Children's Books For and About Syrian Children

Looking for children's books featuring Syria? So am I. Fiction, especially, seems scarce. I managed to find one novel for teens written two decades ago, and another newer one which I discussed on the Fire Escape in 2007. (If you know of any other titles, please leave them in the comments section of this post.) 

A Hand Full of Stars (Dutton, 1990) by Rafik Schami, translated by Rika Lesser, Winner of the Batchelder Award.

"This unusual novel, written in the form of a diary, tells the story of four years in the life of a Damascan boy. When he begins his account, the narrator spends his days playing with his friends and dreaming of becoming a journalist. Like many American boys, the diarist worries about his schoolwork and his girlfriend, but he must also cope with difficulties unfamiliar to his American contemporaries. Military coups are frequent occurrences and many of the neighborhood men have been sent to jail on the slimmest of pretexts. Taken out of school to work in his father's bakery, the boy finds another way to pursue his ambition by starting an underground newspaper. This multifaceted work is at once a glimpse into a different culture, a plea for the right to free speech and a highly readable tale, as full of fun as it is of melancholy." — Publishers Weekly, Ages 12-up.

In the Name of God (Roaring Brook Press, 2007) by Paula Jolin.

"Jolin's powerful and timely first novel transports readers to present-day Syria and explores how the hatred that young people feel towards Americans seems to fuel their willingness to become suicide bombers. Nadia, a respectable hijabi girl, lives in Damascus, where she fasts, prays, reads the Qur'an and covers her head. She is disgusted with her cousins' acceptance of Western culture ('Once again, Western values were intruding into my world and I was powerless to stop them'). Like her cousin Fowzi, Nadia believes that America's support of Israel and their fight against terrorism is contributing to the unstable conditions in Syria. Many young people, unable to find professional jobs, must seek work elsewhere, either in Emirates or the United States ('enemy number 2,' behind Israel). Fowzi tells them, 'How can you be responsible to the Muslims when you live in a state that's attacking them?' After Fowzi is arrested, Nadia feels compelled to fight against the American influences that resulted in his arrest, and agrees to be a suicide bomber. Readers will see that underneath Nadia's extremist idealism there is also a young woman with a romantic notion of saving her country, who doesn't fully realize the overwhelming consequences her actions will have on her family until it is almost too late. Though at times readers may feel they are being taught, this informative novel will get them thinking about another point of view." — Publishers Weekly, Ages 14-up.

Last month, Syrian children from the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan talked to the Guardian about their experiences during the civil war. As always, it's worth listening to the most vulnerable of voices:

Want to find out more? Books for Syria is producing fiction for the kids in the refugee camps, and a picture book called FAR FROM HOME by UK-based Samah Zaitoun has been a hit:

Also, the Arab Children's Literature Programme provides information about children's books in Syria, including a list of children's book authors and illustrators based in that country. And if you have no idea what's been happening in Syria recently, here's a good introduction from the Washington Post.

Children's Books in Iran: A Chat with Ali Seidabadi

I'm delighted to invite my (Facebook) friend, Ali Seidabadi, to the Fire Escape to chat about the current state of children's books in Iran. Before you read the interview, pause to reflect on what comes to mind when you think of Iran. Then read on. Is anything in the interview surprising to you? (For example, that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is sometimes banned here, but not in Iran ...)

Ali, thank you so much for joining me. Here's my first question: What is the climate in Iran for the creation of children's stories?

Most people in the world have a political/media-formed image of Iran in mind, but there are many cultural, artistic, and literary activities going on in Iran. There are a great number of authors and illustrators for children’s and young adult’s books. All the same, due to political obstacles, it has unfortunately become impossible to establish cultural and literary relationships with most other countries. People in English-speaking countries, particularly in the USA, are not familiar with Iranian children’s books.

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Another barrier is language. Iranian artists (unlike writers) have little difficulty. For example, a great number of children’s book illustrators from Iran take part in international exhibitions, such as that of Bologna, Bratislava, etc. every year. Another example is the Iranian film industry, which is represented in various film festivals. A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, even won an academy award and was publicly screened in America.

