by Ludmila Zeman (Tundra, 2003); Azi the Storyteller by Vi Hughes and Stefan Czernecki (Crocodile/Interlink, 2002); Ali and the Magic Stew by Shulamith Oppenheim and Winslow Pels (Boyds Mills, 2002); The Girl Who Lost Her Smile by Karim Alrawi and Stefan Czernecki (Winslow Press, 2000); The Persian Cinderella by Shirley Climo and Robert Florczak (HarperCollins, 1999); Forty Fortunes by Aaron Shepard and Alisher Dianov (Clarion, 1999); The Golden Sandal: A Middle Eastern Cinderella Story by Rebecca Hickox and Will Hillenbrand (Holiday House, 1998); The Rose's Smile by David Kherdian and Stefano Vitale (Holiday House, 1997); Hosni the Dreamer by Ehud Ben-Ezer and Uri Shulevitz (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997); Fatima and the Dream Thief by Rafik Schami, Els Cools, and Oliver Streich (North-South Books, 1996); and Sitti and the Cats by Sally Bahous and Nancy Malick (Roberts Rinehart, 1993).

These books are valuable--well written and beautifully produced, many with stunning illustrations. They certainly do belong in libraries and in the hands of children. But a teacher or librarian who is looking for a book that will help youngsters comprehend something of the news coming from the Middle East, or understand that the people behind that news are real and worth knowing, will have to look farther.

The "Real" Middle East

History and fantasy, being safely in the past, are easier to deal with in children's literature than the complexities of the present. Likewise, they raise little likelihood of controversy. Yet although picture books that offer us glimpses of present-day realities are few in number, there are some noteworthy ones. A pioneer, well received and deservedly so, was The Day of Ahmed's Secret by Florence Parry Heidi and Judith Heide Gilliland, illustrated by Ted Lewin (Lothrop, Lee &Shepard, 1990), about a poor boy in present-day Cairo. The same authors and illustrator followed that book with the equally engaging Sami and the Time of the Troubles (Clarion, 1992), about a family in war-ravaged Beirut during the 1980s. A few questionable details of setting, such as architecture and dress, detract somewhat from the otherwise admirable accuracy. (Could an eight-year-old really carry those iron containers of cooking gas, which even adults lift with difficulty?) The overall effect of both books, however, is an appealing and credible introduction to people's lives in urban Egypt and Lebanon.

Other books depict a variety of societies. Ted Lewin's The Storytellers (Lothrop, Lee &Shepard, 1998) reveals traditional activities carried on by "real" people in a recognizable Moroccan city. The Hundredth Name by Shulamith Oppenheim (Boyds Mills, 1995) presents a sympathetic interpretation of popular Islam, set in an idealized Egyptian village. The Roses in My Carpet by Rukhsana Khan and Ronald Himler (Holiday House, 1998) is about an Afghan boy in a refugee camp. Young readers can learn something about traditional but continuing life among the Tuareg tribes of North Africa from One Night: A Story from the Desert by Christina Kessler and Ian Schoenherr (Philomel, 1995). My own book, Free as the Desert Wind (Hoopoe Books, 1996), takes a boy on a camel drive from Sudan to Egypt, an ongoing trade. Nadia the Willful by Sue Alexander (Pantheon, 1983), a humanistic story set in an unspecified time and desert place, nonetheless offers a sympathetic picture of Bedouin life.

Relations between Arab-American children and their families in the "old countries" are movingly depicted in The Stars in My Geddoh's Sky by Claire Sidhom Matze and Bill Farnsworth (Albert Whitman, 1999), and Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye (Four Winds, 1994). These books, handsomely illustrated, provide informative views of village life in the respective countries, Egypt and Palestine.

Well recommended for slightly older children are two illustrated-story books that give realistic introductions to modern Muslim life: Magid Fasts for Ramadan by Mary Matthews and E. B. Lewis (Clarion, 1996), and Rukhsana Khan's Muslim Child: Understanding Islam through Stories and Poems , with Patty Gallinger and Irfan Alli (Albert Whitman, 1999). What I find especially likable is the depiction of family life: these are people you'd like to have for next-door neighbors. [Khan's YA novel, Dahling, If You Luv Me, Will You Please, Please Smile (Stoddart Kids, Toronto, 1999) is also worth reading for both its lively story and its insights into a Pakistani-Canadian family.]

