Finding Palestine in Children’s Books

Monday 10 February 2014

Elsa Marston

The Arab world in children’s books

Finding Palestine


In this article based on a talk given at an international conference on children’s literature sponsored by the Lebanese Association of Women Researchers, Marston writes about the depiction of Arabs and Palestinians, in particular, in books for young people, including her own attempts at writing their stories as an outsider author.

What is it like for a child to want a good book – yet never find one about "someone like me"? Just a generation ago, that was true for most children of ethnic minorities growing up in the U.S. In books for young people, they found few if any faces with coloring, eyes, and hair like theirs … as though they somehow weren’t quite authentic "American" children. Fortunately, times have changed, and there are now many excellent books and stories about characters from diverse countries or cultures. But what about Arab Americans, and those of Palestinian heritage in particular? Are there books for children that might offer an introduction to their cultures and the realities of their lives that are fair, accurate, and positive? [End Page 5]

As a children’s book author, a New England Yankee who often writes about the Middle East, I have been able to make many trips and sojourns in the Arab world thanks to my Lebanese husband, whose family ties and work as a scholar took him overseas frequently. Writing about Egyptians both ancient and modern, Muhammad the founder of Islam, children in war-torn Lebanon, and so forth, I soon found a mission in my work: helping to bridge the fissures of ignorance and misunderstanding that block a great many Americans from positive attitudes toward the Arab peoples and their cultures.

Fortunately, neither books nor attitudes are written in stone. In the last two decades there has been a remarkable increase in books of high literary quality, by any standard, that present the people of the present-day Arab/Muslim world in an accurate, positive light. To a large extent, we can thank the 1990s’ emphasis on multicultural education and literature. Another major influence, I believe, stems from events on the world stage: the Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1992 and the Oslo Accords of 1993, which focused international attention on the Palestinian cause as never before. Very possibly this development encouraged a more open-minded attitude regarding publication of the Palestinian viewpoint.

Depicting Palestine in children’s books

In the mid-1990s Naomi Shihab Nye, already highly regarded as a poet, opened doors with her picture book Sitti’s Secrets (1994) and her novel Habibi (1997), each written appealingly in the voice of a Palestinian-American girl visiting her father’s natal village in the West Bank. Then followed several other books with themes of reconciliation and personal courage, by other authors. For instance, a charming – and scrupulously fair – picture book by Deborah DaCosta, Snow in Jerusalem (2001), is about two young boys, Israeli and Arab, who have unknowingly been feeding the same stray white cat. When they both happen to discover her with a new litter, they squabble over who gets the kittens and finally decide to share. Daniella Carmi’s Samir and Yonatan, translated from the Hebrew (2000), takes us with an injured Palestinian boy to the children’s ward of an Israeli hospital. Though constantly worried about his family under military occupation, Samir eventually finds common ground and friendship with two of the Jewish boys. Running on Eggs (1999), by Israeli writer Anna Levine, describes two girls in Israel on a school track team, one Jewish and the other Arab, who train secretly on a rough hillside because each fears the disapproval of her own community. What I especially like in this story is the emphasis on working together (physically working) on a project [End Page 6] that will ultimately benefit both sides – in this case, a safe track for running.

A more somber note is struck by A Stone in My Hand (2002) by Cathryn Clinton, set in Gaza during the first Palestinian uprising, showing us a young girl coping with the loss of her beloved father and her brother’s growing involvement in violent resistance. Marilyn Levy’s young-adult novel Checkpoints (2008), which explores a suicide bombing’s psychological effects on an Israeli girl and her family, likewise foresees no promising resolution. This author suggests that only the determination of individuals to maintain their personal relationships with Palestinian friends, and vice versa, holds out hope for the future. Dreaming of Palestine (2002) by Randa Ghazy, a book for older teens about a group of young Palestinians living together, conveys a grim, but powerful picture of utter frustration and hopelessness. And of course Ibtisam Barakat’s Tasting the Sky (2007) offers a powerful, personal memoir of terror and escape.

