More than just stories: The portrayal of Palestinians in American children’s literature

Palestinian National Literacy Week poster, 1999 (Courtesy of Liberation Graphics)

Over the last fifteen years or so, multiculturalism in children’s literature has brought some much-needed attention to the Middle East. To be sure, most books still lean toward “safe” subjects — Arabian Nights, fairytales, and folklore. Increasingly, however, new books also offer thought-provoking views of the contemporary Arab world and its people — which is what we’re concerned with here.

My focus is fiction — picture books for younger children and novels for readers of about eight and up. Far more than facts alone, I believe, fiction can have a lasting effect on the reader. A good story offers characters with whom the reader or listener can identify; it grabs attention, appeals to the emotions, and lingers in the mind and heart. It can help form impressions that a young person carries along through life — deep-seeded attitudes that influence an adult’s perception of the world and its peoples. We can rejoice, therefore, that such books are beginning to give young Americans an honest, fairly accurate introduction to the Arab world.

But what about the Palestinians — key players in the most controversial issue in the whole region? Do Palestinians benefit from the open-minded approach promoted by multiculturalism — the basic idea that all cultural, national, and ethnic groups are worthy of positive attention and deserving of respect? Or are they, as much of our popular media and many public figures would suggest, still the one ethnic group that can be maligned with impunity?

For example, as recently as 1995 one of this country’s most esteemed children’s authors — who frequently speaks of her determination to seek the truth, the whole truth, and to face it unflinchingly — evidently saw nothing wrong in equating “Palestinian terrorists” with Nazis and the Khmer Rouge. They all seem “not really human,” she suggested in an essay. (1)

Given the controversy surrounding the Palestinian cause and the passions it arouses in the U.S., one might assume that authors and publishers alike would steer clear of the subject. As a children’s author who specializes in writing about the Middle East, I have often felt discouraged by apparent indifference, wariness, or bias on the part of publishers. And I’m not alone. I recall a conversation in the mid-1990s with a well-known authority on the Arab world. When I mentioned my idea of a picture book about kids in a Palestinian refugee camp, she answered from her own bitter experience: “Forget it. It will never be published. Never.”

But times do change. Despite the reluctance of both the U.S. government and media to let people know what is really going on “over there,” Americans are becoming more aware. In fact, Palestinians are not a forbidden subject. They have appeared in children’s literature for the past three or four decades. Although most of the books that depict Palestinians are primarily about Israelis, that number equals the total for all other Middle Eastern and North African peoples combined. This discussion is based on nearly forty books, mostly from mainstream publishers. Let’s have a look at what’s out there.

Books published prior to the 1990s

In 1990 I made an exhaustive survey of U.S.-published books for young readers about the contemporary Middle East and North Africa. Of those books that dealt with Israel/Palestine, how did the Palestinians fit into the picture?

In some books for young children, the focus is entirely on the pioneering Zionist settlers and the in-gathering of Jews. The Arabs of Palestine are ignored altogether, which implies that the land was completely empty, waiting for a new people to populate it. Examples are Joshua’s Dream by Sheila Segal (Union of American Hebrew Congregations 1985) and On Eagles’ Wings and Other Things by Connie Steiner (Jewish Publication Society 1987). A similar book for older readers, about the early years of Israeli society, is Becoming Gershon by Nava Semel (translated from the Hebrew; Viking 1990); Arabs have no place in the story.

Other books for young children hint at the Arabs only as a nameless, faceless, purpose-less threat. In Lina: A Russian Girl Comes to Israel by Mira Meir (Jewish Publication Society 1982), rocket attacks on a kibbutz seem to be simply a fact of life. Aviva’s Piano by Miriam Chaikin (Clarion 1986) also describes a beleaguered society in constant danger of attack, without a clue as to any cause.

Far more objectionable are those novels that permit Palestinians to appear briefly on the page but only in denigrating description and circumstances. Tamar Bergman’s The Boy From Over There (translated from the Hebrew, Houghton Mifflin 1988) depicts Palestinian Arabs as filled with hate and murderous intentions against the Jews. The time of the story is just before 1948 when fears doubtless were high on all sides, but the Arabs’ position is totally discredited. When a child in the story asks why the Arabs resist the Zionists’ plans, he is told, “Simple. The Arabs think this whole country belongs to them. They don’t want to share it with us.” In The Year by Suzanne Lange (S.G. Phillips 1970), the Palestinians are a contemptible lot, worthy of no more than a negative stereotype. For example, “There we saw our first Arab, complete with flowing headdress and three wives following him on foot as he rode a tiny donkey.”

