By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Wafa’ Tarnowska to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book Nour’s Secret Library, illustrated by Vali Mintzi and out since March 29, 2022!
Forced to take shelter when their Syrian city is plagued with bombings, young Nour and her cousin begin to bravely build a secret underground library. Based on the author’s own life experience and inspired by a true story, Nour’s Secret Library is about the power of books to heal, transport and create safe spaces during difficult times. Illustrations by Romanian artist Vali Mintzi superimpose the colorful world the children construct over black-and-white charcoal depictions of the battered city.
Tell me a little about your new book, Nour’s Secret Library. What can readers expect? What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Nour’s Secret Library is based on real facts that happened in 2013 during the Syrian war in a town five miles southwest of Damascus. It is intermingled with my real-life experience as a teenager during Lebanon’s civil war years (1975-1992). It is about the love of books and how they can make the world a better place.
I hope that readers will learn what it is to live in a war situation as a child while dreaming of a place without bullets and bombs. I also hope that readers will understand the power of books to heal, transport, and create safe spaces during difficult times.
Who was your favorite character to write about? What is your favorite line that they say or action that they do?
Nour is my favorite character because she is partly me as a child. My favorite line is: “Every book was like a person wanting to be loved, with a unique personality and soul.” And my favorite action is “with the help of their friends they transported the books one backpack at a time to their secret location. It took such courage to walk slowly carrying the heavy loads, with the risk of bullets whizzing past.”
This book is based on a true story. When did you come across the story of the secret library in Daraya? What made you think about turning it into a children’s book?
I came across it in July 2016 when it came out on the BBC news. It jolted my memory about how books saved me from depression when the civil war started in Lebanon, and we had to hide in our building’s basement for months to stay safe from bombs. We were 12 families: 40 children and their parents spending every night in the caretaker’s basement flat playing card games, drinking tea and coffee, sharing food, and listening to the news on the radio. I took refuge in my books and the sadder they were, the better I felt because I needed to read about people who were suffering more than I was.
What is the significance of naming the main characters Nour (meaning “light“) and Amir (meaning “prince”)?
I chose the name Nour because it is one of my favorite names for a girl in Arabic. Seeing the subject is a little dark because in the reality the library is eventually destroyed after 3 years, as Daraya surrendered to the government’s forces. I wanted to end the book on a hopeful note, so I wrote: “the hope the library brought, carried them from the darkness of destruction into a bright new dawn.”
As for the name Amir, it is an easy name to pronounce for non-Arabic speakers, plus he is a chivalrous and courageous boy, so it suits him perfectly.
How do you see yourself represented through your characters and the storyline?
When I was a child growing up in Lebanon, I devoured all of Enid Blyton’s books, namely The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, and I wanted to form a secret society and have adventures like them because girls in those days were very protected and restricted as to what they could do on their own without a family member to chaperone them. That’s why I included the story line where they dream of forming their own secret society which transforms itself into the secret library.
When you write, what is your favorite part of the writing process? Why?
When I write, my favorite part of the writing process is the time when I am open to my inspiration or my muses. Words and ideas seem to tumble into my head like a beautiful waterfall. I am transported into another world and time does not exist. The Spanish have a perfect name for it: ”Duende,” meaning a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity.
Did you encounter any challenges or unexpected surprises when writing the book?
The challenge was to make the subject of war understandable to children because it is not an easy subject to write about. It’s an ugly human behavior but children need to know that it happens and keeps on happening in various parts of the world. We cannot shield children from reality, but we can point out to them that dialogue, not fighting, is the answer to disagreements. In the book Nour asks her mum when will the fighting stop? The mother answers: “When people talk and try to work out their differences.”
While doing research for this book, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
How the library helped the community in all sorts of ways. How volunteers working at the hospital used the library’s books to advise them on how to treat patients; how untrained teachers used them to help prepare lessons, and how aspiring dentists needed advice on doing fillings and extracting teeth as doctors were scarce. I added the idea of Nour’s dad learning how to make Western cakes as he is a traditional Arab baker in the story.
What advice would you give to other authors who want to write about characters living in historical times?
Make these characters real, remember incidents in your own life or that of your friends and families and blend them into the story.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
I especially like the books of the Lebanese children’s books author Fatima Sharafeddine. Although her books are in Arabic, they should be translated into English. She writes beautifully, thoughtfully of often difficult subjects for children. I admire her body of work.
If you could have your dream panel promoting Nour’s Secret Library, what would it be about? What other authors and voices would you like to have on it alongside you?
My dream panel would include Richard Ovenden the Director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford who wrote a brilliant book called Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge and the Sufi poet Rumi, who lived in the 13th century in Turkey and said, “I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.”
For a female voice I would invite Hypatia, born c. 350–370 AD, who was a philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician and lived in Alexandria in Egypt under the Roman Empire. She was renowned in her own lifetime as a great teacher and a wise counselor. And as a female intellectual, she became a role model for modern intelligent women and two feminist journals were named after her.
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
What is your favorite book of all time?
It is Love in the Time of Cholera by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love the idea that love is allowed to blossom during old age and that the title is a pun: cholera is a disease, but it is also passion in Spanish.
I chuckle at Marquez’ irreverence and sense of humor, for example when he says that Florentino had waited fifty-one years, nine months, and four days to repeat to his beloved Fermina his vow of “eternal fidelity and everlasting love,” when he had been totally dissolute.
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
I have written two proposals for two new books and await acceptance from two different publishers. So, I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed at this point.
Finally, what are your pronouns/how do you identify yourself? I want to make sure I am representing you properly!
I’m a female heterosexual.
Wafa‘ Tarnowska was born in Lebanon, has lived in Australia, India, Cyprus, Poland and Dubai and now lives in the UK. In her work, Wafa‘ sets out to build a bridge between East and West, helping to break down the stereotypical images people have of one another. Wafa‘ is also the author of The Seven Wise Princesses, a retelling for children of the Sufi writer Nizami’s medieval classic Haft Paykar.
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.