Books. They intrigue us. They teach us. They inspire us. But what if there were no books? What if the centuries-old texts, the contemporary novels, even the modern-day textbooks all the books that teach us about our past, our present and our future what if they were destroyed? Save for one courageous and determined librarian, it almost happened. Not centuries ago, but today, in a place where knowledge is one of the few possessions one can hold dear, and in a time of upheaval, fear and war: modern-day Iraq. Acclaimed author and illustrator Jeanette Winter shares the inspiring true story of an Iraqi librarian who rescued thousands of volumes in The Librarian of Basra, a new picture book for young readers.
Winter stumbled upon the story while reading the New York Times on a Sunday morning ("Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire" by Shaila K. Dewan, July 27, 2003). The article told the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian whose house was full to the rafters with books she had saved from an Iraqi library. The library had become a military outpost, and the daring librarian had sneaked out nearly 30,000 books right under the noses of the soldiers just days before the building burned in a mysterious fire.
"I knew immediately that I needed to make a book out of this story," Winter tells BookPage. "It was perfect." But as is often the case with authors, she was knee-deep in another book at the time. Winter didn't want to lose the idea, so she clipped the article from the paper and started a file, and as she worked on her other project, she collected bits of information and research and added to the file.
By the time she actually started working on The Librarian of Basra, the pictures almost painted themselves. Winter had collected images of Basra and Baghdad and had gone to a photo exhibition to see war pictures from Iraq. "One was of a man in a boat in a canal," recalls Winter. "It seemed so peaceful and wonderful, a step into heaven compared to what was going on. It is this photo that inspired her to create an image in the book that she calls her peace picture, in which Alia dreams of what life might be like when the war is over."
Winter finished the book in record time. "It went so quickly," she admits. "There was no mistaking what I wanted to do." Winter contacted her editor at Harcourt and was amazed by the swiftness with which the publishing process got moving. "For those at the publisher and for me, [Alia's story] was a catalyst for our awareness of what has been happening in the world, especially in Iraq," says Winter.
In truth, the story does put a face to the war. "We see the shelled buildings and the tanks on television, but we don't see the individual stories," says Winter. "With Alia, we do." And although Winter's audience is mostly children, she believes that the message she is sending is not a negative one about atrocities or fear. "It's not bad to have a war book for children," says Winter, "but I think you have to focus obliquely."
Her belief is that although war can occur as it does throughout the world if you focus on optimism, you can tell a positive story. "It was the optimism of Alia that interested me," says Winter. "She wasn't getting help from her government, but she knew that to save the books she would be saving the past, present and future of her country."
Winter is not a newcomer to the children's literary scene; she has written and illustrated nearly 50 books. "I don't really know the number," she confesses. "I never know what to actually count." For now, though, The Librarian of Basra tops her list of favorites. "I'm thrilled that [Alia's] story is getting out," Winter says. "It's very rewarding to me." In many ways, she thinks, it was a book she would have enjoyed reading when she was young. Winter, who grew up as an only child, explains, "I like writing about individual people what one person does on their own really speaks to me."
Alia's story certainly spoke to Winter, and without a doubt, this book will touch the hearts of children and adults everywhere.