Notes: Book reviews by Esraa Abukhadra and Jody Sokolower. This is a beginning list of books for students about Palestine and the Arab World. Please add to the list by sending reviews to email@example.com. Be sure to include critical literacy perspectives and/or teaching ideas.
The books are divided into three categories: preschool and early elementary grades, upper elementary and middle school, and high school. Many of the upper elementary and middle school books are great for older readers because, although the writing is easily accessible, the topics are intellectually challenging.
Preschool and Early Elementary Grades
The Mouse Who Saved Egypt
By Karim Alrawi
Illustrated By Bee Willey
(Crocodile Books, 2011)
This picture book is a translation of an ancient Egyptian folktale. A young Egyptian prince stumbles on a mouse trapped in a thorn bush and sets him free. When the prince becomes pharaoh of Egypt, he is a kind and generous leader. Suddenly, the kingdom is threatened with attack. The mouse he rescued saves the day by mobilizing all the mice of Egypt to eat through the enemy army’s clothing, straps, saddles and armor.
Instead of Arab cultures stereotypically portrayed as barbaric and violent, here children are exposed to a better introduction. The prince helps out a little mouse because of the kindness of his heart; through doing good, good is brought back to him. The Mouse Who Saved Egypt is a great way to open up dialogue regarding kindness and the good you put out into the world without expecting anything in return.
Grade Level: Preschool and early elementary
P is for Palestine
By Golbarg Bassi
Illustrated By Golrokh Nafisi
P Is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book is engaging and fun. As an introduction to Palestine, it provides children of different backgrounds brief glimpses of Palestinian foods, cities, and celebrations. For Palestinian American children, it’s a rare chance to see aspects of their culture in print. It includes a few Arabic words to learn, and both Muslim and Christian holidays.
Grade Level: Preschool and early elementary
Baba, What Does My Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine
By Rifk Ebeid
Illustrated by Lamaa Jawhari
(Tablo Publishing, 2020)
In this picture book, Saamidah and her dove of peace travel magically across pre-1948 Palestine, visiting cities and learning about Palestinian culture. For example, we learn that Areeha (Jericho) is one of the oldest cities in the world and the lowest point on earth, and that Nablus is famous for a delicious, cheesy dessert called kunafa. As Palestinian author Ramzy Baroud notes: “Baba, What Does My Name Mean? is an enjoyable, yet profound representation of Palestine that will help children trace their Palestinian identity and heritage in an unforgettable way. At a time when mainstream media is deliberately assigning Palestine and her people with negative associations, damaging undertones, and harmful stereotypes, Ebeid’s book is a refreshing reminder of a people’s spirit that cannot be suppressed.”
In a note at the back, Ebeid explains why she uses transliterations of the Arabic names of Palestinian cities, and provides a key with place names that may be more familiar to US readers.
Grade Level: Preschool and early elementary
Rest In My Shade: A Poem About Roots
By Nora Lester Murad and Danna Masad
(Olive Branch Press, 2019)
Rest in My Shade is a poem from the perspective of an olive tree. The tree grows from an abandoned olive pit to become part of a Palestinian olive grove. After many years, it is violently uprooted by an Israeli bulldozer, thrown on a truck, and eventually replanted in a public square. The poem focuses on the pain and longing of displacement and the importance of resilience.
Because of the thematic focus on displacement, Rest in My Shade can open up discussions about the reasons why people are displaced, and how that feels. The poem only alludes to the occupation in Palestine and the forced exile of Palestinians. So, for example, there is no explanation of why the bulldozer uproots the tree. It is left to individual educators to provide context.
Each page of Rest in My Shade is illustrated with the work of a different Palestinian artist, providing opportunities for comparison and art projects.
More resources for teaching: https://www.restinmyshade.com/teaching-resources/
Grade Level: Early Elementary and Up
By Naomi Shihab Nye
Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
(Aladdin Paperbacks, 1994)
Sitti means grandma in Arabic. The narrator of this beautifully written and illustrated picture book is Mona, a young girl who thinks back to the time she spent with her grandmother, who lives “on the other side of the earth.” Mona lists many things that separate them from one another. Then she describes the many things they did together, using language they invented to communicate with each other. After Mona returns home, she writes a letter to the president. “If the people of the United States could meet Sitti, they’d like her, for sure,” she says.