Some books from the Palestinian viewpoint, published in the last few years, are surprisingly forthright in "telling it like it is." A simple picture book story, illustrated by children in a Palestinian refugee camp, The Boy and the Wall by Amahl Bishara (2006) presents without acrimony or bitterness a child’s view of the so-called separation wall that is virtually imprisoning many Palestinian villagers and destroying their land. Elizabeth Laird’s novel A Little Piece of Ground (2003) is about a young Palestinian boy living under harsh military curfew who risks danger and death as he tries to claim a spot where he and his friends can play soccer. On publication in Britain, this outstanding book initially drew some criticism because there were no "good" Israelis depicted. Although the defense of the book (including a statement by Lynne Reid Banks) was much more vigorous, the criticism did delay an American edition for a few years. Then there’s The Shepherd’s Granddaughter by Anne Carter (2008). It’s hard to imagine this remarkable book, which does not flinch from describing the brutal treatment inflicted on Palestinians by Israeli settlers and soldiers, having been published – let alone honored – even five years ago.

Santa Claus in Baghdad

Just fifteen years ago, I was told emphatically by a noted scholarly writer with much experience in the Middle East, "Don’t even think of writing a children’s book about kids in a Palestinian camp. You will never get it published. Never." Happily, time, and the courage of increasing numbers of writers and publishers, has proven otherwise. In the real world, viable political resolutions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and – at the center of everything – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are still [End Page 7] remote. Yet in this small but vital corner of human activity – literature for young people that helps shape their understanding of the world in positive ways – I still see reason for hope.

And that continues to guide my own work. That’s why I wrote the stories for Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories About Teens in the Arab World, a book that serves a unique role by introducing several different Arab societies of the Middle East and North Africa through short fiction about teenagers. The settings – all locations where I have lived or visited over the years – include an Egyptian village, Baghdad, Damascus, Lebanon, a refugee camp, Tunisia, the West Bank, and Jordan. Although political background is an essential ingredient in some of the stories, I chose not to write about the sort of things that most people in the U.S. often associate with the "Middle East" – war, violence, oppression, and poverty. Rather, I wanted the stories to provide a bridge between cultures by focusing on life experiences familiar to teenagers nearly everywhere. The young people in my stories are concerned with fitting in at school, finding a good friend, dealing with parents’ divorce, "proving themselves," helping a down-hearted friend or sibling, balancing parents’ wishes with their own dreams, resisting the dead hand of custom. While the cultural framework may be particular to the Middle East, the basic concerns can ring true far and wide.

For example, "The Plan" takes place in a large and notorious refugee camp in Lebanon, where tens of thousands of Palestinians struggle just to keep going. I could have emphasized the harsh conditions of their lives, or perhaps the lure of radical resistance militias and fundamentalist religious movements. But I wanted readers – especially American readers – to feel an emotional connection with the young protagonist, a boy of about twelve or thirteen named Rami, on the cusp between childish optimism and the downturn of adolescence. So I decided to write the unexpected: a love story. Rami takes it upon himself, through elaborate schemes, to bring together his pretty art teacher and his handsome, but discouraged, older brother. Formerly a bright engineering student, until the U.N. scholarship money dried up, now the young man has no future except as a pushcart vendor. His plight illustrates the desperate situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, where education too often leads nowhere. While Rami’s plan works out in the end, this is not a story of happily-ever-after fluff.

