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Interview with Jeanette Winter, The Librarian of Basra
Jeanette Winter author of The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, has illustrated many books for children, including Day of the Dead by Tony Johnston and her own Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book, My Name Is Georgia, and Josefina. She lives in New York City.
Alia Muhammad Baker is a librarian in Basra, Iraq. For fourteen years, her library has been a meeting place for those who love books. Until now. Now war has come, and Alia fears that the library—along with the thirty thousand books within it—will be destroyed forever.

In a war-stricken country where civilians—especially women—have little power, this true story about a librarian's struggle to save her community's priceless collection of books reminds us all how, throughout the world, the love of literature and the respect for knowledge know no boundaries.
Q: While reading the New York Times, July 27, 2003, you stumbled across an article by Shaila K. Dewan about Alia Muhammad Baker, a librarian in war-torn Basra, Iraq, who saved 70 percent of the book collection in Basra's Central Library—approximately 30,000 books—from destruction. How were you personally affected by Alia's story?

A: Alia's story gave me a much-needed sense of optimism during this dark period of war. I think of the phrase "pessimism of the intellect, and the optimism of the will" (Antonio Gramsci, 1891–1937). With so much destruction all around her, and no help from either side in this war, Alia had the will to defy her surroundings and act with remarkable courage. The optimism of the human spirit, even in inhuman conditions, is a wonderful inspiration.

Q: With a story that originated halfway across the world and in a country that you've never been to, how did you begin the process of writing and illustrating The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq (January, 2005)?
A: The first thing I did was clip the article from the paper and start a file for The Librarian of Basra. I immediately knew I would make this book. As I wanted to keep the story as simple as possible, the basic facts in the New York Times article were adequate. But the pictures were a concern. When I can, I travel to the locales of my books, as much to get a "feel" of the place as for specific details. Because this wasn't possible for The Librarian of Basra, I approached the research from several directions. I used the picture collection of the New York Public Library and checked out many pictures of Iraq—most of them war photos. I studied a book of photographs of the Iraq war. I saw an exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York of photos by war correspondents in Iraq. And I went to an exhibit, "They Still Draw Pictures," of children's art in wartime, pictures dating from the Spanish Civil War to the present. The simplicity and directness of the children's pictures were very moving. I listened to Middle Eastern music while I worked. Music can often evoke a sense of place in a way that pictures can't. All this, plus the news I was hearing every day, had me immersed in my subject.

Q: In one of the last illustrations, Alia closes her eyes and imagines birds flying above a lush marsh, and the text reads: "She waits for war to end. She waits, and dreams of peace." What's the significance behind this image of peace?
A: Among the pictures in the collection of the New York Public Library, there was one that stood out for me. It was an old photo of a man standing in a boat, passing through the reeds. The image struck me as something from Heaven, among all the images of Hell. I instinctively used it for the peace spread. After the book was printed, I was surprised to learn—from [New York Times reporter] Shaila Dewan—that Saddam Hussein had drained all the canals. So the symbolism of that image was more accurate than I could have imagined.

Q: During the creation of your book, how much interaction did you have with Alia Muhammad Baker?
A: I have not had any direct contact with Alia.

Q: What do you want children to remember about the librarian of Basra?
A: I would hope that children would take with them the belief that one person can truly make a difference. And that they would remember the bravery of one woman protecting what was important to her, especially when they feel powerless, as we all do sometimes.

Q: It typically takes two to three years for a children's book to get published, but The Librarian of Basra was transformed from an idea into a book in less than one year. What made this possible?
A: The usual minimum time for me to write and illustrate a book is six to eight months. I wrote and illustrated The Librarian of Basra in four months, and Harcourt produced and published this book in record time. I think Alia's story has been a catalyst for all that we are feeling, as the horrors of current events are swirling all around. Her story puts a human face on the anonymity of war, and it lights a candle in the gloom.

Q: With the library destroyed, the book leaves Alia dreaming of a new library and keeping the books safe. To help her cause, Harcourt is donating portions of the proceeds to a fund administered by the American Library Association to help rebuild the book collection of Basra's Central Library. How do you feel about your book making such impact?
A: People everywhere have been horrified by the destruction of so many cultural treasures in Iraq, and I'm thrilled to know that The Librarian of Basra will have a part in the rebuilding of the collection at Alia's library.

Q: In many of your picture books, you tell stories about real people. Mexican folk artist Josefina Aguilar in Josefina (Harcourt, 1996), Georgia O'Keeffe in My Name Is Georgia: A Portrait by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, 1998), and Johannes Sebastian Bach in Sebastian: A Book about Bach (Harcourt, 1999), for example. The folk art illustrations in Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book (Harcourt, 2004) bring to life the story of Don Pedro Linares, his famous calaveras (papier-mâché skeletons), and his loving family. What inspired you to create Calavera Abecedario?
A: Many years ago I saw an exhibit in Fort Worth, Texas, of artifacts from the Day of the Dead. Included was a life-size tableau of calaveras made by the Linares family. Ever since I have been a big fan of their work and have known that the calaveras would someday find a way into one of my books. (Sometimes ideas take a long time to gestate.) I see Calavera Abecedario as a companion book to Josefina, a counting book about the Mexican folk artist Josefina Aguilar.

Q: Calavera Abecedario, Josefina, and Day of the Dead by Tony Johnston (Harcourt, 1997) celebrate Mexican people and their traditions. What is it about the Mexican culture that sparks your interest?
A: The visual spontaneity and directness of Mexican crafts have been a big influence on my work. In Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots, Anita Brenner discusses how the Mexican people, through their objects, make the abstract concrete with their visual language. It is an artist's way of relating to the world, and it resonates with me so strongly. Brenner refers to this typical poem: "I cried aloud, I looked about, I reflected how I might see the root of song, that I might plant it here on earth, and that then it should make my soul to live."

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Jeanette Winter

Jeanette Winter

The Librarian of Basra
The Librarian of Basra

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Jeanette Winter and Alia Baker

Jeanette Winter and Alia Baker

"Meeting Alia Baker in March 2006 at the Minimondi Festival in Parma, Italy was thrilling. She is such a warm, generous, and eloquent woman. My heart aches for the hardships she and her fellow countrymen are living through."

—Jeanette Winter