The below bibliography is a list of sixteen books set in the Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa region. I chose this topic because as an Arab child growing up reading English books, I did not find the characters and settings relatable. Therefore, it was important for me to find high-quality, relatable and relevant books set in the Middle East and North Africa for Arab and non-Arab readers to learn about the region. To ensure that the books were high-quality, I chose only those that were given a rating of 1 or 2 on the Horn Book Guide, when applicable.
The books range from non-fiction to fiction, from picture books to chapter books, and include biographies and folk tales. The majority are original English language books; some are dual-language books and others are translated. Many of the books discuss serious and timely events like the Syrian refugee crisis as well as other wars and conflicts. Nonetheless, the books also celebrate the rich history, cultures and people of the Arab world including food, art and local heroes. I also thought it was important to include books written or illustrated by Arab authors and illustrators whenever possible.
The countries in which stories are set or originate from are Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Syria and Yemen. Unfortunately, I could not include other countries because I either could not find English books set there or the ratings on the Horn Book Guide were 3+. This resulted in countries being represented more than once.
Through these books, I hope readers of all ages and backgrounds will learn about the diversity of Arab countries and appreciate Arab culture and history.
Joha Makes a Wish: A Middle Eastern Tale by Eric Kimmel. Illustrated by Omar Rayyan. 2010. Cavendish (Marshall Cavendish Corp). Keywords: Fiction, Folktales, Joha, Yemen, Iraq. Ages 4-8. HBG: 2. Located: HBG.
Kimmel’s words paired with Rayyan’s bright illustrations bring Joha, a silly character well-known to many Arab children, to life. Joha rests during his trip to Baghdad and miraculously finds a magical wishing stick but it can only seem to get him in trouble until he finds out why – he has been holding it upside down. Although he loses his stick to the sultan, he cleverly and humorously gets revenge in the end.
Mirror by Jeannie Baker. 2010. Candlewick. Keywords: Diversity, Culture, Australia, Morocco, Cities, Families, Market. Ages 4-8. HBG: 1. Located: Class.
In this wordless book, Jeannie Baker shows two boys’ very different yet similar lives side by side using three-dimensional multimedia collage. The left side takes place in Australia and the right in Morocco. The introduction is in both English and Arabic, making it a great book to introduce in both cultures but also worldwide because it is wordless. Children can enjoy seeing the story unfold by simply looking at the artwork.
My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo. 2017. Pajama Press. Keywords: Fiction, Refugees, Syria, War, Refugee Camp, Pets, Birds, Animals, Healing. Ages 6-10. HBG: 2. Located: HBG.
Original art created with polymer clay and acrylic depicts Sami and his family’s journey from the danger and fire of their village in Syria to the safety of a refugee camp. Del Rizzo does not shy away from showing the trauma children fleeing war feel but she also shows hope and healing. The Author’s Note in the end provides readers with information about the Syrian refugee crisis that highlights the urgency of the situation.
Saladin: Noble Prince of Islam by Diane Stanley. 2002. HarperCollins. Keywords: Non-fiction, Islam, Crusaders, Jerusalem, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, War, Morals, History. Ages 8-12 HBG: 2 Located: Class.
Stanley uses beautiful and richly detailed illustrations and Islamic design and very well-researched text to explain historical events and aspects of Islam. She focuses on Saladin’s life as a leader and the events leading up to his recapturing of Jerusalem from the Crusaders. The story gives insight into his moral acts during warfare. It is set in multiple Arab countries in the Middle East including Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem.
Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. 1992. Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Company. Keywords: Fiction, Family, Lebanon, Civil War, 1975. Ages 4-8. HBG: 2 Located: HBG.
Sami is a ten-year old boy who lives in Lebanon during the Civil War, which has been going on his entire life. Watercolor illustrations of the basement, the rubble, and a wedding bring the reality of war to the reader. Although the book ends with a message of hope and empowerment, the very first and last pages are exact copies of the same illustration depicting a war-torn street, perhaps showing that the war went on.
*Note: This is another (extra) book I wanted to include by the same authors and illustrator of The Day of Ahmed’s Secret because the setting and time in which it is set was too important in Lebanese history to leave out. The book is beautifully and authentically written and illustrated that it had to be included in this list.
Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford. 2008. Roaring Book/Porter. Keywords: Fiction, Iraq, Arabic, Calligraphy, War, Peace, Culture. Ages 4-8. HBG: 2 Located: HBG.
Rumford’s poetic text paired with his beautiful calligraphy and mixed-media illustrations bring to life the struggle of Ali, a boy in Iraq who is learning the art of calligraphy. The story also references historical events like the war in Iraq in 2003 and historical figures who were in Iraq, such as Yaqut al-Musta’simi, one of the most famous calligraphers. Thus, this book is also a celebration of Iraqi culture and history.
Stepping Stones by Margaret Ruurs. Translated by Falah Raheem. Illustrated by Nizar Ali Badr. 2016. Orca Book Publishers. Keywords: Syria, War, Freedom, Refugees, Europe, Arabic, English. Ages 4-8. HBG: 2. Located: HBG.
What sets this book apart is the illustrator and his art. Badr is a Syrian artist who lives in Syria and creates moving stories through stones he finds on the shore. A wide range of audiences can enjoy this book as the text is in both English and Arabic and is also clearly and poignantly told through the simple yet powerful artwork. Themes that distinguish this book are freedom, oppression and refugees fleeing to Europe.