The story set in Amman, Jordan, deals with "honor crime." I chose this topic because for my earlier book, Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change, I had learned about human rights activists, mostly women, concerned with this problem in Jordan. For years they have been trying to expose and combat this horrendous "honor and shame" mindset, [End Page 8] which demands the death of a woman or girl whose family suspects her of improper behavior. Rather than writing about a girl who is a victim – which would have been a story much too heavy and dark in company with all the other stories in the book – I decided to show the effects of an "honor" situation on families. The plot develops through the contrasting viewpoints of two girls who have become acquainted at school: Wafa from an extremely conservative family for whom the code of "male honor" is still all-powerful, and Yasmine, whose mother is a crusading journalist. Should Yasmine betray Wafa’s confidence and tell her mother about the dreadful problem in Wafa’s family? Or should she mind her own business and very possibly let a terrible crime take place? Thus the story is at least as much about friendship and trust, as about the scourge of "honor crime."

In the title story, "Santa Claus in Baghdad," Amal hopes to regain social status in school by volunteering to buy a class gift for the departing literature teacher. Then she learns that her emotionally fragile little brother, confusing the idea of "Santa Claus" with the forthcoming visit of an uncle from the U.S., is fixated on the notion that "Santa" is going to bring him a little toy car. But because they are living in Saddam’s Baghdad, where ordinary people were so financially squeezed by the U.S.-imposed economic sanctions that they had to sell almost all their possessions, Amal finds that even a modest gift may require a major sacrifice.

By focusing on a problem or challenge in the young person’s life, something that would likely resonate with many readers’ own experiences, I hope to encourage a feeling of empathy. But along with that, I hope the reader will be curious to know more about what the protagonist is facing in her or his particular situation. Why can’t Rami’s smart, hardworking brother get a decent job? Why can’t Amal’s parents afford medical treatment for their children? Why, in some people’s minds, is a young woman held responsible for a grown man’s "honor"? What are the cultural, or political, or historical backgrounds to these dilemmas?

In my view, if a story shows characters confronted with a dreadful situation over which they have little or no control, there’s a danger that the dreadful situation itself may set up a psychological barrier for the reader. It may be too big, too alien, and too difficult to incorporate into the world that the young reader can deal with. A deeper, more intense and lasting response may arise when the reader can identify with the people in the story. We all like to see ourselves, even if just a glimpse, in the mirror [End Page 9] of literature. And when we have that reassurance of the familiar, then it’s easier to look farther afield and test the unfamiliar.

I hope young readers in the Arab world (and elsewhere, of course) will increasingly find good stories that say something true about their lives – and at the same time, widen their own horizons. Indeed, someday these young readers may become the writers who guide future generations.

Elsa Marston

Elsa Marston incorporates a lifelong interest in Middle Eastern cultures in her fiction and nonfiction writing for young readers.

The author will provide her extended list of recommended books and stories about the Arab world. Contact her directly at elsa.marston@gmail.com

Children’s books cited

Barakat, Ibtisam. (2007). Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Bishara, Amahl. (2006). The Boy and the Wall. Bethlehem: Lagee Cultural Center. (from http://www.middleeastbooks.com/)

Carmi, Daniella. (2000). Samir and Yonatan. Trans. by Yael Lotan. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Carter, Anne. (2008). The Shepherd’s Granddaughter. Toronto: Groundwood.

Clinton, Cathryn. (2002). A Stone in My Hand. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Da Costa, Deborah. (2001). Snow in Jerusalem. Morton Grove, IL: A. Whitman.

Ghazy, Randa. (2002). Dreaming of Palestine: A Novel of Friendship, Love, and War. New York: George Braziller.

Laird, Elizabeth. (2003). A Little Piece of Ground. London: Macmillan UK, (U.S edition: Chicago: Haymarket, 2006)

Levine, Anna. (1999). Running on Eggs. Chicago: Cricket Books.

Levy, Marilyn. (2008). Checkpoints. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Marston, Elsa, with Harik, Ramsay M. (1996, 2003). Women in the Middle East: Tradition and Change. New York: Franklin Watts.

. (2008). Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. (1994). Sitti’s Secrets. New York: Four Winds.

. (1997). Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster.

The Arab world in children’s books Finding Palestine

Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature

Volume 48, Number 1, January 2010

E-ISSN: 1918-6983 Print ISSN: 0006-7377

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