It might surprise you to know that at least 10 children’s books about Osama bin Laden have been published in the last 6 years. I was intrigued, just what do publishers think children should learn about this contemporary villain?
To start to try answering this question I took a look at two biographies of bin Laden published in very different series. The War on Terror Series “covers the full range of topics and issues needed for meaningful discussion, clear understanding, and hope for the future.” they offer “reassurance that democracies are doing what is necessary to make the world safe.” In contrast the Middle East Leaders Series “presents the life stories of those leaders who, for two generations, have been most important-or notorious-to their people and to international politics.” While both series explicitly frame Bin Laden a bit differently, as either part of a conversation about the war on terror or a Middle East Leader they are remarkably similar, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re both terrible “biographies”.
Often, children’s biographies start off with extensive discussion of their subjects childhood and school experiences. These stories are almost entirely absent from the bin Laden books. Instead, both books begin with sections on the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As far as children’s book publishers are concerned, the story of Osama bin Laden starts at the world trade center. The books both quickly gloss over his early life, and cut to the heart of the matter: Each book has the bold headline, “Why bin Laden Hates America“.
The books depart slightly from each-other in how they answer this question. The Middle East Leaders series explains bin Laden’s hatred for America in very specific complaints. While “Osama bin Laden hates America, its government, and its citizens for several reasons: “two reasons in particular stand out… the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia…(and) support for Israel.” After discussing these two specifics, the author offers further explanation. “As much as Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is a terrorist, bin Laden himself believes that Americans are the real terrorists. “
The “War on Terror” biography offers a more general explanation about bin Laden’s perspective . The low quality, heavily tinted image of bin Laden to the left is indicative of the general approach of the book. “He hates everything about us and will fight to the death. Bin laden and his Muslim extremist groups fear a U.S. conspiracy will destroy traditional Islamic culture and values. He believes America has the worst value system in the world. He thinks that democracy and our free society make us materialistic, with a sick desire for possessions instead of spiritual enlightenment. He believes the only way to create a pure Islamic state is to wage jihad, or holy war, against the U. S and its allies and drive their forces out of Muslim lands.”
To answer the question I started with, these children’s books about bin Laden exist to address his role in 9/11 more then they exist to explain his life and failing to achieve the later insures the failure of the former. These books have no interest in making him human, in understanding how someone can be driven to such a terrible extreme. While they each offer slightly different reasons for why he hates America, without a more personal story readers cannot really understand this hatred, instead they are left with vague impressions of a monster lurking somewhere in the Middle East. Possibly the 4 to 8 year old children the War on Terror series targets just aren’t the right audience for biographies on bin Laden.
So what does this tell us about kids books about villains? I have one preliminary thought. Children’s books about heroes generally distill virtues for children to follow. (The clearest and most blatant example is ValueTales biographies) One might think the contrary would be true for books about villains, transforming their lives into parables of what not to do, but if these few bin Laden books are indicative of a larger trend it would not seem to be the case. But I suppose what can we learn from him if he isn’t presented as a person?
There is something very striking about the cover from the War on Terror Series. Something about a picture of Osama surrounded by stars, stripes, and a little red white and blue ribbon really seems to send mixed messages. I suppose they are trying to say, “yes its about bin Laden, but the accouterments of the American flag tell you what side we’re on.” When looking at the cover I couldn’t help but think that this kind of cover would make more sense with a picture of a patriot than a picture of public enemy number one. Indeed, it appears that that is exactly the publishers thought. See the image to the right, with George Bush framed by the same cover. (Note to publishers, there are times when it is appropriate to mix things up the covers within a series.)