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."
The biggest challenge for Winter was getting the right tone for the art. An illustrator for more than 30 years, she ordinarily visits the locales she writes about.
But with Iraq in turmoil, she had to settle for books and the picture library of the New York Public Library, where she immersed herself in everything Iraqi she could find.
"Ninety-five percent of it was war photos," she says, "but I did find some 'National Geographic'-type photos and there was one of a man in a boat. It looked like heaven to me, and I decided that would be the picture for Alia dreaming of peace. I later found out that Saddam [Hussein] had drained the canals, so it was a kind of lucky accident."
Winter also drew inspiration from a book and exhibition of children's wartime art called "They Still Draw Pictures," which she saw on display at AXA Gallery in New York City. She was taken by how vividly children portrayed their lives in the midst of warfare.
She calls her own illustrations "almost abstracted, like stage settings." Colorful, spare, and stylized, they substitute motifs for details, leaving room for the imagination.
Children's books can take roughly 18 months to three years to get into print. In this case, however, Harcourt was so taken with Winter's book that it rushed production. Proofs were ready within just two months of submission, and the final print came out four months after that, in November 2004.
"I've never seen anything like it," Winter says with amazement. "It seemed to be a catalyst for the strong feelings people were having about world events."
Lori Benton, vice president and publisher of Harcourt's Children's Books Division, agrees. "The story was so poignant, such a testament to the humanity of the librarian and her dedication to preserving the essence of culture in her society. It would have been easy to sway this story into a political statement or into treacle, but [Winter] did such a beautiful job making it very personal, specific, and accessible to kids. I think it can be very healing."
Harcourt has decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book to a special American Library Association fund set up to help buy books for Basra's Central Library, which is still awaiting funding to be rebuilt.
The soft-spoken, gray-haired author is thrilled. "It's an example of one person doing what they can do, and it's very gratifying. You never know where it might lead."