Inspired by a true story and the author’s own childhood experience, Nour’s Secret Library conveys the comfort and hope books and libraries offer in times of struggle. The thoughtful text and stunning illustrations work together beautifully to depict the power of the written word and sharing stories with others, even when surrounded by war.
Nour lives in the beautiful city of Damascus among the apricot and cherry orchards and loves playing hide and seek with her cousin Amir, climbing trees and reading stories. The two children long to be like the characters in their beloved mystery books so set up a secret society, a special club for them and for their friends. Then war comes to their beautiful city with planes circling above them and the sound of explosions. Their games and their secret club come to an abrupt end. But when there is a lull in the fighting Amir goes out for food and finds books in the streets, fallen there after the collapse of buildings. The books give Nour an idea for a new secret. It is a secret that will bring people together and give them hope, providing light in the darkness of war.
“The world of books is wonderful, Nour thought looking at the piles of books around her. Like a galaxy full of stars. Some are shinier than others but together they make the sky sparkle.”
When I interviewed Wafa’ Tarnowska at the time of the publication of her book Amazing Women of the Middle East she mentioned that she was planning a book that was influenced by her experience of living under the bombs as a teenager for several months in Beirut in 1975, and by an event that happened at the beginning of the Syrian war also involving teenagers. This beautiful picture book is the culmination of that idea. Her writing style flows like the voice of a traditional storyteller and her love of books and stories is evident in the language and phrasing. The vibrant illustrations by Vali Mintzi give Wafa’ Tarnowska’s words even greater impact. The palette is stunning highlighting the beauty of the city of Damascus, warm colours and striking rooftops with flashes of white as flocks of birds fly overhead. The thick gouache of the thriving city scenes and the children’s home life gives way to charcoal for the scenes of war and destruction. The juxtaposition between the two works extremely well.
The story itself is an inspiring one and it is beautifully told. The fact that this is based on true events adds greatly to its impact. There is background information at the end of the book, including information about Syria, famous libraries of the Middle East, details of the real secret library of Daraya in Syria and helpful notes from both the author and the illustrator. I can see this being valuable in the classroom.
A final word from the author herself.
“I believe that our souls need books just like our bodies need food. I hope that reading this book has fed your soul, for writing it has fed mine.”Wafa’ Tarnowska
I should like to thank Rachel Sammons from the publishers, Barefoot Books for providing my review copy. Nour’s Secret Library is published in the UK in March.