Books for children older than eight or nine are few in number--but high in quality. Young readers will be enriched in both better understanding of the societies described and excitement from the sheer drama of the stories.

A gem, long out of print but worth every effort to locate, is The Village that Allah Forgot by Lloyd Norris (Hastings House, 1973), about a Tunisian boy who tries to make life a little better in his isolated community in the 1960s. Older readers will find in Rafik Schami's A Hand Full of Stars (Dutton, 1990) a penetrating view of urban Syria early in the years of the political suppression that still afflicts that country. Kiss the Dust by Elizabeth Laird (Dutton, 1991), about a Kurdish family under Iraqi persecution in the 1980s, is another gripping YA novel that can help teenagers make some sense of today's headlines. An excellent trilogy for readers of about ten to fourteen, by Deborah Ellis, has come out of Afghanistan's suffering under the Taliban: The Breadwinner (also published as Parvana), Parvana's Journey, and Mud City (also published as Shauzia) (Groundwood Books/Douglas &McIntyre, 2000, 2002, and 2003 respectively).

For children from kindergarten through mid-elementary, therefore, some attractive and fairly accurate books offer views of life in the present-day Middle East. More are certainly needed. The greater need, however, is novels that provide an in-depth look at the more complicated, troubled aspects of the Arab/Muslim world through fiction.

Palestine and Israel

What about that most persistent of all Middle Eastern problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Have American writers and publishers dared to take it on? Yes; in fact, Israel and Palestine account for a major part of children's literature about the region. For that reason, and the inevitably controversial aspect of any story on the subject, we'll look at these books more closely.

However distressing the continuing violence in real life, we find a significant advance in the literary description of the conflict. Almost all the books published in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s presented the problem only from the Israeli side. Those for younger children, such as Aviva's Piano by Miriam Chaikin (Clarion 1986) and Joshua's Dream by Sheila Segal (Union of American Hebrew Congregations 1985), ignored the presence of Palestinians altogether or referred to Arabs obliquely as unexplained sources of terror.

Some novels depicted Palestinians in shockingly negative ways, bias that would have been condemned if referring to any other people. Take, for example, the stereotyped description of Arabs in The Year by Suzanne Lange (S. G. Phllips, 1970): "There we saw our first Arab, complete with flowing headdress and three wives following him on foot as he rode a tiny donkey." In the years just before the founding of Israel described in The Boy From Over There by Tamar Bergman (translated from the Hebrew and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1988), the Arabs appear uniformly as hateful and murderous. A Jewish child asks why they resist the Zionists and is told, "The Arabs think this whole country belongs to them. They don't want to share it with us." While the statement is true in a literal sense, it belies the Palestinians' awareness that they were being forced to give up their land and homes involuntarily.

Even in the early decades of this survey, however, a few exceptions stand out. Lori , by Gloria Goldreich (Holt Rinehart Winston, 1979), although with some historic inaccuracy, describes friendly relations between Israelis and Palestinians. A short, poignant story called The Secret Grove by Barbara Cohen (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1985) depicts a meeting between an Israeli boy and an Arab boy, which awakens each to the injustice of the cruel stereotypes they are being taught in their respective schools. In Adrienne Richard's The Accomplice (Little Brown, 1973), an American boy, in Israel with his archaeologist father, gets involved in an act of violence by a Palestinian youth; his moral dilemma reflects sympathy for the desperation of the Palestinians.

An early novel truly remarkable for its historical scope, the balance and depth of motivation explored, and its compelling drama is My Enemy, My Brother by James Forman (Meredith Press/Scholastic, 1970). The plot traces the exodus of a Jewish youth, gentle and compassionate, from a concentration camp in Europe to post-war Palestine, and his role in the violent birth of the state of Israel. Despite his friendship with an Arab family--whose village is ultimately destroyed by Zionist terrorists--he can only watch the inexorable march toward an outcome that means triumph for some and disaster for others. Although hard to find, this book should be required reading for understanding of the conflict. Along with The Accomplice and The Secret Grove , it would be well worth republishing.

The first intifada, the Palestinian uprising from 1987 until about 1992, and the start of a "peace process" in 1993 appear to have helped toward a more openly sympathetic look at the Palestinians. A good example is When Will the Fighting Stop? A Child's View of Jerusalem , a photo essay by Ann Morris and Lilly Rivlin (Atheneum 1990). The young Jewish boy who wanders through the old streets of Jerusalem meets a number of Palestinians, some of whom regard him with coldness while others treat him with kindness.