I hope that in the newly-created atmosphere and also in the light of a strengthened relationship between the two countries, American people will get more acquainted with Iranian children’s books as well.

Who are some of Iran's best storytellers for children, past and present?

Children’s literature in Iran goes back several thousands of years, but most of the ancient texts do not bear the names of their writers. The works of influential literary figures from ancient Iran who were also great story-tellers such as Rumi, Ferdowsi, etc. have always been read to children and young adults.

In a modern era, starting 200 years ago, a new kind of children’s literature has been created. One of the most prominent story-writers of Iran is Samad Behrangi, whose strange life and death has made him a legend. His book entitled The Little Black Fish, illustrated by Farshid Mesghalli, won the Hans Christian Andersen award and is well-known.

Other Iranian authors are Hooshang Moradi Kermani, some of whose works have been translated to English, and Ahmadreza Ahmadi who was shortlisted for a Hans Christian Andersen award. Some younger writers have also appeared in the recent decades whose works, in my opinion, are better than their predecessors.

What are some of your favorite recent books published in Iran for children?

It might seem strange to you, but many recent books by American authors are translated and published in Iran. I have read numerous works written by today’s American writers. For example, last year I read two books by Brian Selznick, and you might find it interesting to know that his Hugo won a golden Flying Turtle award in Iran.

I have read Persian translations of books by Lee Wardlaw, Han Nolan, Lois Lowry, Peter H. Reynolds, and Sharon Creech, and I know that many Iranian children admire their works too.

A translation recently published in Iran that I like extremely well is that of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Unfortunately, Iran is not a member of the Copyright Convention, and these books get published without notifying their writers and original publishers. Some Iranian publishers and translators have tried in recent years to pay the copyright prior to publishing the translations even though Iran is not a member of this convention. However, some American and British publishers are not interested in establishing relations with Iran due to political issues. I hope that such problems will vanish in the new atmosphere.

Have you read any good children's books about Iran published outside of the country?

Yes, I have read some good books that have been in some way related to Iran or Iranian stories and published in foreign countries. Some of these books have been written by those of Iranian descent and some by others. Among them, I can name two books —Shadow Spinner and Alphabet of Dreams by Susan Fletcher — which are both well-written and very appealing. The location of one of Ms. Fletcher’s books is Iran, but ancient Iran, and the story takes place at the time Jesus Christ was born.

Thank you so much for your open and encouraging answers, Ali. Last but not least, what is your view about an American writing a book set in Iran, featuring Iranian characters? Any thoughts or advice for that writer?

My advice to an author who wants to write about Iran is to pay attention to the fact that the image projected by the media is not a precise image of Iran. Regardless of that identity and the global voice of our government, we Iranians are like the rest of the world in that we love life and peace.

Ali Seidabadi lives in Tehran with his wife and their two children. His wife is a journalist. Until two years ago, Ali was also a reformist journalist besides working on children’s literature. In the newspapers where he last worked, he was a member of the editorial board and the editor of the culture group. Ali is the editor of the only Iranian journal that deals specifically with children’s literature: Research Quarterly for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. He has written more than 30 books for children and young adults, some of which have won non-governmental recognized awards in Iran and have been translated into other languages.

OPEN MIC in 25 Days! Reviews, ARC Giveaway, and More ...

Our anthology releases September 10th from Candlewick, and the reviews are beginning to come in.

From The Horn Book, where it was the review of the week:

"...Naomi Shihab Nye offers an eloquent poem about her Arab American dad, whose open friendliness made him 'Facebook before it existed.' David Yoo, Debbie Rigaud, Varian Johnson, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich also contribute stories to this noteworthy anthology, which robustly proves Perkins’ assertion that 'funny is powerful.'”

From ALA Booklist:

"...David Yoo’s excellent 'Becoming Henry Lee' is the one that will probably elicit the most laughs. But all invite sometimes rueful smiles or chuckles of recognition. And all demonstrate that in the specific we find the universal, and that borders are meant to be breached."

From Publisher's Weekly:

"...will leave readers thinking about the ways that humor can be a survival tool in a world that tends to put people in boxes."

