Two recent children's books give teachers a positive opportunity to open up discussions of the Iraq war with their students.
Both books—The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, Inc. 2004) and Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)—tell the story of Alia Muhammed Baker, the chief librarian of Basra, Iraq, who saved 30,000 books from Basra's library before it burned during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Both authors were inspired by a July 2003 report in the New York Times by Shaila Devan.
The Librarian of Basra is especially appropriate for younger children with its colorful stylized illustrations and simple text.
Mark Alan Stamaty is a cartoonist, and Alia's Mission tells the story through graphic cartoon panels. Appropriate for older elementary, middle, and high school students, the book opens by characterizing Alia as a "different kind of superhero." The story "is based on true events in the life of a real person who shows us it's not necessary to see through walls or fly or have any superpowers at all to be a real life superhero."
Both books would be worthy additions to any home, classroom or school library.
Below are brief study guides for each book.
The Librarian of Basra
by Jeanette Winter
Show the children the front cover of the book. The cover depicts Alia amid piles of books. Ask them what they think the story will be about.
Read them the title and subtitle and the name of the author and illustrator (or ask one of the students to do so). Ask, what's a librarian? What does a librarian do? Have they heard of Iraq? What is Iraq? Why has it been in the news? You might show them Iraq on a globe or world map, and ask what they know about the country. Explain that Basra is a city in Iraq.
Now show the children the back cover. The back cover shows a building in flames. Ask them if that changes their ideas of what the story is about.
Read the story through, pausing only if the students have questions.
When you've finished reading the story, ask the students an open-ended question: What do you want to say about the story? What struck you? Do you have questions? Note their questions on the board or a piece of chart paper.
Check the children's comprehension:
- Who is the story mainly about?
- What is Alia worried about?
- When the governor won't help her, what does she do?
- Who helps her?
- How many books does she save?
Help the students deepen their understanding:
- Why are books important?
- Why was it so important to Alia and her neighbors to save the books?
- Why do you think the governor didn't help her?
- How does Alia feel as the war rages on and the library burns down?
- What gives Alia hope toward the end of the story?
- What's a hero?
- Do you think Alia is a hero? Why? Why not?
Help the students connect the story to their own lives:
- Alia worried that the books might be destroyed in the war. Are there things going on in the world that you worry about? What are they?
- Toward the end of the story, Alia dreams of peace and a new library. What are your dreams for the future?
Help students tap their power to make a difference:
- Alia and her friends worked together to rescue the books. What qualities do they have that enabled them to make a difference?
- Has there been a time when you made the world better by something you did? If the students can't think of anything, remind them that small things count, for example, helping your mother, sending a card to someone who is sick.
- What qualities do you have that enabled you to make a difference?
- If your students want to help Alia rebuild her book collection, they can contribute to a fund administered by the American Library Association. Make checks payable to ALA with "Basra Book Fund" on the memo line, and send them to International Relations Office, ALA, 50 E. Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611. (For more information, contact the ALA's International Relations Department at 1-800-545-2433 x 3201.)
Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq
by Mark Alan Stamaty
Begin by creating a web with your students to see what they know about Iraq and the Iraq war.
Write the word Iraq in the center of a large piece of chart paper, and ask the students what comes to mind. Record their responses on the chart paper and draw lines connecting them to Iraq to form a web. Accept all their associationsóthere are no wrong answers. Continue while interest is high.
When you're done with the web, ask the students what they want to say about the web (what are their observations?). Ask if they have any questions and add their questions to the chart or, if they have lots of questions, create another chart. Correct any misinformation the students have, as revealed by their associations or comments.
After you read the story and show them the cartoons, here are some questions you may want to ask:
1. What do you have to say about the book? What struck you?
2. Did you learn anything you didn't know before? If so, what?
3. Do any new questions come to mind now that you have heard the story?
4. Why does Alia love her job? Why are books special to her?
5. As war approaches, why does Alia worry?
6. Why do you think the governor doesn't help her?
7. Why does the government take over the library and put artillery and soldiers on the roof?
8. What is Alia's plan for saving the library?
9. Does Alia risk getting into trouble by removing the books without permission?
10. Do you agree that Alia is a superhero? Why? Why not? What qualities does Alia have that enabled her to make a difference?
Toward the end of the discussion, review the chart with the students' questions. Analyze the questions along the lines suggested in Alan Shapiro's unit on "Teaching Critical Thinking" (The Doubting Game, section 3) on this website.
Ask the students to consider which are the best questions. (A good question is one that, if answered well, will contribute to the students' understanding.) Which questions interest them the most?
For extra or substitute homework, ask for volunteers to research one or more of the questions and report to the class.
If students want to help restore Iraq's libraries, they can contribute to a fund administered by the American Library Association. Make checks payable to ALA with "Basra Book Fund" on the memo line, and send them to International Relations Office, ALA, 50 E. Huron Street, Chicago, IL 60611. (For more information, contact the ALA's International Relations Department at 1-800-545-2433 x 3201.)
Tom Roderick is executive director of ESR Metro.
We welcome your thoughts and suggestions about these activities! Please email Tom at: firstname.lastname@example.org.