I remember an occasion in 1994 when I described my writing projects to a friend, a prominent academic writer on social questions in the Arab/Muslim world, and said I was thinking of a picture book story set in a Palestinian refugee camp. "Forget it," she said quickly. "A story about Palestinians will never get published. Never."

Happily, her pessimistic view--though based on her own experiences--proved not totally true. A few months later I came across Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye, about an Arab-American child's visit to her Palestinian grandmother in the West Bank (Occupied Palestine). Then came Nye's highly successful YA novel Habibi (Simon &Schuster, 1997), describing a Palestinian-American family's sojourn with relatives in the West Bank. The engaging young narrator, while fascinated by all she observes of village life, describes--for the first time in mainstream U.S.-published fiction for children--the harsh treatment inflicted upon Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation. Would there now be, I wondered at the time, greater willingness by publishers, reviewers, and readers to accept fiction that not only presented Arabs in a sympathetic light, but placed some responsibility squarely on Israel?

As it turned out, Habibi was not a flash in the pan but something of a door-opener. In recent years, four new novels about Palestinians and Israelis have come out, suitable for readers of ten to fifteen. They're politically "mild" but also fair and open-minded, while not shying away from ugly realities. Running on Eggs by Anna Levine (Front Street/Cricket, 1999) explores the tensions arising from a secret friendship between a Jewish girl and a Palestinian girl on a track team in Israel. The theme of "land" is both a vivid element in the setting and an effective metaphor.

A Palestinian boy is the main focus of Samir and Yonatan by an Israeli writer, Daniella Carmi (translated by Yael Lotan, published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2000). Samir lives in the West Bank, where his brother has been killed by Israeli soldiers; but it's just a knee-shattering fall that has brought Samir to a hospital in Israel. The introspective narration reveals Samir's reactions to his situation, the Israeli kids in his ward, and his growing friendship with one boy. Yet thoughts about his people's hardships under Israeli occupation are never distant.

A similarly meditative novel, about a Palestinian child living in Gaza under Israeli guns during the first Palestinian uprising, is A Stone in My Hand by Cathryn Clinton (Candlewick, 2002). Malaak, having last seen her father as he left home to look for work, gradually realizes he has been killed. She retreats into silence; but as her brother becomes active in a group of street-fighters, she finally must overcome her withdrawal from reality.

Recently published in Britain and still obtainable in the U.S. only through Canada (Kidsbooks, 604-986-6190), is Elizabeth Laird's A Little Piece of Ground, written with Sonia Nimr (Macmillan, 2003). Here there is no careful "balancing" between Palestinian and Israeli sensibilities, as we observe the lives of Palestinians under almost continual curfew imposed by the occupying forces. The "ground" in the title is a bit of vacant land where young Karim and his buddies try to play soccer under the noses of their oppressors--and of course, it has broader meaning. The book is vivid, hard-hitting, and not without humor.

A story of my own about a young resistance fighter appears in Soul Searching: Thirteen Stories about Faith and Belief, edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (Simon &Schuster, 2002). Mujahhid throws stones at military posts until his parents pack him off to a village, out of harm's way. There he finds an equally meaningful jihad (not a "holy war," but a struggle to do what is morally right) when he confronts Israeli soldiers destroying a Palestinian olive grove.

Could these five novels and story have been published ten years ago? I strongly doubt it--and I marvel at the change in "acceptability." Yet although they are relatively gentle in tone, they do not offer unrealistically hopeful outlooks. The outcome of each story depends on the moral strength and courage of the main characters. In this respect, the young Palestinians are similar to the kids-in-trouble who populate many a YA novel set in America. What they all learn is to try to focus on what they know is good, fight evil when they have to, and somehow keep hope alive.

Two YA novels by Lynne Reid Banks, One More River and its sequel Broken Bridge (William Morrow, 1973 and 1994 respectively), focus on the 1967 war, in which Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza, and its aftermath. Told from the Israeli point of view, the books have been criticized by Arab-American organizations for their portrayal of Palestinians: virtually all the Arabs in the two books are angry and violent, with no redeeming qualities. Nonetheless, I feel these books are important because they demonstrate the enormous divergence of views in Israel about how to deal with a conquered population, held under oppressive military occupation. To my knowledge, they are the only novels for young readers that forcefully demonstrate how Israel's evident intention to keep land seized by force of arms has battered not only the Palestinians but Israeli society as well.

