If you happen to have wandered into the children’s section of a bookstore recently—for your own kid or a friend’s kid, or simply to revisit the cozy, Technicolor sensation of being four again—you may have noticed something startling amid the potty books and engineering primers: the landscape of contemporary children’s literature is strangely bereft of books of conscience. The cheeky-poignant warnings that Dr. Seuss once sounded against the oily beasts of greed, discrimination and climate disaster have long since given way to princess romps and battery-powered truck books, while books with alphabet memes and number schemes have come to dominate the shelves. If you want to teach your child to brush her teeth, make a friend or brave the dark—all worthy enough endeavors—take your pick; if you want to shape her into a sensitive global citizen, good luck.
Earlier this year, however, a slim book arrived on American bookshelves featuring a cover portrait of a donkey shadowed by warplanes. The book is called The Story of Hurry, and, unlike its sugarcoated peers, it eschews princess fantasies, Elmo tie-ins and beeping garbage trucks in favor of a sweet-and-searing tale of life inside one of the most tattered lands on earth. That this land happens to be the Gaza Strip, a place that barely registers even among grown-up publishers, is all the more astonishing.
The Story of Hurry was written by Emma Williams and edited by Jean Stein, with illustrations by Ibrahim Quraishi. Lyrical and tender, with pictures that mix tone and media, it is an attempt, in Williams’s words, to tap into children’s “innate sense of justice” and “amazing sense of inquiry” in the hope they will provoke conversations that “confound” us.
“I hope my book would give [children] the potential to ask questions,” said Williams, a doctor-turned-writer who spent three years living in Jerusalem with her husband, a United Nations diplomat, and four children. “Why is this allowed to happen? What about the children on the other side, what do they think? Why do the soldiers do that? These questions need asking and need answering.”
The book goes about provoking these questions by following the adventures of a “little donkey,” named Hurry, who just wants to make children happy. Hurry lives “in a dry and lonely land by the sea” where the children often go hungry, the electricity frequently falters and, some nights, bombs fall from the sky. Grownups will recognize this land as Gaza, though its name is never mentioned in the book, nor is Israel’s. The book also sidesteps words like “war” and “siege,” but it is clear, from both text and pictures, that the children of this land lead fearful, walled-in lives. They wander to the beach to play but are “chased out of the sea by angry men.” They go to the zoo in search of fun and escape, but the animals are “thin, and sad, and few.”
Hurry bounds through this harsh, strafed landscape trying to cheer the children—giving them rides on his back, nuzzling them in their sadness—until, one day, he encounters a little girl who cannot be cheered. Sitting by a well where the water comes out salty, not sweet, she cries for the ordinariness of a childhood she cannot have—one where the food is good, electricity is constant, the skies are safe and little girls have the freedom to run, play, visit the mountains and explore other cities. Above all, she longs to see the “strange animals” she reads about in her books.