Elsa Marston
children's author

Fiction, young adult
An adventure in ancient Egypt
poems inspired by animals depicted in Southwestern rock art
history, political science
a look at the variety of women's lives in the Middle East and North Africa
Stories in Y-A collections

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THE OLIVE TREE (illustrated by Claire Ewart)

A story for all ages about an old olive tree in Lebanon, a source of pleasure, of conflict, and much more. Based on the author's award-winning and much reprinted short story, with exquisitely rendered illustrations.

In a mountain village, following many years of devastating civil strife, an old olive tree still bears fruit that Sameer's family calls the best in Lebanon. But there's a curious thing about that tree. While some of its twisting branches drop their olives on the land of Sameer's family, its roots grow in the yard of the neighboring family--who. because of the war, have not lived in their house for many years. Now they're coming back. Will they have children, especially a boy who can be Sameer's buddy? It turns out they do have a child Sameer's age--a girl. But Muna is not friendly, and she makes it clear that she doesn't want to share the best olives in Lebanon.

No olives, no buddy, not even a friendly smile from the other side of the stone wall between the two houses. Sameer is disappointed and resentful. Then something heartbreaking happens. Will Sameer find that the olive tree may have one last gift, before it's too late?

For group discussion, here are some background information and suggested questions.

A bit of background . . . .

Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country along the Mediterranean Sea, part of the Arab world, is unique in many ways. It's famous for beautiful mountains covered with pine trees and fruit trees, houses built of warm-colored stone with orange roofs, fascinating history going back thousands of years, and talented and enterprising people.

Because the population of Lebanon includes large numbers of people from several different religious sects--Muslim, Christian, Druze, and others--the people have traditionally tried to share power in ways that reduced friction. From 1975 to 1991, however, Lebanon was torn by civil war, with fighting forces from many different groups within the country and from neighboring countries as well. The war intensified anxieties and anger, which led to violence and heartbreak. In some villages where people of different religions had lived together peaceably for generations, neighbors turned against neighbors. (And in some villages, the people refused to give in to fear and hatred.)

I was in Lebanon at the outbreak of violence and again when things had more or less settled down. Of course I was deeply distressed by all that happened during those sixteen long years of destruction. But because I try, in my writing, to search for some signs of hope, I decided to write a story about people who are trying to find ways to get past their differences and their memories of hatred and anger. The result is this story, "The Olive Tree," which I first wrote in 1994. It has won a number of national awards and reprintings, and at last--and still timely, I believe!--it is a book, with illustrations that convey both the beauty of the land and life in Lebanon,and the emotional complexities that still lie below the surface.

Some questions for discussion . . . .

THE OLIVE TREE takes place in Lebanon, a country in the part of the Middle East that some people call "the Holy Land." What did you learn about Lebanon, from the story and pictures, that may have been different from what you were expecting (such as the land, houses, animals, people's clothes)?

The story says that Muna's family moved away from the village during a time of trouble, because they were "different" from most of their neighbors. In what ways do you think they may have felt different?

Have you ever seen olive trees? What sort of land and climate do you think they like?

When Sameer climbs the olive tree, do you suppose he picks the ripe olives and eats them, like cherries?

Why do you think Muna doesn't want to make friends with Sameer?

Sameer starts picking up pieces of the shattered tree and taking them to Muna's house. Do you think he really needs to do that, after Muna has behaved so selfishly? What might you have done, in Sameer's shoes?

Most stories have a "hero" of some sort. Does this one? Why do you think so?

There seem to be lots of trees in this village, but the houses don't appear to be made of wood. Why do you suppose the people build their houses in a different way?

Have you ever seen something carved from olive wood? Do you remember anything unusual about the wood?

Maybe you can act out this story! Make up two or three short scenes, like a play, with three or four characters--Sameer, Muna, the olive tree, and maybe a grownup.. Let's see what these characters say and think. (Don't forget the olive tree!) You could either write down some of their speeches, or make them up as you go along. Here are some possible scenes:

Muna sees Sameer picking up the fallen olives, and decides to talk to him.

Sameer starts to pick up the shattered wood. What goes on in Muna's head--and in Sameer's?

What does Sameer say to Muna the next time he sees her?