Stories about Arab-Americans

Given the success and prominence of individuals of Arab/Muslim descent in American society, it's surprising that so little fiction for young people has been published about this ethnic group. There are a few books, however, about young Arab-Americans or recent immigrants.

Mentioned earlier are The Stars in My Jeddoh's Sky, Sitti's Secrets, Habibi, and Muslim Child. Two others offer a historical perspective: A Peddler's Dream by Janice and Tom Shefelman (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), about a Lebanese peddler in Texas in the 1880s, and for slightly older children, The Trees Kneel at Christmas by Maud Hart Lovelace, about a Lebanese family in Brooklyn (Abdo &Daughters, 1994; first published in 1951). In Dear Whiskers by Ann Whitehead Nagda (Holiday House, 2000), the main character's relationship with a young Saudi Arabian child suggests that "the other" can be accepted as a perfectly natural part of the school scene. For young teens, The Sky Changed Forever by Firyal Alshalabi and Sam Drexler (Aunt Strawberry Books, 2003) shows a Kuwaiti girl and her immigrant family adjusting to American life.

Two of my own stories in YA collections concern Arab-Americans. One is "Rima's Song" in Join In: Multiethnic Short Stories (edited by Donald Gallo, Delacorte, 1993), about a Lebanese-American girl in a rock band and a young militia fighter from Lebanon. In "Lines of Scrimmage," in Gallo's new collection First Crossing, Stories of Immigrant Teens (Candlewick, 2004), a Palestinian-American boy reaches the heights of success in high school sports, yet still has to face both prejudice and worries about his people's fate in a "terror"-obsessed U.S.

Who Is Writing These Stories?

As this survey reveals, the great majority of the books are by non-Arab writers. Where are the stories and books about the Arab/Muslim world by writers from that background, whether overseas or in this country?

In the Middle East, a very small number of writers are beginning to produce work that can be called contemporary children's literature. Kuwait has a promising publishing program, and courses in writing for children are now being taught at the American University of Beirut. These are conservative societies, however, culturally and socially, and some changes come slowly. The notion is still prevalent that "stories for children" are almost by definition Western fairy tales and classics. Such stories are familiar to adults and are easily obtained as imported books, produced by publishers who evidently don't want to take risks with unfamiliar material. The other main type of children's literature is morality tales set in the long-ago Middle East, usually with adult characters--again, because familiar, instructional, and "safe." Undoubtedly the situation will improve; but for now, I believe, the idea that children can enjoy and learn from new stories about their own times and cultures--and specifically about young people like themselves--has not yet taken hold.

Yet creative writing does have prestige in the Middle East, and contemporary writers produce a respectable body of literature for adult readers. After all, the Word--oral and written--has always been at the core of Arab/Muslim culture. We can hope that a growing respect for children's literature is the next step in the development of modern Middle Eastern literary life. (And let's face it: plenty of educated people in the U.S. have no notion of the breadth, depth, and quality of children's literature!)

Another factor must be faced as to why Arab/Muslim writers don't concern themselves with producing high-quality stories for young people: the discouraging effect of censorship, actual or perceived. In the Middle East, governments are leery of anything that might smack of political subversion or the undermining of cultural values. In this country, for many years U.S. publishers have been reluctant to take on books that portray Arabs in a sympathetic light. Possibly the perceived antipathy is stronger than the actuality. Still, too many good writers (journalists as well as authors of fiction) have met this wall of indifference or veiled hostility for it to be "all in their heads." It's too easy for a publisher, either from plain bias or fear of criticism, to plead that a book sympathetic to Arabs--especially in the context of Arab-Israeli relations--"wouldn't sell enough copies" or just "isn't quite right."

But take note that the recent novels about Palestinian youth, described above, have won all sorts of outstanding reviews, awards, and distinctions! Those books clearly are successful. Could it be that there really is an interest--and that a good book about Arabs will sell as well as a book about any other people, especially if appropriately promoted?

I hope the day is not distant when increasing numbers of Arab/Muslim writers recognize that children's literature is worthy of their best talents and efforts--every bit as demanding of expertise and passion as, for instance, yet another novel about a woman seeking her identity. Then we may begin to see more novels and stories that reveal truths about the lives of young people and their families in Arab/Muslim societies today . . . books that truly contribute to enlightenment and a more favorable climate for peace.


Elsa Marston

Volume 8, Issue 2 The Looking Glass,April, 2004

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