Favorite Living Books about the Middle East

Today we’re doing another Favorite Books post, and we’re going to shine the spotlight on books that will help you and your students learn about the Middle East.

I have some dear friends who lived there for many months, and we’ve had fellow Charlotte Mason home educators from the Middle East fly over to attend our annual retreat. It is a fascinating region of the world, so I’m eager to share with you some great living books to learn about it.

First let me tell you about my two absolutely favorite geography books: Material World and Hungry Planet, both by Peter Menzel. Peter is a world-class photographer who traveled the world and spent time in various countries getting to know different families. He documented his time with those families in both photographs and words. 

In Material World, he took pictures of a typical family outside their house with all their possessions on the front lawn. Then there are also candid shots of that family as they go about their day. You can learn so much about the regions of the world by looking at those photographs and reading the descriptions of those visits!

In Hungry Planet, he did the same thing but this time he focused on what families around the world eat. The big photographs show one week’s worth of food in that family’s kitchen or wherever they do their cooking. Favorite recipes are included along with more about that family and candid photos.

Material World was published in the 1990s and Hungry Planet in the early 2000s, so they are about one generation old. It’s a great exercise for your children to look at how much has changed during the past 20 or 30 years and how much has stayed the same. Technology has definitely changed, but many cultural aspects and living styles have remained constant. So even while your students are learning about cultures around the world, they are also getting a good reminder that life is always changing even as a lot of it also stays the same.

You can put these two big books on your coffee table for all ages to look through at random, or you can focus on one region at a time and select just those families to read about together. And for an even closer look at that region, combine Material World and Hungry Planet with other living books about that part of the world.

Now let me give you some of my favorites for the Middle East. Most of these titles are picture books that younger students will particularly enjoy, but don’t write them off as only for the younger. Everyone can learn from a well-written children’s book. I’ve learned a lot from these books as an adult, so feel free to share them with the whole family or encourage your older students to read them to your younger students.

The Hungry Coat: A Tale from Turkey by Demi

This book serves a double purpose. It relates a famous folk tale from Turkish culture. Folk tales and folk heroes can reveal a lot about each region of the world. But this book also provides a glimpse into that culture through vivid illustrations that are inspired by traditional Turkish paintings. The Hungry Coat is a tale about appearances that will appeal to the youngest and gently remind the oldest of an important truth: if you want to look deeply, look at the man, not at his coat.

The Pearl Diver by Julia Johnson

Saeed is a young boy who lives near the Arabian Gulf. His father and grandfathers before him were pearl divers, and this is the year that Saeed gets to go to sea with his father, to work on the boat and to learn how to dive. The watercolor illustrations lend much to this outstanding narrative of a way of life that sustained families like Saeed’s right up until the discovery of oil. This book has been out of print, but it looks like the publishers are planning to release it soon in a paperback version. So keep an eye out for it or check your library.

Saluki: Hound of the Bedouin by Julia Johnson

This is the story of the strong relationship between a Bedouin boy in Arabia and his special dog, which is a Saluki. The Saluki breed is prized in Bedouin life for hunting, along with their trained falcons. You and your children will learn about life in the desert, about family ties, and about Bedouin culture through this thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated tale. Currently this book is out of print, so check your library. It is by the same author and published by the same company as The Pearl Diver, so I really hope it will be coming back into print also.

Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad by James Rumford

This is a poetic book about a boy who is learning to write calligraphy at his home in Baghdad, Iraq. Trying to form the beautiful letters can be tricky sometimes and soothing at other times. In fact, he turns to his writing to calm his spirit as bombs and missiles fall on the city. Though the story was born in 2003, it has a timeless message. And your children will find the calligraphy in another language fascinating.

Waiting for the Owl’s Call by Gloria Whelan

This is a title from the Tales of the World series from Sleeping Bear Press. This story is set in Afghanistan and portrays the life of a young girl who spends her days tying knots to make a rug. All of the women in her family work on the rugs at their home, every day, all day, in order to earn money. The title comes from their practice of listening for an owl to call at night, then they stop their work for that day. Your children will learn about the geography of the region, as well as some of the customs of the culture, and they will discover that education is a gift that not all children receive.

Mosque by David Macaulay

Some of you are familiar with other Macaulay titles, such as Castle, Cathedral, and Pyramids. Mosque follows along the same lines, weaving a fictional story that contains a carefully researched narrative and revealing how a building was constructed. This book traces the building of a mosque in the late 1500s. This book would not be considered a picture book, per se; but it is not a chapter book either. And while it could be read in one sitting, I’ve found it a much better approach to read smaller portions and spread the story out over several weeks. That approach does two things: it gives the students a better feel for the extended time involved in building the project and it allows them more opportunity to digest and ponder what they have read.

The titles I’ve mentioned so far are scheduled in our Visits to the Middle East book. All of the books in our Visits To series combine map study with living books to give your students a good feel for the people and cultures of different regions around the world. The Material World and Hungry Planet books are used in all six of the Visits To studies. So if you would like ready-to-go plans that schedule all of these great books, check out Visits to the Middle East.

Now, we have also added some Middle East titles to the Bonus Books lists in our history curriculum. Bonus Books are extra titles that can be used for leisure reading or book substitutions or as recommendations that you can use to create your own heritage history stream. The difference between books listed for geography and those listed as history bonus titles is that the history bonus books are more closely linked to specific historical events; whereas, the geography book recommendations take more of a general look at the area’s culture.

The books I’ve mentioned thus far are geography titles, but you might also be interested in one of those history bonus books called I Am Malala, which is a first-person account by a young woman from Pakistan who was targeted and shot by Taliban forces and received a Nobel Peace Prize. There are both a regular edition and a Young Readers edition available. Both are written in a living style. The Young Readers edition has shorter chapters and contains less Islamic beliefs and less about the culture, history, and politics of Pakistan. I would recommend the Young Readers edition for about 4th–9th grades, and the original version for about grades 7 and up, depending on the child.

So there you have it, a great variety of books to use to learn more about the people, customs, and culture of the Middle East.