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Heroism of Iraqi Librarian Inspires Story for Children

A true story from the Iraq war has inspired a new American children's book.

Jeanette Winter is the author and illustrator of The Librarian of Basra, a story based on the real life heroism of an Iraqi librarian named Alia Muhammad Baker. With the help of others in her community, she managed to save 70% of the books in the central library of the Iraqi port city of Basra.

The cover of The Librarian of Basra shows a woman in a headscarf with her hands folded over a tall pile of books. She's surrounded by more books -- in stacks, boxes and bags. It is a picture of hope and determination in a story set against the backdrop of war. Jeanette Winter says she wanted to focus on the bravery of Alia Muhammad Baker and the idea that one person can make a difference.

"I think that's so important for children to realize when they're young and they sometimes feel powerless," says Ms. Winter. "Alia was in such impossible circumstances, and she defied her surroundings and acted with such courage."

Jeanette Winter began writing The Librarian of Basra after reading an article about Alia Muhammad Baker in the New York Times newspaper. Before the war, the library where Ms. Baker worked had been a gathering place, filled with books of all kinds. "She had English books, Arabic books, and Spanish language [books], Korans and some very old manuscripts," Ms. Winter says. "There was one biography of Muhammad from around 1300. So there was quite a span of books that she felt extremely protective of, as all librarians do of the books in their care."

Moving from talk of war to the devastation of war to dreams of peace, the story describes how Alia Muhammad Baker turned to Iraqi officials for help when her library appeared to be threatened. When she was turned down, she set out to save the books on her own.

"After work she would bring them home in her car," Jeanette Winter explains. "After the invasion began, she called a friend who had a restaurant and asked if he would help her bring the books to safety. And he recruited other people, so they worked through the night to pack up as many books as they could. And they managed to save 30,000 books. Nine days after the war began, the library did burn to the ground. That was when she decided she needed to get the books out of the restaurant and into her home and into the homes of her friends."

Jeanette Winter says she relied mostly on the New York Times article to tell her story, but the illustrations required more research. The first place she visited was the New York Public Library. "They have two Iraq files," she says. "Most of the pictures in the file were war pictures from this war and the first Gulf War. Then I went to an exhibit of photographs taken by war correspondents in Iraq. Some of the pictures were blown up to almost wall sized. It was almost like stepping into the situation there."

Ms. Winter also visited an exhibit of children's art done during wartime. "The pictures are almost matter of fact," she says. "In all the pictures they had airplanes. It was the dominant thing children were aware of during war…I guess, the terrors that the airplanes overhead bring."

To depict Alia's dreams of peace, Jeanette Winter created a serene picture of a man standing in a boat, with birds flying overhead. "Among all the war pictures, there was one picture of a man in a boat in one of the canals or marshes," she recalls. "It looked like a picture of heaven among all the pictures of hell. And I thought, 'That's the picture I'm going to use for peace.' And later on I found that Saddam Hussein had drained the canals, and so it made my choice accidentally prophetic."

Jeanette Winter reports that Alia Muhammad Baker has had a stroke and heart surgery since the events described in the book. "But I understand that she's recovered enough that she wants to see the new library started again and wants to be at the helm," says Ms. Winter.

Acknowledging that Alia Muhammad Baker could be a role model for librarians as well as for children, the author reads two lines from the New York Times article: "The quote is, 'People were looking at me saying, why is this woman bringing books? People are stealing much more valuable things than that.' But Alia knew what all librarians know…that, without books, history and culture and the exchange of ideas would just be lost."

Jeanette Winter was not able to communicate directly with Alia Muhammad Baker while writing her story. But efforts are being made to send Ms. Baker a copy of the book she inspired.

Harcourt, which published The Librarian of Basra, is donating part of the proceeds from its sales to a fund administered by the American Library Association. That fund will help rebuild the book collection of Basra's central library.