Tell The Story: The Role of Palestinian Children’s Literature and a Conversation with Naomi Shihab Nye

By Palestine Center Intern 

Storytelling is one of the oldest modes of education and has taken many different forms over the years. Stories can be used to convey basic information, social customs, and more. Specifically, children’s literature (novels, poetry and more) has grown and developed into its own multifaceted genre. Additionally, Palestinians, like many people, have a long and deep history of literature and writing being used in countless ways. Despite this, while research and interest in these works has produced many different conversations, articles, and papers, the question of Palestinian children’s literature has been little explored. Arguably, this could be due to the limited number of books defined within this category. However, in order to better understand the impact and role that Palestinian children’s literature can have, it is helpful to hear from Naomi Shihab Nye, an author who has many years of experience in the field.

Nye is first and foremost a storyteller. While she writes for all ages and on many topics, our discussion focused on two key themes: Palestine and works for younger readers. As an experienced and highly published author, Nye’s works have been read by both adults and children worldwide including stories and poetry such as Sitti’s Secrets, Habbibi, and The Tiny Journalist.

Like many other author interviews, our conversation began with the seemingly simple questions of “why”, “what” and “how”. Why do you write? What inspired you to start doing so? How do you feel Palestine influences your work? Nye, having given much thought to these questions, responded with three main points. Her answers shed light not only on her inspirations but the content of her work. She explained how her writing has been largely influenced by her family and her relationship to Palestine. From the beginning of the interview she explained how her writing often comes from a place of wanting to share a specific story.

“I feel in my case that I was very interested in language and words from my early childhood. And my mother read to me and to us. And my father told us stories from Palestine and so there was this sense of the transport possible through hearing stories and poems. Like you could go other places, have a bigger world, close your eyes and be in another location entirely. And of course, like for many children, that was fascinating to me. But I remember feeling this deep desire to be able to put words together, you know, put words on a page or do something with words in a similar way. And this is even before I could write, so once I learned how to write in first grade one of my very first impulses was to want to write a poem which expressed something that seemed profound to me that had happened during the day. And then the feeling after doing that, that somehow I had noted my existence, like putting a pin in a map. That these words on the page will still be here when I go away and when I come so that for me was a little more power than just thinking a thought and having it dissipate quickly so I was excited by that. I felt like a native impulse to me to want to write things down. But I think it is all because I had been exposed to words, to language, to my father’s adorable, captivating, voice telling these stories of Palestine, a place I had never seen yet and my mother reading poems out of books and stories and feeling as if I could travel through those words.

While Nye is no longer a young child being told stories and read poetry by her parents, Her desire to do something with language never went away. Later in the conversation, when she summarized the purpose and reason behind much of her writing, her words echo those that described her younger self.

“But I do think, as a writer, as my father felt, I do think this charge that writers often feel to “tell my story”. And that comes from everywhere. Tell the story of the land that we are living on right here in the United States. Tell the story of the economic injustice that is happening three blocks from my house. Or tell the story of power and greed. It all blends it all merges. And this fantasy that so many Americans have been, I don’t know if they have been force fed it or how they manage to take it into their bodies, of “Israel is the only democracy in the middle east” and just when they say that you say “You have no idea people. It’s not and you need to see what really goes on there. You need to see the injustice that we pay for with our tax dollars, the grenades that’s used to regularly, the tear gas bombs that regularly would make my grandmothers little tiny humble home toxic so that everybody practically passed out from tear gas. You know Americans are paying for that and how is that democracy. How is that justice.”

“Tell the story” was a motif that maintained throughout her comments, regardless of whether she explicitly stated the words themselves. When this sentiment is carried over from a general ethic of writing to her works that are specifically grounded in Palestine, her comments merge a general feeling of authorial responsibility with her personal attachments to a place she has heard about her whole life, a place she and her family calls home.

“Palestine has been a central theme, topic, concern, sorrow, love of my life. Like so many other people who have any connection with that place and who care so much about larger justice existing for all the people of Palestine” and that “So a lot of my own writing has come from [my father’s] his own wishes for justice and equality and clear vision about what has been going on in Palestine and Israel these years. So a lot of my books have been born from that same place of friction and hope.”

This influence of Palestine comes from many different places for Nye. When she was asked if her writing mostly stems from lived experiences or from specific works of literature, she explained how those two points of inspiration interact.  

