The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq for Children

The Librarian of Basra - children's picture book cover
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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The Librarian of Basra is as the subtitle states, A True Story of Iraq. With limited text and folkart-style illustrations, author and illustrator Jeanette Winter relates the dramatic true story of how one determined woman helped save the Basra Central Library's books during the invasion of Iraq. Created in picture book format, this is an excellent book for 8 to 12 year olds.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq

In April 2003, the invasion of Iraq reaches Basra, a port city. Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of Basra's Central Library is worried the books will be destroyed. When she requests permission to move the books to a place where they will be safe, the governor denies her request. Frantic, Alia does want she can to save the books.

Every night Alia secretly takes home as many of the library's books as she can fit in her car. When bombs hit the city, buildings are damaged and fires start. When everyone else abandons the library, Alia seeks help from friends and neighbors of the library to save the library's books.

With the help of Anis Muhammad, who owns the restaurant next to the library, his brothers, and others, thousands of books are carried to the seven-foot wall that separates the library and the restaurant, passed over the wall and hidden in the restaurant. Although shortly thereafter, the library is destroyed by fire, 30,000 of the Basra Central Library's books have been saved by the heroic efforts of the librarian of Basra and her helpers.

Awards and Recognition

2006 Notable Children's Books List, Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) of the American Library Association (ALA)

2005 Middle East Book Awards, Middle East Outreach Council (MEOC)

Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction, Bank Street College of Education

Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies designation, NCSS/CBC

The Librarian of Basra: The Author and Illustrator

Jeanette Winter is the author and illustrator of a number of children's picture books, including September Roses, a small picture book based on a true story that happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book, My Name Is Georgia, a book about artist Georgia O'Keeffe, and Josefina, a picture book inspired by Mexican folk artist Josefina Aguilar.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa, Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia and Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, winner of the 2010 Jane Addams Children's Book Award, Books for Younger Children category, are some of her other true stories. Winter has also illustrated children's books for other writers, including by Tony Johnston.

In a Harcourt interview when asked what she hoped children would remember from The Librarian of Basra, Jeanette Winter cited the belief that one person can make a difference and be brave, something she hopes kids remember they they feel powerless.

(Sources: Harcourt interview, Simon & Schuster: Jeanette Winter, PaperTigers Interview)

The Librarian of Basra: The Illustrations

The book's design complements the text. Each page features a colorful boxed illustration with text underneath it. The pages that describe the approach of war are yellow-gold; with the invasion of Basra, the pages are a somber lavender. With safety for the books and dreams of peace, the pages are a bright blue. With colors reflecting the mood, Winter's folk art illustrations reinforce the simple, yet dramatic, story.

The Librarian of Basra: My Recommendation

This true story illustrates both the impact one person can have and the impact a group of people can have when working together under a strong leader, like the librarian of Basra, for a common cause. The Librarian of Basra also calls attention to how valuable libraries and their books can be to individuals and communities. I recommend The Librarian of Basra: A True Story of Iraq for children 8-12. (Harcourt, 2005. ISBN: 9780152054458)