The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

Jeanette Winter, Author and Illustrator

Harcourt, Inc., Juvenile Literature, 2005

Suitable for:  Grades 2-5

Themes:  Libraries, Saving books, War, Middle East

Opening/Synopsis:  “Alia Muhammad Baker is the librarian of Basra, a port city in the sand-swept country of Iraq.  Her library is a meeting place for all who love books.  They discuss matters of the world and matters of the spirit.  Until now — now, they talk only of war. ”   Alia is worried about the approaching war.  She asks the governor to move the 30,000 books to a safe place, but he refuses.  This feisty and spirited librarian takes matters into her own hands and secretly brings books home every night.  When war turns Basra into a burning city, she begs shopkeepers and friends to help her hide the books before it’s too late.   As the fires burn out, the library is gone.  Alia waits and waits for the war to end.  She dreams of a new library.

Why I liked this book:  This is a true story based on the heroic efforts of a woman who is passionate about saving her town’s precious books.   Jeanette Winter’s text is simple and straightforward.  It is a non-threatening way to present war to children.  It also teaches children that people have the same passions and love of reading worldwide.  Thus driving home the theme, we really are all the same no matter where we live.  The book is beautifully illustrated in acrylics.  Winter’s simple colorful illustrations evoke the emotions of war  and hope for the future.

Activities:   There is a note from the author at the end of the book that gives history about Alia and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.   A New York Times reporter heard about the story and brought it to the world’s attention on July 27, 2003.  This is a good discussion book to introduce children to war as the story is not frightening.   Kids have seen the images of war on TV.  It is also a book about how one person can make a difference.  Listen to what they think and feel about war.  Discuss with children how people all over the world love to read just like they do.  Talk about ordinary heroes like Alia, and ask kids to share stories about local heroes.  Get children involved in donating some off their own books to local literacy programs.  You can read a Harcourt interview with Jeanette Winter and see  photos of Jeanette with Alia.

To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.  Or click on the Perfect Picture Book Fridays  badge in the right sidebar.

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

50 thoughts on “The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq

  1. These lines killed me: “Alia waits and waits for the war to end. She dreams of a new library.” This does sound like a gentle way (although heartbreaking on so many levels) to teach children about war. I wonder if she got a new library. I heard an NPR report recently about a book by a state department official talking about all the wasted money spent in Iraq. Did the U.S. rebuild this library? My bro-in-law works at a national news network. He once said that anytime a positive story was aired about a U.S. effort like a new school or water plant — the site was targeted for destruction by terrorists. I’m making a note to follow up with the interview. Thanks for another great title.

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    • Stacy, I’m glad you liked the selection. Here is the original NYT article link: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/world/after-the-war-the-librarian-books-spirited-to-safety-before-iraq-library-fire.html It is heartbreaking. Money is being raised to rebuild the library. I know proceeds from the book were going towards the rebuilding and the American Library Association is involved. But it doesn’t sound like our government hasn’t been involved. In many cases, your bro-in-law is right. If the community is involved in the building of a school, destruction by terrorists is less likely to happen. That’s how Greg Mortenson builds schools in the Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the approval from the village leaders, and using local people and construction materials. Thank you for your thoughtfull comment.

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  2. This is a very good book, especially unique because of the strong female protagonist.

    I’m curious about Stacy’s comment – I had heard something similar from someone based elsewhere in the Middle East. Also heartbreaking.

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    • Cathy, it is a good book for teaching kids about how one person can make a difference. Alia was a very strong character. The schools and facilities that are built with the approval of tribal leaders, involvement of the community and the use of locals to build, have a better chance of not being destroyed. The people own the project. Learned a lot when I helped design an exhibit for the Dayton International Peace Museum about Greg Mortenson and his work to build schools for kids in Afghnistan and Pakistan.

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  3. Wow, I had goosebumps reading of tis heroic, passionate woman! What a great story for children on so many levels.

    I am with Stacy, I so want to know the follow up to this story! Fabulous choice, Pat.

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    • Joanna, I put a resource in the blog and in my response to Stacy, gave the NYT article story the author read that prompted her to write this story. I love books showing how one person can make a difference — she save about 70 percent of the books. And some were ancient. Terrible thing, war. It is a great story for kids for many reasons — and not upsetting. You could comment today — but you probably did through Susanna’s blog. Wonder if that made the difference. A puzzle.

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  4. There are amazing people who save treasures like books and art, despite great danger to themselves, knowing that some day the war will end and people will need those treasures to start the process of healing. For a blog called “Childrens Books Heal” this is truly an appropriate book for Perfect Picture Book Friday!

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    • Thank you Craig for the compliment. I wondered if I pushed the envelope on this one — but your comments made me realize it still goes with my theme. Great multicultural book, and a book about how one person can make a difference. By the way I’m participating in the Paper Tiger Reading the World Challenge this year and submitted “Abe in Arms” as one of my seven selections. This year’s theme is multicultrual and there are specific rules. They had heard of Abe and said it was a powerful book!

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  5. I am always blown away by your amazing choices, Pat. I’ll admit that I often gravitate toward lighter, entertainment-focused pbs. But you are opening my eyes to more serious books that cover important topics. Both have a place in our lives, and I am glad to be finding more of a balance. Thank you!

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    • Amy, thank you for the compliment. I like a variety of books, but my theme of my blog lends itself towards healing. Thus the reason for my selections. I agree with you, kids need a balance of reading in their lives.