While the ’90s brought significant changes, as we shall see shortly, the harsh portrayal of Palestinians did not completely yield to a more balanced view. Take, for instance, The Lady with the Hat, by the well known Israeli author Uri Orlev, published by Houghton Mifflin in1995. The main character in this story, set in the years 1946-48, expresses hope to eventually “work out our problems with the British and Arabs…” but there’s little ground for optimism. The Arabs are scarcely worth notice. We meet the “donkey and wives” stereotype again, and villagers’ homes are referred to as “hovels.”

In another book published in 1995 (Lerner), author Harriet Feder emphasizes her concern for peace between the two peoples. Therefore, The Mystery of the Kaifeng Scroll includes a Palestinian girl in a relatively sympathetic role. The girl’s brother, however, is as vicious, violent, male-chauvinist, foul-mouthed, altogether sleazy a character as you might meet in any cheap detective novel. And he’s all of sixteen years old. In fairness, the author admits a reason for the boy’s nastiness—a Jewish settlement was built on his father’s land; but the portrayal is clearly mired in prejudice.

Two other novels, by the rightly respected and popular author Lynne Reid Banks, must be included in this survey of negative portrayals of Palestinians — and it’s disappointing indeed to have to categorize them thus, because they are unusually compelling, poignant stories. One More River (Simon & Schuster 1973) and its sequel Broken Bridge (William Morrow 1994) trace Israeli-Palestinian relations through the history of a young Israeli immigrant who meets an Arab boy just prior to the 1967 war, and subsequently the fateful interaction of the next generation. While one feels sympathy for the frustrated, unhappy Arab youth in the first novel, that sympathy does not carry over. In neither book do we see the Palestinians as anything but angry, coarse, deceiving, and violent.

Banks’ novels, however, are valuable in a literary depiction of the conflict, because they expose so vividly the deep splits in Israeli society with regard to the Arabs. We meet embittered people consumed with loathing, and on the other hand, idealistic “peace” people who believe in justice for the Palestinians and are striving in that direction. Yet Palestinians with whom those peace activists could find some common ground and work together are missing.

Sonia Levitin’s The Singing Mountain (Simon & Schuster 1998) also reveals the splintering effect that Palestinian resistance has had on Israeli society. Again, unfortunately, the cause of resistance is ignored — other than the notion of atavistic “hatred” that crops up so often in Western diagnoses. As one character says, “You think three thousand years of hatred can be mended in a day?”

Some alternative views

Even in the years prior to greater public awareness of the Palestinian cause, however, there were some books that treated the Palestinians with a degree of fairness. An unusually appealing photo-essay by Ann Morris and Lilly Rivlin, When Will the Fighting Stop? A Child’s View of Jerusalem (Atheneum, 1990), focuses on a young Jewish boy who, at loose ends one day, wanders through the old city. Some of the Palestinians he meets regard him coldly, while others treat him with kindness and generosity.(2)

A short, affecting book by Barbara Cohen, The Secret Grove (Union of American Hebrew Congregations 1985), tells of a chance meeting between two boys, Israeli and Palestinian, and their realization that they are both being indoctrinated with cruel stereotypes about the other group. Yes, the author says in effect, it’s not just the Arabs who are being “taught to hate.”

A novel for older readers, Gloria Goldreich’s Lori (Holt Rinehart Winston 1979), depicts a pleasant friendship between Jewish and Palestinian families. Nonetheless, it discounts any reason for Arab hostility: they had nothing to fear, we are told. The Mukhtar’s Children (Holt Rinehart Winston 1968), by Sally Watson, focuses sympathetically on the people of a small Arab village in 1949. Nice people — but badly in need of the progressive outlook and technological advances offered by a kibbutz nearby.

Two novels from this period stand out. In The Accomplice by Adrienne Richard (Little Brown 1973), an American teen visiting Israel with his archaeologist father makes friends with an Arab family and finds himself embroiled unwittingly in a plot by a young resistance fighter. This gripping novel was far ahead of its time in depicting the Palestinian family’s plight and the young man’s understandable bitterness, as well as the draconian punishment inflicted by the Israelis on resistance fighters’ families. It deserves to be republished.

