The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq
Author: Jeanette Winter
Pages: 32
Publisher/Date: Harcourt/2005
ISBN: 0152054456
Age Levels: 7 and up

Book Review

"Alia Muhammad Baker is the librarian of Basra, a port city in the sand-swept country of Iraq." So begins this moving tale of one librarian’s attempts to save the beloved books in her library as war threatens.

When the governor of Basra refuses her request to move the books to a safe place, "Alia takes matters into her own hands." When the city is "lit with a firestorm of bombs and gunfire," Alia, with the help of her friends, manages to transfer thousands of books—some of them irreplaceable—to a nearby restaurant. Nine days later, the library burns to the ground.

As the war moves inland and away, Alia is able to move the books once again—this time to her home and homes of friends. One double-page spread shows the inside of Alia’s house. Books are everywhere: in cupboards; under the bed; stacked on stools. Until a new library can be built, "the books are safe—safe with the librarian of Basra."

The story, a true one, was inspired by an article about the librarian’s efforts which appeared in the New York Times in 2003. Jeanette Winter does an outstanding job. The tale is simply, yet powerfully told—at once both haunting and hopeful. The bold, colorful, acrylic and pen illustrations adroitly and accurately portray the people and place.

An author’s note is appended which informs us that not long after the library burned, "Alia suffered a stroke and had heart surgery. But she is healing, and despite all, she is determined to see that the library is rebuilt."

Classroom Experience: We took this book into a 6 th-grade geography classroom that was studying the Middle East. The students had previously researched and discussed the restricted roles of women in some countries in the region. We read the book aloud. The students enjoyed the story and were clearly moved by it. They asked many questions. Several commented on the fact that Alia chose to stand up for something she believed in even though it was dangerous. As one student noted, "You don’t have to be powerful to do powerful things." If you are looking for quality children’s literature that will generate thoughtful discussion, this is it.

Reviewed by the teachers at Education Oasis
©2006 Education Oasis

About the Author

Jeanette Winter has illustrated many books for children, including Day of the Dead by Tony Johnston and her own Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book, My Name Is Georgia, and Josefina. She lives in New York City with her husband, painter Roger Winter.