The Butter Man by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou. Illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli. 2008. Charlesbridge. Keywords: Fiction, Morocco, Food, Famine, Family. Ages 4-9. HBG: 2. Located: Internet.
The Butter Man is a story a father tells his daughter, Nora, as she hungrily waits for the family Saturday dish of couscous to be ready. Gouache illustrations show life in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco where Nora’s father grew up and where the story of the butter man takes place. Words in the Tamazight language of the Berber bring to the forefront elements of Moroccan culture, such as food and dance.
The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland. Illustrated by Ted Lewin. 1990. Lothrop. Keywords: Fiction, Picture Books, Cairo, Egypt, Writing, Architecture, City, Family. Ages 4-8 HBG: 2. Located: HBG.
Mother and daughter co-authors’ storyline along with Lewin’s incredibly detailed and realistic paintings of the bustling and breathtaking city of Cairo take readers on a day in Ahmed’s life. Ahmed makes his trip delivering gas cylinders, or Butagaz as they are called, all the while excited to go home and tell his parents his secret: he has learned to write his name, an excitement that many young children will certainly share.
The Illustrator’s Notebook [Kashkool Al-Rassam] by Mohieddin Ellabbad. Translated into English by Sarah Quinn. 2006. Groundwood (House of Anansi Press). Keywords: Notebooks, Illustrators, Egypt, Biography. Ages: 6+ HBG: 1. Located: HBG.
Ellabbad’s notebook is a unique, award-winning book that has been translated from Arabic into French, German and English. Its scrapbook feel maintains all the original Arabic text, illustrations, and layout. The book starts from right to left, like the Arabic language and any other Arabic book. He discusses topics as diverse as memories and souvenirs, calligraphy, heroes, literature and of course, illustrations. The English translation of the text appears in the margin of each page.
The Jasmine Sneeze by Nadine Kaadan. 2016. Lantana Publishing. Keywords: Fiction, Syria, Damascus, Jasmine, Cats, Pets. Ages 4-8. HBG: NA. Located: Internet.
The Jasmine Sneeze is a welcome and much-needed story today that celebrates the beauty and cultural heritage of oldest inhabited of city in the world, Damascus. Haroun the cat lives in the so-called jasmine city, Damascus, but he does not like the smell of jasmine. The Jasmine Spirit punishes Haroun with a curse. Bright and beautiful patterns and childish illustrations will draw young readers in and the storyline will have them giggling about poor Haroun.
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq by Jeanette Winter. 2005. Harcourt, Inc. Keywords: Non-fiction, Alia Baker, Hero, Iraq, Basra, Books, Library, War, Women, Arab. Ages 4-8. HBG: 2. Located: HBG.
Winter’s pen and watercolor illustrations are displayed in boxes and are placed on bright colored pages in yellow, purple and blue. The book is based on an article that appeared in the New York Times about Alia Baker saving the library of Basra. Winter uses illustrations to show war and peace and below the illustrations, simple text tells the story, making this book great both for read-aloud to younger students and for independent readers.
The Shadows of Ghademes by Joëlle Stolz. Translated from French by Catherine Temerson. 2004. Delacorte Press. Keywords: Fiction, Libya, Ghadames, Gender roles, History, Culture. Ages: 10-13. HBG: 2. Located: Internet.
This coming of age chapter book set in the nineteenth century in the Libyan town of Ghadames uncovers a unique culture through the eyes of a young girl named Malika as she tries to understand the world around her. The different characters add depth and facilitate a more nuanced understanding of the culture. The book discusses gender roles and differences in that specific time and place. Strong female characters show courage, cleverness and ambition.
The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara. Illustrated by Sara Kahn. 2016. Lee & Low Books. Keywords: Fiction, War, Grief, Cats, Pets, Lebanon, 2006. Ages: 7-12. HBG: 2. Located: HBG.
The Three Lucys is based on true events that took place in Lebanon during the July war in 2006. It tackles the grief of losing a pet and tells of the destruction caused by war through the eyes of a child, Luli, who has three pet cats: Lucy the Fat, Lucy the Skinny and Lucy Lucy. Kahn’s detailed watercolor paintings depict a range of settings in Lebanon from beaches to cities and homes.
The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye. Illustrated by Betsy Peterschmidt. 2014. Greenwillow Books. Keywords: Fiction, Oman, Moving, Grandfather, Family, Turtle. Ages 8-11. HBG: 1. Located: HBG.
In this award-winning chapter book, Shihab Nye discusses the difficulty of leaving home, family and friends through the loving and close relationship of Aref and his grandfather, Sidi. Readers explore the desert and turtle beaches of Oman as Sidi helps ease Aref’s nerves about moving to Michigan. Small illustrations begin each chapter, giving a glimpse of the events to come. Page numbers written on the shells of little turtles maintain the theme.
Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdelfattah. 2010. Scholastic. Keywords: Fiction, Palestine, Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Family, Grandmother, Courage, Friendship. Ages 8-11. HBG: 2. Located: CPL.
This chapter book tells the story of Hayaat, a thirteen-year-old Palestinian girl living Bethlehem in the West Bank, and her mission to save her grandmother’s life. The book is hilariously told from Hayaat’s perspective while shedding light on the serious, real-life struggles of life under occupation. Each chapter begins with an illustration of an olive tree branch, which holds a great significance as a source of sustenance to Palestinians like Hayaat and her family.
HBG= Horn Book Guide
Internet= my own Internet searches of Middle East and North Africa books