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Friday, December 28, 2012

Hands Around the Library, written by Susan Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya, with collages by Susan Roth. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin. 2012. $18.00 ages 6 and up

"I'm a part of this story.
I marched in Alexandria too.
I was excited and hopeful.
But I was also scared.
In other parts of our city
some of the protesters had
acted in anger.
They had set fire to cars and to a police station."

The Alexandria Library has always been a safe haven for many Egyptian people. It is where they learn about freedom, by reading books, by plugging into the Internet, and by talking quietly together. As the young people of Egypt make their wish to have a say known through protest marchesin January 2011, the numbers grow and marches spread from Cairo to Alexandria.

There is real concern for the library as the protesters move nearer to it. In this compelling story of bravery and determination, we learn why saving the library is of such importance to all Egyptian citizens:

"Our ancient Egyptian stories
are kept alive here,
in the books,
and in the carved stone
and shimmering glass
of the building itself.
We were free inside the library
even when we were not free outside."

As the protests grow, so too does the anger. All are caught up in the wave, and they are getting closer and closer to the library. Dr. Ismail Serageldin, the library's director, makes a plea to the growing mob:

"The library has no gates that can be locked,"
he called out.
"The doors are all glass.
There is nothing that prevents anybody
from destroying this building
with all its treasures,
except the will of the people."

It is  the action of one brave young man who takes the director's hand in a show of solidarity to protect the library that inspires others to do the same. Soon, a long line of protectors spread in a circle around the beautiful building. The director is obviously moved and thankful to the protesters for making their point, while refusing to cross the line that keeps the library from wanton destruction at the hands of a mob.

There is no excess of text in telling this true story from last year's protests in Egypt. It is told with clarity and brevity. The single act of bravery is the essence of the story. Telling this contemporary story of tumult in a country far away is a reminder to readers that we live while history is being made.

I love Susan Roth's collage depictions of the brave and chaotic moments. She uses fabric, textured papers, protest posters, and finishes with real photos and captions of the events that transpire and the incredibly beautiful library itself. Using Shaimaa Saad, former children's librarian, as the narrator gives it a very personal perspective.  It is a stirring depiction of a historical event that happened just one year ago.  

Following the inclusion of the photographs, the authors add a note about the library as it was then and is now. It is a truly amazing space, valued by all and with more than one million books on its shelves. A list of resources, Arabic words from the protest signs, a note from the illustrator as well as an
additional description of the graphic leit motifs used on many of the book's pages. 

Check out Susan Roth's website to get more information about her Let's Hold Hands project at

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