As does James Forman’s My Enemy, My Brother (Meredith Press/Scholastic 1970), a truly remarkable novel for its harrowing plot, vivid character delineation, and complex motivation. Although the main character is a gentle, compassionate young Jew who has survived a concentration camp and reaches Palestine prior to 1948, through his friendship with an Arab family we see the Palestinians in a strongly sympathetic light. We witness their sense of imminent doom, and then their actual loss when their village is destroyed by Zionist terrorists, Deir Yassin style. At the novel’s conclusion, the author predicts with grim accuracy the Palestinians’ future of grief and deprivation.

A major shift in viewpoint

The mid-1990s, when hopes for peace blossomed briefly, brought new emphases and perspectives to the literary portrayal of Palestinians. Books began to focus on Palestinians directly, not just as a sidelight.

Actually, Frances Stickles’ The Flag Balloo (American Educational Trust 1988), an illustrated story about a young Palestinian girl who defies Israeli soldiers, had already broken the barrier. Then came two attractive picture books that reached a wider audience. Sitti and the Cats, by Sally Bahous (Roberts Rinehart 1993), based on a Palestinian folk tale, includes bits of information about traditional Palestinian culture. Sitti’s Secrets, by the Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye (Four Winds, 1994), is about a young Arab-American girl’s visit to her family’s village in the West Bank. It presents a charming scene of Palestinian village life, avoiding political realities but ending with a pitch for peace.

In a picture book called Snow in Jerusalem, by Deborah da Costa (Albert Whitman, 2001), an Israeli boy and an Arab boy independently take care of a stray white cat. By chance they eventually meet. They squabble over her kittens and finally decide to share the animals. Both the story and the attractive illustrations present the two boys with scrupulous fairness.

For older readers, 1997 saw the arrival of a surprising “blockbuster.” Habibi, also by Naomi Shihab Nye (Simon & Schuster) is a seemingly light, young-teen story about a Palestinian-American girl who returns with her family to the natal village of her father in the occupied West Bank. Liyana is eager to know about everything she observes of Palestinian life — the good, the puzzling, the funny and the irritating. She finds herself attracted to a Jewish boy from her school. She also witnesses Israeli soldiers’ brutality as they systematically intimidate the villagers and destroy property. These scenes, described just sharply enough without altering the story’s non-abrasive tone, provide the first glimpse of harsh Israeli military occupation, I believe, to appear in mainstream literature for young Americans.

Anna Levine’s Running on Eggs (Front Street/Cricket, 1999), focuses primarily on an Israeli family but fits into the trend of increasingly positive depiction of Palestinians. In this lively story about a friendship between a Jewish girl and a Palestinian girl on a track team, the girls train together secretly on a neglected “no man’s land” hillside, knowing neither community would approve. The “eggs” metaphor refers to Yasmine’s suggestions for light-footed running, and suggests the delicate course the two girls must follow in maintaining their relationship. Although the outcome seems a little too happy for current times, the book still offers young teens valuable insights into the emotions aroused by the Israeli/Palestinian problem — and a hopeful view of the possibilities of communities coming together through shared interests and projects.

The darker mood of Samir and Yonatan, by Daniella Carmi (published in Israel in 1994 and by Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000), is lightened by the wry and imaginative mental digressions of the young narrator. Samir, injured in a fall, finds himself in the children’s ward of an Israeli hospital. Although he has lost a brother to Israeli bullets and thinks constantly of his family living under military rule, he allows himself to develop a meaningful friendship with a sensitive Jewish boy, Yonatan. In the hospital garden just before he leaves, Samir also makes peace with another boy, who has represented the irritating, vaguely menacing enemy in the ward. ” … I, Samir, a boy from the occupied West Bank, stood here with a Jewish boy who has a soldier brother, and the two of us peed into a sandbox and laughed and didn’t give a damn about the whole world.”

A similarly introspective but more somber novel is Cathryn Clinton’s A Stone in My Hand (Candlewick 2002). Set in Gaza during the first Palestinian intifada, the story explores the mentality and emotions of a young girl, Malaak (her name means “angel”), who has retreated into silence following the death of her beloved father. As her brother Hamid gets increasingly involved in an extremist resistance group, she becomes more engaged in coping with the brutal world around her. Hamid ends up unconscious in a hospital; but by taking the family’s Palestinian flag to him as a symbolic gesture, Malaak reaffirms her faith in him, herself, and the struggle for integrity and justice.

