The tale of the Iraqi librarian who saved the books she loves
Of all the children's books about the good one person can do, few are more timely or resonant than Jeanette Winter's "The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq."
The true account of an Iraqi librarian's brave struggle to save her community's priceless collection of books dramatically illustrates the difference one person can make. And in a moving parallel, the author is now leaving her own indelible footprints at the point where the story ends.
The book was inspired by a July 2003, article in The New York Times about Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of Basra's Central Library, who was determined to protect the library's holdings when US troops entered Iraq and fighting and looting broke out.
When her own government refused to help, Ms. Baker began spiriting the collection to safety herself, book by book. She carried the books to her home and to a neighboring restaurant, managing with the help of friends to preserve 70 percent of the collection before the historic building burned to the ground nine days later.
In the article, Baker remarked "In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was 'Read.' " Winter, who has written biographies for children, was hooked. "What Alia realized was that without books, you lose history, culture, the rich exchange of ideas," she says.
Some Basra residents, however, thought Baker's endeavor was simply looting and questioned why she didn't steal something more valuable than books. "I got a kick out of reading about that," says Winter. "There really is nothing more valuable."
For Winter, the elements of Baker's story (Harcourt Children's Books, $16) seemed simple and accessible enough to streamline for a children's tale. Effectively told, the story helps connect children to world events.
"It puts a human face on war and maybe breaks down the idea of 'otherness,' " says Winter. "War is so abstract, so unfathomable. But if you zero in on one person, how she was affected and what she did, it's easier for kids to grasp. And the idea of a library and saving books is universal, something kids can identify with."
But the strongest draw for Winter was the idea that one person could make a difference. "I'm amazed in my own life what one person can do, and I think it's important for kids to know that," she says. "They don't always hear that at home."