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14 Children’s Books in English with Arab Representation

posted on: Apr 12, 2023

By Natalie Tasci Srour / Arab America Contributing Writer

Arab American Heritage Month is a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions
and accomplishments of Arab Americans to our society. As we strive for a more
inclusive and diverse world, it’s important to highlight literature that reflects the
experiences and perspectives of Arabs, especially for young readers. For children of Arab
descent growing up in America, seeing themselves and their culture represented in the books
they read is crucial to developing a sense of identity and belonging. Over the past few years,
there has been a significant increase in children’s books with Arab representation in the English
language, which offers a much-needed window into the Arab world and its cultures. These
books provide an opportunity for children of all backgrounds to learn about and appreciate Arab
culture, traditions, and history.
Here are 14 books in English with Arab representation to inspire and engage young readers:

The Arabic Quilt

Written by Aya Khalil
Illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan
Kanzi’s family has moved from Egypt to America, and on her first day in a new school, what she wants more than anything is to fit in. Maybe that’s why she forgets to take the kofta sandwich her mother has made for her lunch. That backfires when Mama shows up at school with the sandwich. Mama wears a hijab and calls her daughter Habibti (dear one). When she leaves, the teasing starts. That night, Kanzi wraps herself in the beautiful Arabic quilt her teita (grandma) in Cairo gave her and writes a poem in Arabic about the quilt. The next day her teacher sees the poem and gets the entire class excited about creating a “quilt” (a paper collage) of student names in Arabic. In the end, Kanzi’s most treasured reminder of her old home provides a pathway for acceptance in her new one. This authentic story with beautiful illustrations includes a glossary of Arabic words and a presentation of Arabic letters with their phonetic English equivalents.

Yara’s Lunch

By Natalie Tasci Srour
Every child is unique and so is what they eat. Yara, AKA Yara the Great is excited about her first day at her new school until it’s time for lunch. When the other kids aren’t familiar with Yara’s food which reflects her culture, she must figure out how to embrace her uniqueness during lunchtime. Yara’s Lunch is a story about learning to share and celebrate cultural differences.

P is for Palestine

Written by Golbarg Bashi
Illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi
“P is for Palestine” teaches children about Palestinian culture, history,
and identity through the alphabet. Each letter of the alphabet is
represented by a word or concept that is significant to Palestine. The
the book aims to promote cultural pride and understanding among
Palestinian children, as well as educate non-Palestinian children about
Palestinian culture and history.

The Librarian of Basra

Written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter
In the Spring of 2003, Alia Muhammad Baker was the city of Basra’s real-life librarian. She was the keeper of cherished books and her library was a haven for community gatherings. But with war imminent in Basra, Iraq, what could this lone woman do to save her precious books? With lyrical, spare text and beautiful acrylic illustrations, Jeanette Winter shows how well she understands her young audience. This true story of one librarian’s remarkable bravery reminds us all how, throughout the world, the love of literature and the respect for knowledge knows no boundaries.

Under the Sana’a Skyline

Written by Salwa Mawari
Illustrated by Mary Charara

Belquis lives in Old Sana’a, an ancient city in Yemen. An exciting writing competition is announced for her class but there’s just one problem: the story is to inspire the world. Belquis is surrounded by the hardships of war and struggle. What has she seen that is inspirational? Under the Sana’a Skyline is a story for children and adults alike that beautifully weaves community and history with one girl’s search for humanity.

The Cat Man of Aleppo

Written by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham
Illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
Alaa loves Aleppo, but when war comes his neighbors flee to safety, leaving their many pets behind. Alaa decides to stay–he can make a difference by driving an ambulance, carrying the sick and wounded to safety. One day he hears hungry cats calling out to him on his way home. They are lonely and scared, just like him. He feeds and pets them to let them know they are loved. The next day more cats come, and then even more! There are too many for Alaa to take care of on his own. Alaa has a big heart, but he will need help from others if he wants to keep all of his new friends safe.

Baba What Does My Name Mean

Written by Rifik Ebeid
Illustrated by Lamaa Jawhari

When Saamidah, a young Palestinian refugee, is asked by her friends what her name means, she isn’t quite sure what to say. She turns to her baba for some answers – but what she gets is an adventure beyond her wildest dreams. Join Saamidah on a lyrical journey, with dazzling illustrations, that brings to life her beloved homeland and celebrates the richness of her cultural heritage and the determination to return.

Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey

Written by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes
Illustrated by Sue Cornelison
When an Iraqi family is forced to flee their home, they can’t bear to leave their beloved cat, Kunkush, behind. So they carry him with them from Iraq to Greece, keeping their secret passenger hidden away. But during the crowded boat crossing to Greece, his carrier breaks and the frightened cat runs from the chaos, disappearing. After an unsuccessful search, his family has to continue their journey, leaving brokenhearted. A few days later, aid workers in Greece find the lost cat. Knowing how much his family has sacrificed already, they are desperate to reunite them. A worldwide community comes together to spread the word on the Internet and in the news media, and after several months the impossible happens—Kunkush’s family is found, and they finally get their happy ending in their new home. This remarkable true story is told by the real people involved, with the full cooperation of Kunkush’s family.

