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The 2014 Middle East Book Awards were presented at the Middle East Outreach Council educators’ workshop on literature on Saturday, November 22. Now in its fourteenth year, the Middle East Book Award recognizes quality publications in three categories: Picture Book, Youth Literature, and Youth Nonfiction (not awarded this year).

Picture Book Award Winner

Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of Education by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst, Kids Can Press, 2013

Set in a village in Afghanistan, Razia and her family watch as a new school is being built–just for girls!

She hopes more than anything to attend but faces resistance due to a traditional gender roles, family needs, and a community overcoming the effects of war.  Based on a true story, Razia’s Ray of Hope offers a view of Afghan culture in real world context, emphasizing the role of family members in problem-solving and the importance of education.  Razia’s dream of going to school reflects the wide understanding that educating girls offers immense personal benefit but also has positive impact on families and national development. This book provides a vehicle for discussing current events and cultural issues with younger students. They will enjoy and learn from the story and gorgeous mixed media illustrations.  Sunesby has included background on the actual story and efforts to promote education in developing nations, a glossary, and teaching activities.

Picture Book Honorable Mentions

The Camel in the Sun by Griffin Ondaatje, illustrated by Linda Wolfsgruber, Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2013

A sad but hard-working camel belongs to an unfeeling merchant Salim.  As they travel and trade through the desert in what is now Saudi Arabia, Salim pays little attention to the comfort and needs of his increasingly forlorn camel.  After a visit to Salim by the Prophet Mohammed, who shows empathy toward the camel, Salim has a much-needed change in heart and behavior.  The story is based on an Islamic hadith, an account of the Prophet’s words or actions that has been passed down through the centuries.  Although initially a sad story, younger students will be engaged by the message of kindness to animals and compassion in general.  The muted but colorful illustrations are appealing and well-suited for the story.

Never Say A Mean Word Again:  A Tale from Medieval Spain by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard, Wisdom Tales, 2014

Two boys, one Jewish and one Muslim, grow up as close friends in medieval southern Spain, or Al-Andalus. One of their fathers, a powerful vizier, comes up with a creative strategy for settling a conflict between the boys.  It resolves the issue and sheds light on the challenges of friendship any time but especially when there are cultural and status differences.  The story is based on a real-life actions of the Jewish poet Samuel Ha-Nagid, a royal advisor in 11th Century Muslim Spain. Young students will enjoy and relate easily to the lovely illustrations, humorous story, and lesson about how to keep a friend.


Youth Literature Award

Fear of Beauty by Susan Froetschel,  Seventh Street Books, 2013

Fear of Beauty by Susan Froetschel offers a compelling portrait of a rural Afghanistan village, Laashekoh, and its complex relationship with a recently established American military outpost. All of the novel’s players–villagers, Americans, and Taliban–work to figure out each other’s multiple, and sometimes conflicting intentions.  The novel begins with a mysterious death and maintains this initial tension. Weaving back and forth between the voice of Joey, the American Special Operations officer, and Sofi, the clever and knowledgeable Afghani mother, Froetschel creates suspense right up to the final and surprising revelation. With complex perspectives on a changing Afghanistan, the U.S. role there, and gender issues, Fear of Beauty is both educational and entertaining.

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