Although Sitti’s Secrets is dedicated to Naomi Shihad Nye’s grandmother in Palestine, and the author’s bio at the end describes Shihad Nye’s own connection to Palestine, Mona never says where her grandmother lives, or why it’s so difficult for them to visit each other. This both universalizes the story, and creates challenges for teachers. What questions could you ask that would help children of different backgrounds connect Sitti’s Secrets to their own lives? What information will you add about Palestine?
Grade level: Preschool and early elementary
These Chicks / هالصيصان
By Laila Taji, illustrated by Lela Tsinadze.
ArabishWay (2018). In Arabic with English translation.
هالصيصان (These Chicks) is a bright and colorful board book with adorable pictures. The Arabic font is clear and large for new readers, and every word is both translated and transliterated into English to assist with pronunciation and understanding.
As MECA staff member Voulette Hattar explains: “When I first read Ha See-Sawn, or These Chicks, a flood of memories of my childhood came rushing in. When I was young, my mother taught me and my sister Arabic nursery rhymes to make sure that we did not lose our native tongue once we moved to the United States. These Chicks, a beloved and classic Arabic nursery rhyme, was one of my favorites of the rhymes we sang together. My mother learned nursery rhymes from her mother and then taught them to us. One of the ways that Palestine is remembered and passed down through generations is through nursey rhymes.”
Upper Elementary and Middle School
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter
By Anne Laurel Carter
Groundwood Books (2008)
The Shepherd’s Granddaughter is the story of Amani, a young Palestinian girl living in the countryside near Hebron, in the West Bank. Her beloved grandfather tends the family’s sheep. As the story opens, six-year-old Amani is learning how to be a shepherd, too. But taking care of the sheep becomes increasingly difficult as Israeli roads and settlements take over more and more of the family’s land. First her uncle and then her father are beaten and imprisoned. As Amani grows into her teen years and searches for creative ways to protect her herd, she meets a young Jewish boy from the United States who opposes how his father and the other Israeli settlers are stealing Palestinian land. This is a rare Palestinian-centric introduction to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for upper elementary and middle school students.
Grade level: 4th grade and up.
A Little Piece of Ground
By Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr
(Haymarket Books, 2006)
The first scene in A Little Piece of Ground describes the tensions in 12-year-old Karim’s family as they are crammed together in a small apartment during an Israeli-enforced curfew in Ramallah, Palestine. With “sheltering in place” omnipresent in the US during the Covid-19 crisis, this will be an immediate point of connection for students. Through Karim’s eyes, A Little Piece of Ground explores what it’s like to live under Israeli occupation. Schools are closed, then Karim’s school is destroyed. Karim witnesses his father and other Palestinian men stripped naked and humiliated at a checkpoint.
Karim and his friends discover a “piece of ground” that they decide to clean up to use as a soccer field. In the process, they stumble upon an old car buried under the ruins of an old building; they decide to make it into a hideout. When Karim is forced to hide in the car and then try to escape back to his home, he finds unexpected strength in himself and in his family.
A Little Piece of Ground is an excellent blend of relatable everyday life—including sibling conflicts and tensions between old and new friends—and critical information about Palestinian life. Themes for discussion include: The impact and the reasoning behind Israel’s humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints; curfews as collective punishment; the impact on Palestinian children’s education; the ethics of armed actions in the struggle for Palestinian rights; the parallels to police brutality in the United States; how oppressed communities express resilience.
Grade Level: Middle school and up
Oranges In No Man’s Land
By Elizabeth Laird
(Haymarket books, 2008)
In Oranges in No Man’s Land, Ayesha describes her family’s experiences during the civil war in Lebanon. When their neighborhood is bombed and Ayesha’s family dashes to escape, her mother is killed. Ayesha and her siblings are left under the care of her grandmother because her father is away. They find shelter in an abandoned building with other refugees from the fighting. When Ayesha’s grandmother runs out of her medicine and becomes desperately ill, Ayesha needs all her courage and ingenuity to cross two armed checkpoints and find her grandmother’s doctor. Along the way, we see many examples of resilience and compassion.
Oranges in No Man’s Land is an easy-to-read novel with challenging content, so a good choice for students who are learning English or struggling to read at their level of intellectual maturity. There is a realistic, although not overly graphic, depiction of the impact of war on children and their families. There is no overview of what led to the war. We’re left with the perspective that wars are a result of mutual prejudices—that if only people were nicer or wanted peace more, wars would cease to exist. This provides an opportunity for teachers to encourage students to think about why people get into fights, and why nations get into wars. Is it just about feelings? When is it a struggle for justice? Or a drive for more power?