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  6. This book sounds really good, Pat, and on so many levels. I love books that celebrate strong women, and that show kids that one person can make a difference – I think that’s inspiring and empowering. And this is an aspect of war that people might not think of and somewhat less threatening way to introduce the topic. Thanks for another great contribution to our list!

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    • Susanna,
      I’m glad you like the book. The book is certainly shows a very determined woman who was willing to give her life to saving the books — some dating way back. Kids need to know her. She is still alive and Jeanette finally met her. There are pictures on the internet and in the info I included. I love books that empower!

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  7. This sounds like such a good book, Pat. It’s something that likely doesn’t occur to many people — what happens to the libraries and the schools when there is a war? What effect does this have on the people as a whole, and the children in particular? Excellent choice, and, as always, there has been such informative discussion in the comments, as well.

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    • Beth, I know many people don’t think about all of the books, artistry, iconic buildings and landmarks, that are lost during war. There simply are no schools, unless someone meets quitely with kids. It is so sad. But, this book only shows one little piece and what one extraordinary woman did to save the books. Thanks for stopping.

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  8. This book seems very interesting and very sad. I never thought of people having to save books in a war. I’ve heard of people saving art and imporant documents. I am sad about the library and admire Alia who risked her life to save the library and it’s books. I checked out the links – I want to learn more about this. My Aunt’s brother was in Iraq and Afghanistan and I saw pictures he sent. It is sad to see the buildings destroyed in the pictures.

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    • Erik, it is sad what happens in war. Many people don’t think about books and schools. But, the saving grace in Basra was Alia and her passion to save her beloved books. She saved about 70 percent of them. And, money is being raised to rebuild the library. You can type in her full name and find other info on the internet.

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  9. Ms. Winter has a lovely way with true tales. Mama, her book about Owen the baby hippo and Mzee the tortoise, is one of our favorites. I will have to check out this newer book. Thanks so much for the recommendation, Patricia!

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  10. Pat…this is a wonderful story. I know we are all passionate about books…and here is a story that portrays a woman who feels the same way. 🙂
    This book would be great to read to kids to show them how we all need to stand up for something.
    Terrific resources as well…thank you for a super review!

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  11. Hi Patricia, I am reminded of so many things as I read your review. First, I recalled one of the most powerful books I have ever read: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi – it’s part autobiographical/part memoir, I hope you’d have a chance to read that book. Second, I was reminded of a few times when I conducted professional development course modules to teachers in Bahrain for two weeks. The course module was about Being Effective 21st Century Educators. It remains one of my most unforgettable experiences. It would have been great if I knew about this book then, I could have finished my discussion by reading aloud from this lovely picture book.

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    • Myra, I’ve not read “Reading Loita in Tehran. Will check it out. I knew you were going to teach a course for teachers in Bahrain, but didn’t realize it had already happened. Am so happy that you had such a great experience. I wished I’d reviewed it sooner. I was trying to keep it close to the books I recently reviewed on “Playing War” and “Abe in Arms.”

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  12. Somewhat related to this and the story of the courageous woman… historians often say that the greatest crime in history is the burning of the Library of Alexandria.

    Books should never be burned; should never be destroyed. When that starts to happen (in every instance that I know always perpetrated by men), then people should be afraid. It’s a sign that free speech is now gone and that a totalitarian regime is now in place.

    This book sounds like an amazing children’s book. Some women are so courageous. I think that to save myself, I wouldn’t have made the same decision. Afraid for my life, I would have fled to another country with only the clothes on my back.

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    • Michael, Thank you for the comment about the burning of the Library of Alexandri. Such a tragedy. Alia certainly was a gutsy lady who stood her ground and saved 70 percent of the books. But some ancient trearues were lost. Funds are being raised to rebuild the library. In that situation, I don’t know what I would have done, especially since Basra was hit so hard. I rememer feeling sick when I saw the images. Commend you for honesty.

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  13. This is a moving and powerful book Pat and so pleased to hear about it through you. It is right up my alley!…. mmm didn’t we first used to write on stone all those thousands and thousands of years ago – a sign that the written word is for keeps!
    Loved the power and feel of this great review Pat. Thanks.

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    • Diane, I’m glad you liked the book — it had so many different messages for kids. I wanted to review it close to the war books I reviewed, to show another aspect and what happens to the real live people living in war-torn areas. Thought you would like this one.

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  14. This is such a thought provoking book. I will definitely have to read it. Titles like this are needed in this day and age. Very sad, but true. Thank you for another wonderful addition to the list. 🙂 (Catching up, I was in bed sick the last six or so days.)

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    • Robyn, Hope you are feeling better. Wow, six days! I’m behind in my visiting blogs. I am glad this subject interested you. Great way to introduce war to kids in a non-threatening way. It is a powerful story about what one person can do. Hope you check it out.

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  15. Pingback: Book Review: The Librarian of Basra | Children's Books & More

  16. Pat — I’m back two and a half years after you first posted this review. A friend handed me this book recently, and said “You have to read this.” I did, and was so moved by it. I wondered what had become of the Librarian of Basra, and did a google search for alia muhammad baker today — and your review was one of the hits on the first page! I’m so grateful you shared the book for PPBF, and I’m so grateful I’ve finally read it.

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    • Thank you! But did you find out what happened to the real librarian? It’s been two+ years since I reviewed it, feel free to review it again. It keeps these important stories out there, I’m reviewing another Janet Wilson book this week and linking it to UN Global Oneness Day, Oct. 24. I can’t tell you how delighted I am with the Canadian publishers for the unique books they publish. I published a YA novel from another Canadian Publisher today.

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