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Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books

Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books
Written by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya and Illustrated by Susan L. Roth
Published in 2012 by Dial Books, ISBN 978-0-8037-3747-1
Grades 2 – 8
Book Review
There is nothing that prevents anybody from destroying this building with all of its treasures, except the will of the people.” These words, spoken by the director of the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, proved prophetic. In a gesture that moved hearts around the globe, young protestors in Egypt joined hands, forming a human chain to protect the beloved building and historic site from destruction during the Egyptian revolution in January of 2011.  In a stirring informational picture book, children’s book author / illustrator Susan L. Roth and journalist Karen Leggett Abouraya tell the story of this moment of unity in the midst of conflict, using as their narrator a librarian participating in the protests advocating for the resignation of Mubarak and the establishment of democracy. Direct and moving prose is enhanced by Roth’s multi-media collage images including a striking double page spread of a giant Egyptian flag spread by the protestors on the library’s steps. Back matter includes the historical significance of the library site, more contextual detail for the events and an illustrator’s note. This multi-layered text is wonderful vehicle to launch discussions of democracy, conceptions of freedom, the power of voting, and the importance of access to information – all key issues in this election season in the United States of America.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom
Grades 3 – 8
  • Getting to Know Your Library. Read Hands Around the Library along with other books that celebrate the power of reading and the roles of librarians such as Tomas and the Library Lady by Pat Mora and Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack. Plan a visit to your local and/or school library with interview questions in hand to talk with your librarians about the roles and responsibilities. If possible, find a way to include families in this activity to help them get to know the wealth of resources available at no cost at public libraries. Students could document their learning with digital cameras and the composition of a big book, e-book, Voice Thread or PowerPoint presentation. 
  • Democracy and the Right to Vote. As we approach the 2012 presidential election, read this book along with other books that address the right to vote to emphasize the importance of this civic action. Two picture book biographies that will be useful in this discussion address the efforts of African Americans and women to exercise their right to vote –  John Lewis in the lead: A story of the civil rights movement and Elizabeth leads the way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the right to vote.
  •  Libraries Around the World. The comprehensive website (linked below) created by the authors of Hands Around the Library includes links to a collection of photographs of spectacular library buildings found across the globe. View these photos and invite children to discuss the design considerations are involved when a library is being planned and constructed.  Discuss the contents of libraries and the roles that they play in a community (e.g. as a community meeting site, a cultural repository, as an educational site). How do these roles factor into the design of the library as a physical space? Consider making fieldtrips to different types of libraries in your local community. Be sure to also include a discussion of traveling libraries (for additional resources see our Classroom Bookshelf entry on Biblioburro by Jeanette Winter and Miss Dorothy and herBookmobile by Gloria Houston). As an extension of this discussion you might ask your students to consider creating or redesigning the library in your classroom to best serve their needs.
  •  Duet Model Reading. Pair a reading of Hands Around the Library with Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra using the duet model described in our Teaching with Text Sets entry. Ask students to compare the context of the threats to each library, the actions of the librarians, and the roles that others played in the protection of the library contents. Extend students’ understanding of the events with the New York Times article discussing the library in Basra news stories about the Bibliotheca Alexandrina linked on the authors’ website

Grades 4 – 8
  • Libraries and Freedom. In today’s world most of our purchases, our online browsing, and even in some cases our movement around town is being tracked for marketing and other purposes. Your library record, however, is meant to be confidential. Discuss this with your students, obtaining their perspective on why they think this is or isn’t important.  Have students research how librarians responded to the Patriot Act, as well as current policy on library circulation records at the American Library Associations website: 
  •  Understanding the Egyptian Revolution. Use the online resources from various news outlets and organizations to help your students develop a more complex understanding of the revolution in Egypt and the events of the Arab Spring. As you read Hands Around the Library, carefully note the language used by the authors to describe the threat to the library. Within the narrative the text states: “In other parts of our city some of the protestors had acted in anger. They had set fires to cars and to a police station.” The back matter states, “Library director Ismail Serageldin closed the library during the protests, but he said that young people protected it from vandals by forming a ring around it.” Read the online news stories linked below and on the book’s website to see if you can further clarify the perceived threat. Ask your students to consider how protests and crowds often beget violence. This issue is also addressed in the picture book Smoky Night by Eve Bunting.
  •  Role of the Library in the Digital Age. Invite your students to consider the role of the physical library in the digital age. While our libraries are not being burned, they are being threatened by budget cuts and closures.  What did the library mean to the people of Alexandria who formed a human chain to protect it? What roles does a library play in a local community? Have your students research state and federal funding for public libraries in your area – has funding changed in the past ten years? If libraries and library budgets in your area are threatened, consider having students advocate for the benefits of libraries by writing to local officials.

Further Explorations
Online Resources
The website for Hands Around the Library includes a wonderful collection of links and resources to help you explore the ideas introduced by the book.
Susan L. Roth: Let’s Hold Hands
Bibliotecha Alexandrina
New York Times Topics: Egypt: Revolution and Aftermath
Harvard University: Center for Middle Eastern Studies: Teaching the Arab Transformation
Washington Post: Special Topics: Arab Upheaval
Library of Congress
Digital Public Library of America
Bunting, E. (1994). Smoky night. Ill. by D. Diaz. New York: Harcourt Brace.
  • Written following the Los Angeles riots this picture book written from the perspective of a young boy watching the violence from his apartment issue explores issues anger, violence, and mob behavior.

Haskins, J. & Benson, K. (2006). John Lewis in the lead: A story of the civil rights movement. New York: Lee & Low.
  • This picture book biography of Georgia Congressman John Lewis describes his role in the Civil Rights Movement and his advocacy efforts related to the voting rights of African Americans.

Houston, G. (2010). Miss Dorothy and her bookmobile. Ill. by S.C. Lamb. New York: Harper.

McKissack, P. (2001). Goin’ someplace special. Ill. by J. Pinkney. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
  • In the segregated South of the 1950’s, a young black girl heads to a place where all are welcome – the library.

Mora, P. (1997). Tomas and the library lady. Ill. by R. Colon. New York: Knopf.
  • This story, inspired by the life of Tomas Rivera and a tribute to the transformative power of reading, describes the joy a young migrant boy finds in the books he can access at the local library.

Ruurs, M. (2005). My librarian is a camel: How books are brought to children around the world. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.
  • This photo essay features ways that books are transported in library collections in thirteen countries. Various models of transportation include boats, camels, donkeys and even elephants.

Stone, T.L. (2008). Elizabeth leads the way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the right to vote. Ill. by R. Gibbon. New York: Henry Holt.
  • A picture book biography describing the advocacy efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was a key figure in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

Winter, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra: A true story from Iraq. New York: Harcourt.
  • In 2003 during Operation Desert Storm, the librarian of Basra, Iraq worked tirelessly to protect the books in Basra’s Central Library moving them out to hide them in a local restaurant and at the homes of friends. The library ultimately burned to the ground, but the majority of the books were saved due to this librarian’s heroic efforts.

Winter, J. (2010). Biblioburro. New York: Beach Lane Books
  • See our Classroom Bookshelf entry on Bibilburro

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.