In the abandoned building, Ayesha makes friends with Samar, a young girl who is deaf, and who teaches Ayesha sign. Ayesha pretends she is deaf to avoid capture at one of the checkpoints. This use of Samar as a plot device felt disrespectful to some reviewers. This would be an important point of discussion with students.
Grade level: Upper Elementary and Up
Middle School and Above
DETERMINED TO STAY:
Palestinian Youth Fight for Their Village
by Jody Sokolower;
Introduction by Nick Estes
(Olive Branch Press, 2021)
Paperback : 230 pages
Silwan is a Palestinian village just outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Determined to Stay is the moving story of its people in the face of occupation. As Silwani youth and community members share their lives with us, their village becomes a doorway to Palestinian history and current reality. Written with young people in mind, Determined to Stay draws deep connections between the lives of youth in the US and Palestine—from criminalization, forced relocation and buried histories to hip-hop as resistance. Illustrated with photos and maps.
Co-published by Interlink and Middle East Children’s Alliance (2021).
Order from MECA.
Grade Level: Middle school and above
High School and Above
By Leila Abdelrazaq
(Just World Books, 2015)
Baddawi, which means bedouin or nomad in Arabic, is the name of Ahmad’s refugee camp in Lebanon. Ahmad, who is the author/illustrator’s father, grew up in the Palestinian refugee camp in Northern Lebanon because his parents were forced out of Palestine in 1948. This accessible graphic novel does a good job of describing one long-term impact of the Nakba on Palestinians forced into diaspora. With humor and empathy, the story focuses on Ahmad and the trials he faces as a child and youth, how he copes with the harsh reality of his situation, and what he makes of it. Eventually he decides to put all his energy and time into his education in order to escape the death and violence that surround him. The story ends as Ahmad heads to the United States to continue his education.
Most Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, even generations later, are barred from citizenship and are prevented by Lebanese law from working and from public education. This creates an opportunity for discussions of the extent to which refugees to the United States are or are not integrated into US society.
Grade Level: High school and above
Tasting the Sky
By Ibtisam Barakat
(RR Donnelley & Sons Company, 2007)
Tasting the Sky is Ibtisam Barakat’s memoir of her experiences as a child forced into exile in Jordan by Israel’s 1967 war against Jordan, Egypt, Syria and the people of Palestine. Ibtisam is only three years old when the war starts; her childhood is defined by her family’s efforts to find safety in Jordan and then back in Ramallah.
The book is a compelling story that will engage students. The first chapter, however, starts in 1981, when an adult Ibtisam is stopped at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Birzeit. This can be confusing to young readers; we suggest starting with the second chapter of the book. Tasting the Sky is an accessible entry point to an often neglected section of Palestinian history.
Unlike the rest of the book, the “Historical Note” that introduces the book leans toward equating the responsibility for resolving the “conflict,” as if Palestinians and Israelis have played equivalent roles in creating the current situation. This creates an opportunity for encouraging critical thinking among students. After reading Tasting the Sky, what do they think justice looks like?
Grade Level: High school and above
Jerusalem Chronicles From The Holy City
By Guy Delisle
(Darwin & Quarterly, 2012)
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is a travelogue in the form of a graphic novel. The author/illustrator spends a year living in Beit Hanina near Jerusalem with his family. While his wife works for Doctors Without Borders, Delisle explores the area and takes care of his young children. Delisle is very much the curious but uninvolved outsider, creating vignettes of his experiences with Palestinians and Israelis as he tries to understand life in the West Bank. Through his eyes, we share his initial encounters with checkpoints, curfews, and other human rights abuses. We see how different Hebron looks when the guide is an Israeli settler or when it is a Palestinian resident. Although Delisle never takes an explicit position on Israel’s impact on Palestinian life, we gradually see that Palestinians are living under a system of apartheid rule.
Delisle’s wife, whose experiences as a medical worker in Gaza could have provided sharp insights into life there under the siege, has essentially no voice in the book. This prompts the reader to realize that women’s voices are largely missing throughout the book. What information and insights are we missing because we only hear from men?
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City provides an opportunity for students to decide what they think about Palestine/Israel as Delisle describes incident on incident of life in cities and villages throughout the West Bank. In this way, it’s a nonthreatening introduction to the subject. However, in addition to the dearth of women’s voices, there is nothing in the book about Palestinian resistance and few explicit descriptions of Palestinian resilience. For serious study, Jerusalem needs ancillary videos, articles and activities to provide context, history, and analysis.
Grade Level: High school and above