PROFILE: CONTROVERSY OVER CHILDREN'S BOOK "A LITTLE PIECE OF GROUND"
Day to Day: September 30, 2003
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
A children's book, not yet published in the US, is already controversial. The author's a British writer named Elizabeth Laird. She's written several other children's books that critics liked, most with themes of social or political injustice. This new book tells the story of a group of young Palestinian boys living in the occupied territories. DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand reports.
MADELEINE BRAND reporting:
"A Little Piece of Ground" is about three 12-year-old Palestinian boys.
Ms. ELIZABETH LAIRD (Author, "A Little Piece of Ground"): And like ordinary boys everywhere, they have their own personal obsessions. And the main obsession that they have is playing soccer, and they want to find a place to play soccer.
BRAND: `A little piece of ground.'
That's the author, Elizabeth Laird. She says it's a metaphor for the Palestinian hope for their own piece of ground. Laird writes for the young adult market, children who would read the "Harry Potter" books by another British author, J.K. Rowling. But unlike Rowling's books, Laird's are about real life, set in the present day. She's written about Kurdish children fleeing Iraqi oppression and about homeless Ethiopian kids living on the streets. She says she felt compelled to write "A Little Piece of Ground" after she visited Ramallah.
Ms. LAIRD: I was profoundly shocked by what I found, by the real dreadfulness of people's everyday life, the increasing poverty, the harassment, the curfews. And it occurred to me then that it would be a proper subject for a novel to see how children are managing under these circumstances.
BRAND: So she lived with a Palestinian family to gather material for her book.
Ms. LAIRD: The task of the novelist is to be true to the story. And what I've tried to do in my book is to be as true as possible to what it is like to be a Palestinian child today.
BRAND: But what is truthful depends on which side of the Green Line you're standing on. For Linda Silver, a children's book critic for Jewish Book World here in the US, Laird has been anything but truthful.
Ms. LINDA SILVER (Children's Book Critic, Jewish Book World): It's as though the Israelis were invaders from outer space who are simply motivated by malicious desire to make people's lives miserable. They're just mindless killing machines.
BRAND: One of the passages in the book that has Linda Silver so angry is where Israeli soldiers pull over a Palestinian family. They order the father to get out of the car and line up with other men for a strip search. Twelve-year-old Karim watches with his mother and young sister in the car.
Unidentified Man: (Reading) `There was a burning pain inside him. He'd never thought much about his father before. He'd always assumed that his father knew best, that his decisions were right, that he could protect his family. All those sure things shifted in his mind as he saw his father's humiliation. Hot, red anger pulsed behind his eyes.
`He came to with a start at the sound of a click. Serene(ph) had wriggled off Lamia's(ph) lap and was back in the driver's seat. She had opened the door and was jumping out onto the road. "No!" shouted Karim. "Serene, come back!" Without stopping to think, he opened his own door and ran to pick her up. He heard a shout, and before he could reach her, was pulled up short by a soldier grabbing his arm. "What are you doing, Palestinian?" the soldier snarled at him. "My sister," babbled Karim, "she's only four. She opened the door herself. I"--Serene had run back and grabbed hold of his leg. With the other hand, she pulled at the soldier's gray-green uniform trousers. "Please, Uncle," she said, "I want my babba(ph)."
`The young soldier looked down at her as if he didn't understand. He hesitated, seemingly disconcerted at the touch of the little girl's hand. Karim could feel that the soldier's fingers still gripping his arm were shaking. "He's terrified," he thought with surprise. "He thinks we're going to attack him." He could almost smell the soldier's fear. "She didn't mean any harm," he said, hating the placating note he could hear in his own voice. "I'll take her back to the car." The soldier shoved at him roughly. "Take her. If there's any more trouble from you, you go over there and join the other terrorists." Karim scooped Serene up in his arms and ran back to the car with her.
`Karim was trembling violently. He felt sick with the backwash of fear. "I hate them. I hate them. I hate them," he thought, unable now to look at his father who still stood, reduced to an object of ridicule beside the bewildered old man.'
BRAND: A reading of "A Little Piece of Ground," the children's book that some critics say is an unfair depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The owner of Canada's largest bookstore says she won't sell the book because she's so offended. In a letter to the publisher, Phyllis Simon said she was disgusted at the irresponsible decision to publish what she feels is a racist, inflammatory and totally one-sided piece of propaganda, and she's called on Macmillan to reconsider publishing it. Simon refused to comment for this story, but her views are echoed by children's book reviewer Linda Silver. Silver says author's of children's books have a particular responsibility to portray multiple sides of a sensitive political situation because children don't have the same critical faculties as adults.
Ms. SILVER: It is, at the least, dishonest to portray a political conflict in totally unpolitical terms, particularly when it's written for kids who can't be assumed to know what the political context is. The author in that case has some responsibility, I think, to supply some, and she doesn't.
Ms. LAIRD: Well, I think this is an interesting criticism. I wrote a book called "Kiss the Dust," and it's about a Kurdish family who escape from Iraqi Kurdistan and are interned in an Iranian refugee camp under very harsh conditions. Nobody has ever said to me that I should have shown the point of view of the Iranian guards in that camp. I would very much have liked to have put in that story a sympathetic Israeli character and, indeed, I tried to see how that could be done. But there's no point in making a sentimental attempt to show a half-truth when the whole truth is there in front of me.
BRAND: The publisher is standing firmly behind Elizabeth Laird's book, saying it is just one of many stories to be told about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Macmillan will try to sell "A Little Piece of Ground" to publishers worldwide next week at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In the past, Laird's book have been snapped up by American publishers, but Macmillan acknowledges that this time it's not at all certain what will happen. For DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand in New York.
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