Salma the Syrian Chef

Written by Danny Ramadan
Illustrated by Anna Bron

All Salma wants is to make her mama smile again. Between English classes, job interviews, and missing Papa back in Syria, Mama always seems busy or sad. A homemade Syrian meal might cheer her up, but Salma doesn’t know the recipe, what to call the vegetables in English, or where to find the right spices! Luckily, the staff and other newcomers at the Welcome Center are happy to lend a hand—and a sprinkle of sumac. With creativity, determination, and charm, Salma brings her new friends together to show Mama that even though things aren’t perfect, there is cause for hope and celebration. Syrian culture is beautifully represented through the meal Salma prepares and Anna Bron’s vibrant illustrations, while the diverse cast of characters speaks to the power of cultivating community in challenging circumstances.

A Drop of the Sea

Written by Ingrid Chabbert
Illustrated by Raúl Nieto Guridi
Ali lives with his great-grandmother in a tiny clay house at the edge of the desert. Just her and him. Just him and her. They don’t need anything more to be happy. But lately, Ali has begun to notice how his great-grandmother has aged. And one day, he asks if her life’s dreams have come true. All except one, she tells him. She had a dream to see the sea, but now she is too old to go. So, the next morning, Ali sets off with a pail in hand. He is going to make his great-grandmother’s final dream come true. He is going to bring the sea to her. The much-loved duo Ingrid Chabbert and Guridi have created a gorgeous intergenerational tale about devotion and dreams coming true at any age. The love Ali feels for his great-grandmother is universal, and children everywhere will recognize their own best selves in Ali’s heroic act of kindness. With the makings of a classic, this is one of those quiet stories that will stay with readers, young and old, long after they’ve put it down. Set in North Africa, it would make an excellent choice for a social studies lesson on exploring global cultures. It also works perfectly for character education lessons on compassion or courage.

The Sandwich Swap

Written by Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan and Kelly
Illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Lily and Salma are best friends. They like doing all the same things, and they always eat lunch together. Lily eats peanut butter and Salma eats hummus-but what’s that between friends? It turns out, a lot. Before they know it, a food fight breaks out. Can Lily and Salma put aside their differences? Or will a sandwich come between them? The smallest things can pull us apart until we learn that friendship is far more powerful than difference. In a glorious three-page gatefold at the end of the book, Salma, Lily, and all their classmates come together in the true spirit of tolerance and acceptance.

The Butter Man

Written by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou
Illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli

While Nora waits impatiently for dinner, her father stirs up a story from his childhood. During a famine, Nora’s grandfather must travel over the mountain to find work so he can provide food for his family. While young Ali waits for his father’s return, he learns a lesson of patience, perseverance, and hope. Fold-art illustrations capture the Moroccan culture and landscape. A Junior Library Guild selection.

Hope Is an Arrow: The Story of Lebanese-American Poet Khalil Gibran

Written by Cory McCarthy
Illustrated by Caldecott Honoree and Ekua Holmes
Before Kahlil Gibran became the world’s third-best-selling poet of all time, was Gibran Khalil Gibran, an immigrant
child from Lebanon with a secret hope to bring people together despite their many differences. Kahlil’s life highlights the turn of the twentieth century, from the religious conflicts that tore apart his homeland and sent a hundred thousand Arab people to America, to settle in Boston, where the wealthy clashed headlong with the poor. Throughout it all, Kahlil held on to his secret hope, even as his identity grew roots on both sides of the Atlantic. How could he be both Kahlil Gibran, Arab American, and Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese boy who longed for the mountains of his homeland? Kahlil found the answer in art and poetry. He wrote The Prophet, an arrow of hope as strong as the great cedars of Lebanon and feathered by the spirit of American Independence. More than a hundred years later, his words still fly around the world in many languages, bringing people together.

I’ll Love You from Afar

Written by Racha Mourtada
Illustrated by Sasha Haddad

Inspired by the universal feelings of loss and loneliness that came when the pandemic forced people to stay inside and far apart, Racha Mourtada wrote a reassuring poem about connection and the endurance of love that will appeal to readers of all ages. This gorgeous picture book is a tribute to all the hugs and moments we haven’t been able to share with each other. In tender and lyrical rhyming text perfect for reading aloud intimately or in a group, the little girl thinks of creative and wondrous ways to support and reach her loved ones from afar. Positive and encouraging, these ideas will make any reader feel more hopeful about the future. With an adorable cast of kids from all around the world, I’ll Love You from Afar is a universal message about how we can express love for one another.

Natalie Tasci Srour is a children’s book writer and author of “Yara’s Lunch”.

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