The book is a Junior Library Guild selection. Yippee!

Also, The Horn Book asked me five questions about the anthology, and the esteemed organization Children's Book Council showed their support.

Here's the audio version from Brilliance. Watch for a series of blog posts featuring the contributors to the anthology, pictured below:

Top Row: Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Greg Neri, Debbie Rigaud, Gene Yang, Naomi Shihab Nye
Bottom Row: Me, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, Varian Johnson, Francisco X. Store, David Yoo 

Exciting times, friends. In case you're curious, here are my three "ground rules" when it comes to the intersection of race and comedy, explored further in the introduction to the anthology:

1. Poke fun at the powerful, not the weak. 

2. Build affection for the “other” instead of alienating us from somebody different. 

3. Be self-deprecatory.

We would love it if you "liked" our Facebook page: And here's your chance to win an advance review copy:

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   an ARC of OPEN MIC ...  

Congratulations to the Winners of the 2013 SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grants

If you're an aspiring writer of books for young readers, my first piece of advice would be to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This 22,000-member strong group will provide opportunities to hone the craft, meet editors and agents, and become part of our supportive community of writers and illustrators. I've been a card-carrying member for twenty years.

Today, SCBWI announced the winners of their annual work-in-progress grants, given to unpublished authors.
Contemporary Category 
Mary Ann Scott | The Unfolding of Ripley Kent
Runner-up: Margo Rabb | Kissing in America 
General Category 
Jocelyn Leigh Rish | The Drama Queen Who Cried Wolf
Runner-up: Rebecca Louie | Tru U 
Multicultural Category 
Suzanne Linn Kamata | Indigo Girl 
Runner-up: Natasha Tarpley | Alchemist Bread 
Nonfiction Category
Patrice Sherman | The Vitamin Sleuths: A Tale of Mystery, Medicine and Nutrition 
Runner-up: Suzanne Slade | The Music in George’s Head 
Anna Cross Giblin Award
Caren Stelson | Sachiko
Barbara Karlin Award 
Elizabeth Coburn | Captain Bilgewater and the Buccaneer Ballet 
Runner-up: Karol Ruth Silverstein | Other
Unpublished Author Award
David Arnold | Mosquitoland 

Congratulations to the winners and runner-ups! If you're curious, like I was, the "multicultural" grant was established in 2010, and is not dependent on the race/ethnicity of the author but awarded to "any work focused on multicultural/minority issues, including picture books."

CBC Diversity: Our Industry Cares About Kids on the Margins

One of the most encouraging signs of change since I've been in this vocation was the establishment of the Children's Book Council Diversity Committee in January 2012.

Here's their mission statement:
The CBC Diversity Committee is one of five committees established by the Children's Book Council, the national nonprofit trade association for children's trade book publishers. We are dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s and young adult literature. To create this change, we strive to build awareness that the nature of our society must be represented within the children’s publishing industry. 
Many of us have been yipping and yapping about these issues for years, so to watch movers and shakers within the industry gather to advocate for young people on the margins has been nothing short of thrilling. Here's a list of the editors and marketing folk currently serving on the committee:
  • Alvina Ling (Chair), Executive Editorial Director, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Daniel Ehrenhaft, Editorial Director, Soho Teen/Soho Press
  • Antonio Gonzalez, Assoc Marketing Manager, Author Visits, Scholastic
  • Connie Hsu, Editor, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Wendy Lamb, VP and Publishing Director, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children's Books
  • Daniel Nayeri, Digital Editorial Director, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's Books
  • Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and Executive Director of Trade, Scholastic
  • Caroline Sun, Senior Publicity Manager, Integrated Marketing HarperCollins Children's Books
  • Namrata Tripathi, Executive Editor, Atheneum/Simon and Schuster
  • Liz Waniewski, Executive Editor, Dial/Penguin Books for Young Readers
Ayanna Coleman, librarian and CBC staff liaison, works diligently and excellently to coordinate the Committee's events and news. If you know any of these people, why not extend a word of thanks? Also, each week, CBC Diversity rounds up relevant news in children's books and diversity. Sign up here to receive these enlightening emails.