5+ Protagonist Arab Children Books {Resource}

Arabs are a group of people that live across North Africa and parts of the Middle East (this region is commonly known as MENA). There are 22 countries that are recognized under the Arab League as Arab, but they all have different food, clothing, religions, political histories and even weather!

What ties all 22 countries to each other is Arabic, a central Semitic language.

This language is spoken with hundreds of dialects in the Arab world. But Modern Standard Arabic, also known as Literary Arabic, is the official written down form.

This Modern Standard Arabic is what ties all 22 counties to each other because this allows a newspaper printed in Yemen to be read in Morocco. Yet a Moroccan and Yemeni might need an interpreter to talk to each other because of their dialects!

Language, education and literature have always held a high place in MENA and in fact the very first university in the world was founded by a woman in this area, The University of al-Qarawiyyin.

It should come as no surprise that so many books have been written celebrating this area. Back in September 2010, I even compiled a list of them.

I wanted to compile a few of my favorites that I have at home that showcase strong Arab protagonist. (a protagonist is the main character in a novel).

Check your local bookstore for them and then just slip them into your shelves.  Once you notice your child reading them, unprompted, then start a conversation about the Arab world and it’s many dialects, but one language.

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does my head look big in this? New York: Orchard Books, 2007.

Does my head look big in this Review from Booklist –

Like the author of this breakthrough debut novel, Amal is an Australian-born, Muslim Palestinian “whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens.” At 16, she loves shopping, watches Sex and the City, and IMs her friends about her crush on a classmate. She also wants to wear the hijab, to be strong enough to show a badge of her deeply held faith, even if she confronts insults from some at her snotty prep school, and she is refused a part-time job in the food court (she is “not hygienic”). Her open-minded observant physician parents support her and so do her friends, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, secular. Her favorite teacher finds her a private space to pray. The first-person present-tense narrative is hilarious about the diversity, and sometimes heartbreaking. For her uncle who wants to assimilate, “foreign” is the f-word, and his overdone Aussie slang and flag-waving is a total embarrassment. On the other hand, her friend Leila nearly breaks down when her ignorant Turkish mom wants only to marry her daughter off (“Why study?”) and does not know that it is Leila’s Islamic duty “to seek knowledge, to gain an education.” Without heavy preaching, the issues of faith and culture are part of the story, from fasting at Ramadan to refusing sex before marriage. More than the usual story of the immigrant teen’s conflict with her traditional parents, the funny, touching contemporary narrative will grab teens everywhere.

Matze, Claire Sidhom. The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman, 2000

The Stars in My Geddoh’s Sky From Kirkus Reviews –
A summertime visit from his grandfather reveals to a young boy the history of his ancestry. When Alex first meets his grandfather, or geddoh, he is anxious. However, they soon develop a close rapport as his grandfather tells him about life across the sea. Geddoh shows Alex some of the customs of his Middle Eastern culture: making a traditional noontime meal, the five daily calls to prayer. In turn Alex teaches his grandfather a bit of American culture, such as playing baseball. Alex may be distraught when the visit ends, but Geddoh promises that they can share the majesty of the evening sky even while they are far apart. “Your sky, your moon, your stars are mine, too, habibi, my dear. And as you look up . . . my thoughts will fly to you.” Farnsworth’s graceful oil illustrations are done in muted pastels, portraying the images in a soft focus. Matze’s lyrical descriptions of Geddoh’s homeland paint a vivid picture of a remote culture; within the poignant tale of a young boy’s deepening relationship with his grandfather is a powerful message of the enduring nature of a love that cannot be diminished by time or space.

* Nye, Naomi Shihab. Sitti’s Secrets. New York: Four Winds Press, 1994

Sitti’s Secrets. From School Library Journal –

Kindergarten-Grade 3-When Mona travels from her home in the U.S. to visit her grandmother’s small Palestinian village on the West Bank, she must rely on her father to translate at first, but soon she and Sitti are communicating perfectly. With verve and a childlike sense of wonder, Mona relates some of the sights, sounds, and tastes she is introduced to as well as “the secrets” she learns from spending time in the wise, elderly woman’s company. Upon her return home, Mona writes to the president describing the woman and expressing her concerns about the situation in her homeland. “I vote for peace. My grandmother votes with me.” says Mona. The simple, poetic text is accompanied by exquisitely rendered mixed-medium paintings. They are suffused with the light and colors of the desert, and incorporate subtle and evocative collage touches. A story about connections that serves as a thoughtful, loving affirmation of the bonds that transcend language barriers, time zones, and national borders.

* Rumford, James. Silent Music. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2008.

Silent Music From Booklist –

“My name is Ali. I live in Baghdad.” In just a few lines per page, a young Iraqi boy describes his favorite things: soccer, loud “parent-rattling” music, dancing, and, most of all, Arabic calligraphy: “I love to make the ink flow . . . stopping and starting, gliding and sweeping, leaping, dancing to the silent music in my head.” When bombs fall on the city, Ali, inspired by his hero, Yakut, a thirteenth-century calligrapher, calms himself with his pen: “I filled my room with pages of calligraphy. I filled my mind with peace.” Rumford, who has included Arabic calligraphy in previous titles, such as Calabash Cat and His Amazing Journey (2003), fills his multimedia collages with large, looping script that spells out the words and phrases that Ali writes. Many children will have questions about Arabic writing and where the individual letters stop and start, but they’ll connect with Ali’s first-person voice, which echoes the calligraphy’s graceful rhythm and tells a simple, powerful story about a child’s everyday survival and hope in wartime Baghdad. Grades 1-3.

Winter, Jeanette. The librarian of Basra: a true story from Iraq. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc, 2005

The librarian of Basra: a true story from Iraq From Booklist –

Gr. 3-5. On the heels of Winter’s September Roses, the author-illustrator isolates another true story of everyday heroism against a tragic backdrop. Books “are more precious than mountains of gold” to Basra librarian Alia Muhammad Baker. When “the beast of war” looms on the horizon, she and willing friends remove more than 30,000 volumes from the library and store them in their homes, preventing the collection’s destruction when a bomb hits the building. As appropriate for her audience, Winter’s bright, folk-art style does much to mute the horrific realities of war. The corresponding abstraction in the text, however, may give many readers pause. While an endnote explains that the “invasion of Iraq reached Basra on April 6, 2003,” the nature of the crisis rocking Baker’s homeland is left vague, and the U.S.’s role in the depicted events is never mentioned. At the same time, certain images–among them, silhouetted figures in robes fleeing from ominous tanks and jets–carry a pointed commentary that will require sensitivity when presenting this to children of deployed parents. Still, the librarian’s quiet bravery serves as a point of entry into a freighted topic, and young readers will be glad to learn that a portion of the book’s sales will go toward helping rebuild Basra’s library.


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I am a Libyan American who creates art to promote a positive image of Arab and Islamic culture.