“I am so inspired by books and literature. I think all the time about Dr. Edward Said and the poems of Mahmoud Darwish and the poems of Fadwa Tuqan. I feel very lucky to have met all of these people. And how their work has infused my life and how going back to Dr. Edward Said book or a Darwish poem or so many people you feel connected. Like that’s your tribe of voices in the world and you want to encourage others to keep rediscovering their books, rereading their books. Definitely, I would say literature inspires more than your experience, but your own experience infuses everything. Because that’s what writers always talk about, you write from what you know or you write toward what you want to find out, you write trying to find out more. And all of it is true.

When thinking about ways to tell these stories I asked if writing specifically for children, as Nye does in some of her works, changes the way she approaches writing. While she made it clear that she doesn’t see “children’s literature” as something entirely separate from the rest of the literary world, she provided a straightforward answer to the question. She stated that it simply “keeps you honest”.

“I do like the sense of writing for children because I think it causes me to ask myself really basic questions over and over again. Like “what are you really felling?” “what is this coming from” “how do you put it together with other things” “how do you make it feel better” “what could you speak about this story that feels true.”

Nye’s desire to honestly convey her thoughts and ideas is rooted in a belief that children have the ability to recognize when they are being told something untrue. The honest conveyal of stories was often an underlying theme of our conversation. Those stories she is so eager to share must feel honest to her. This pursuit of “honest storytelling” allows for the educational role of children’s literature to appear in full force.

Nye’s  goal of education becomes amplified when discussing children’s literature. Much of the research done regarding children’s literature analyzes its effects in two categories: teaching kids about others and teaching kids about themselves. Stories are seen as a way to instruct children about empathy, compassion and bravery. Nye expanded on this when discussing her works specifically.

You know so anything which expands our view I think is positive because it makes us have a bigger perspective on life and hopefully greater empathy. I think that children’s books which have been written out of places of conflict are very crucial so that other children can know there are human beings there it’s not just a headline place.”

 Often this form of literature is viewed as a way to instill morals or expand a child’s reality beyond their lived experiences. Due to this, kids are often seen as more malleable and when taught at a younger age, it can stick with them. This impact is visible in some of the reactions she has gotten to her works. For example, Nye described one letter she got from a girl in Canada. ““And you know after my book Habbibi came out I got a letter from a twelve-year-old girl in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and she said “I will never think about the Middle East again the same way””. This sentiment was echoed through what Nye explained to me.

She also expanded on the importance of representation not only as an educational tool for those seeing people other than themselves but the importance of the capacity to see oneself and family reflected in the stories you are told.

“I think all children have joy at seeing someone in a book that reminds them of themselves.” 

She further developed this sentiment stating that, “You know growing up I certainly didn’t see any representation of Arab-America or the Arab World in any children’s books I read and that’s why my father’s stories were so important to me. Because they created an imagistic transport to this other place that existed in the world that he loved so much, that was fascinating to him and that was in trauma. Yeah, I think it is important that kids are represented and see themselves represented in books.”

And as Nye spoke about the importance of these works. She sent out words of encouragement to all of those who want to write or share a story. This came throughout the conversation and appeared to spring from a desire for “the field” of works such as hers to expand and therefore have the ability to further impact the general public. 

“I think anyone who has stories to tell and who has something you do, like write, you have to write about the things that are troubling you

 “I think people welcome books that expand our views. Not everyone will, but don’t give up your hope. And if you are a young writer and someone rejects your work just find somewhere else to send it. Don’t give that too much power.”

Because people need to be informed and it’s our job if we are bi-cultural or we have an experience in the region, it’s our job to keep saying ‘wait a minute’ […] and just kind of finding some way to encourage others to listen more and care more.”

Conversations such as this are only one part of a larger discussion about the impacts of literature. While Palestinians have a long and detailed history of beautiful and inspirational literature, examining this subject through different lenses allows us to uncover many important and new elements. Looking to the impact of these works on children gives us a brief insight into how they can be a foundational force in growth towards adulthood. Naomi Shihab Nye is one of many authors, but speaking to the authors of these works is an important step. Addressing the impact of children’s works allows us to highlight their role in shaping generations of people. Nye’s belief in simply “telling the story” and telling it to all including children depicts how this is not a topic only relevant to academics but to everyone.