Children's Books on the Middle East: Where We Stand

By Johnson, Carol | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Children's Books on the Middle East: Where We Stand


Johnson, Carol, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Children's Books on the Middle East: Where We Stand

Carol Johnson Shedd is outreach coordinator at the Teaching Resource Center of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

In contemporary America, with its diversity of religious, racial and ethnic cultures, there is an increasing demand for a deeper understanding of "the other." As the outreach coordinator at the Teaching Resource Center of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, I am constantly made aware of this need by the requests from teachers for good books about people of the Middle East.

The TRC was founded almost 30 years ago by the United States Department of Education. Its primary function is to promote knowledge about the Middle East--the Arab world, Israel, Iran and Turkey--by providing materials and services to educators and students in elementary and secondary schools. Our library, which is open to everybody, has an excellent collection of books, periodicals, videos, slides, audiocassettes and artifacts on or from the Middle East and the Islamic world.

MORE GOOD BOOKS NEEDED

There is still a large gap, however, in the publishing of well-written, interesting books about Arabs and Islam. It is a sad but true fact that many children receive their sole knowledge of Arabs and Muslims from films and television, which very often portray these people as terrorists or religious fanatics with harmful intentions toward the United States. Our job is to find books that show the people of these regions in a truer and broader light--as families, schoolchildren, working men and women, with similar joys, needs and concerns to those of human beings the world over.

Literature is an exciting and enjoyable method of stimulating a child's interest in people of other lands. It helps to foster a sympathetic identification with a protagonist who, through his or her story, ceases to be different. In her excellent book Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World, Hazel Rochman, young adult editor of Booklist writes: "The best books break down borders. They surprise us--whether they are set close to home or abroad. They change our views of ourselves; they extend that phrase `like me' to include what we thought was foreign and strange."

The criteria for judging a book for the young about other lands and people include those for any good piece of children's literature, but with some added factors. It must be culturally informative in an honest and objective way. Political conditions are tense in the region and, if this is reflected in non-fiction, the text must aim for objectivity by showing diverse sides of the conflict. …

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