In the last couple of years, stories about the Palestinian experience have appeared in book collections or anthologies. “The Second Day” by Ibtisam Barakat, in Shattered: Stories of Children at War (Knopf 2002) vividly describes a Palestinian family fleeing from Israeli forces in the 1967 war. My own story, “The Olive Grove” in Soul Searching: Thirteen Stories About Faith and Belief (Simon & Schuster 2002), describes a young stone-thrower who confronts soldiers and bulldozers at a doomed olive grove and realizes that there are people of good will on both sides, who must persist in fighting moral battles. (3)

The Enemy Has a Face, by Gloria Miklowitz (Eerdmans Books 2003), takes the conflict to the United States in a suspenseful story about encounters between an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy at a Los Angeles school. The boy is a strong, admirable character, outspoken in his criticism of Israel’s actions but temperate and conciliatory in his behavior. Other Palestinian students at the school, unfortunately, express vehement hate talk; one wonders whether they really do behave that way, or whether the characterization might rest too much on stereotype. In any case, the author dramatizes the corrosive effects of prejudice and sets forth the fears and anger of both sides with force and compassion.

The year 2003 saw Israel’s solution to the Arab Problem — a “separation wall” — finally get some notice in the U.S. Elizabeth Laird’s novel A Little Piece of Ground (Macmillan UK, 2003) reflects that hardening of separation, as it eschews the supposedly required “balancing” between Palestinian and Israeli sensibilities. Twelve-year-old Karim’s family have been living under rigid curfew for months, and he knows he risks death every time he sneaks out to play soccer on the “little piece” of vacant ground he has found. He sees Israelis only as the enemy, and they figure in the story only as the ever-present military threat. Yet when Karim talks about suicide bombing, after seeing his father humiliated by Israeli soldiers, his uncle sets him straight: “Does that make it right for us to go and bomb them?” The only light at the end of this hard-hitting yet often surprisingly humorous novel is Karim’s unquenchable faith that “We’ll get through all right … we’ll survive.”

Most extraordinary of all, in several ways, is Dreaming of Palestine (published in Italy, 2002, and by George Braziller, 2003). The young author, Randa Ghazy, of Egyptian parentage living in Italy, wrote the book at the age of fifteen — having only recently become absorbed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plot is simple: eight Palestinians in their teens and twenties, having lost all other family to Israeli military violence, decide to live together and keep each other going. Told in alternating formats of prose and poetry, the story reveals the author’s youth in frenetic passion and verbal exuberance. Yet it packs an undeniable wallop. The reader can’t help but sense the hopelessness, frustration, helplessness, and fury that suffuse the characters’ daily lives under enemy guns, the pity and waste of it all.

Most of these six novels — which one could hardly imagine being published ten years ago — end on a note of hope. Hope, after all, is one of the characteristics of books for young people: the intimation that however dark the prospects and daunting the struggle, things can get better through the characters’ courage, moral strength, and perseverance. In this respect, the young Palestinian protagonists are similar to the kids in many a tough, “edgy” young-adult novel set in America. What they all learn is to focus on what they know is good, fight evil when they must, and somehow keep going.

For the most part, these books avoid unrealistically optimistic outlooks for the future. Yet they are relatively gentle in tone and do not (at least to this reader’s way of thinking) denigrate or express hatred for Israeli Jews as people. The possibility of eventual peace between Palestinian and Jew is an implied theme in most. Only Dreaming of Palestine concludes with the death or despair of all the characters. Yet even there, the basic themes remain strong: loyal support for one another throughout adversity, and renunciation of violent reaction to violence.

Public and Critical Responses

Now for the inevitable question: Given that these “unthinkable” pro-Palestinian books got published in the first place, what sort of a reception have they had?

The response from critics, organizations, and educators has been overwhelmingly favorable. Rave reviews, awards and distinctions. Habibi has made many “Best Book” lists, won numerous accolades, and achieved multiple reprintings. Samir and Yonatan received the 2001 Batchelder Award for Best Translated Novel and a UNESCO prize “in the Service of Tolerance.” The publisher described it to me as “a wonderful experience all around,” with no negative repercussions. A Stone in My Hand was selected for distinction by the New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, Book Links and Booklist, and the International Reading Association. The Enemy Has a Face was a 2003 “top pick” of the American Booksellers Association.

Not surprisingly, however, A Little Piece of Ground and Dreaming of Palestine have had more problematic histories. For one thing, Laird’s book still is not available in the United States. Whether that reflects some kind of deliberate opposition or just a glitch in publishing or distribution is not clear at this time. (It can easily be ordered from bookstores in Canada, such as Kidsbooks, at Edgemont@kidsbooks.bc.ca, 604-986-6190; and Nicholas Hoare Bookstore: Ottawa@nicholashoare.ca, 613-562-2665.)

When it first appeared in Britain, the book drew criticism from some quarters for being “racist, inflammatory, and one-sided,” allegedly failing to take into account Israeli feelings and experience. The author answered, in a Guardian article (August 23, 2003), that the story reflects only the boy’s point of view, understandably limited by both his youth and his life under military occupation. “The book is written through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who just sees men with guns. It would not have been true to my characters to do otherwise.”

The publisher resisted demands that Laird’s book be withdrawn (an incident that the author regards as overblown by media coverage). The children’s-author laureate of Britain, Michael Morpurgo, staunchly defended the book. “Read it, and we know what it is to feel oppressed, to feel fear every day. And we should know it, and our children should know it, for this is how much of the world lives.” Especially significant, Lynne Reid Banks, author of One More River and Broken Bridge, has strongly endorsed Laird’s book. “The wrongs the Palestinians are presently enduring cry aloud for a champion. In Elizabeth Laird they have found one who cuts right to the bone, and although as an old Israeli sympathizer I read this book in pain and shame, I know it is a good book and needs to be read by others like me.”(4)

Dreaming of Palestine aroused some opposition in France on grounds of promoting “anti-Semitism,” and a group of American academics connected with the College Art Association called on the Italian publisher, Rizzoli (known for art books), to withdraw it. Scattered protests by American Jewish groups have claimed that it glorifies suicide bombers — a charge that could be made only by someone who has not read even the first pages of the book. On the other hand, it was picked up quickly for translation and publication in at least ten European countries and the U.S. Yet as I was told by the U.S. publisher George Braziller, the book has received few reviews in mainstream journals. For whatever reason, he could not say.

Dreaming of Palestine cannot be dismissed as a fluke, published only because of its surprising authorship. However passionate in tone, it is a solid contribution to literature on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. As for A Little Piece of Ground, the criticisms appear to have backfired, inspiring a lot of favorable publicity. (At least in the U.K. For Americans to be denied easy access to this book would indeed be censorship.)

What comes next? At this time, no one can predict with assurance how the Israeli/Arab conflict will be resolved and how the Palestinians can assume a rightful role in the comity of nations and the cultures of the world. The conflict remains intractable, the typical portrayal of Palestinians by U.S. media and public figures continues biased and unjust, and the reasons for this censorship are wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating. Yet it appears to me that, judging from the books discussed above, literature for youth offers hope for the future. Thanks to these authors’ drive for justice — and courageous decisions by their publishers — young Americans can now glimpse the lives of their peers in Palestine through a window that defies walls of separation.

Notes:

(1) Katherine Paterson, “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death” (first published 1986) in A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (Plume/Penguin, 1995), p. 259.

(2) Gavriel and Jemal: Two Boys of Jerusalem, a photo-essay by Brent Ashabranner (Putnam/Dodd Mead 1984), is an interesting predecessor of Snow in Jerusalem in its even-handed presentation of two actual families, Jewish and Muslim.

(3) My story “Lines of Scrimmage,” which will appear in First Crossing and Other Stories of Immigrant Teens (edited by Donald Gallo, Candlewick, 2004) is about a Palestinian-American boy who attains football glory as quarterback but still has to face prejudice and fear. Through a Navajo friend, he recognizes the shared experience of both Palestinians and Indians in being driven off their land.

(4) Banks’ full review can be seen at the following online site: global.yesasia.com

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    Elsa Marston is an award-winning author of books and stories for children and teenagers, focusing especially on the Arab/Muslim world. She has lived in the Middle East on many occasions and resides in Bloomington, Indiana. Ms. Marston is married to Dr. Iliya Harik, professor emeritus of political science at Indiana University, with whom she frequently travels to Lebanon. Her writings for children and young adults, as well as her views on children’s literature, can be found at elsamarston.com

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