School Library Journal

Gr 5-7–An adaptation of Fadhil’s true story of life in Iraq during the Gulf War. Eleven-year-old Ali lives in Basra with his father, mother, two brothers, and sister. Ali thinks he was born with a “silver spoon” as his parents’ employment (his father is a dentist and his mother is a math professor) affords them certain luxuries including a home in a nice neighborhood, access to American television, video games, and Superman comic books. Things begin to change in 1991 when the U.S. invades Iraq at the start of the Gulf War. Ali’s father leaves to provide medical care to soldiers, and the family is left to worry about his safety. Bombings destroy bridges and buildings, and they go without power and with very little food. The book follows Ali through this scary and uncertain time. This blending of biography, historical fiction, and realistic fiction paints a vivid portrait of daily family life in Iraq and the trials many faced. The writing is straightforward and accessible. VERDICT This book could be used to facilitate discussion of history, culture, politics, or geography with young readers. A good choice for most middle grade shelves.–Tiffany Davis, Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, NY

Publisher’s Weekly 

Fadhil’s childhood in Iraq forms the basis of this dramatic fictionalized account of life during Operation Desert Storm, the 43-day war that followed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, which conveys both the horrors and banality of war. Eleven-year-old Ali loves reading Superman comics, playing soccer, and watching American television, from which he has learned English. He hates Saddam Hussein and anguishes that “soon, America—the land that I love—is going to try to kill me.” Ali’s narrative voice captures the tension of a boy who is young enough to cry when his mother burns a comic book to cook their rice and old enough to comprehend the absurdity of Americans dubbing the nightly bombing “the video game war.” Ali’s experiences include being forced to watch a public execution, fearing his father has been killed, and being irritated that he can’t play outside. Roy (Jars of Hope) and Fadhil, an interpreter during Hussein’s trial, offer a window into what Ali calls “the true Iraq” and a disturbing but accessible portrait of a civilian child’s perspective on war. 

School Library Connection

Jennifer Roy, author of Yellow Star (Two Lions 2014), once again brings readers into the past with her tale of Iraqi life during the first Iraq War, also known as Operation Desert Storm, which took place from January through February 1991. Readers follow the story of young Ali, who later grew up to be an interpreter at Saddam Hussein’s tribunal in 2005. Readers glimpse Ali and his family dealing with food and electricity shortages as well as the constant threat of losing their home and their lives. Ali has seen the face of war before when he endured the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war. Yet this war is different. Who can he trust? Who is really safe? More importantly, how do individuals keep what is precious to them safe amidst such turmoil?  Roy’s work will be ideal for reluctant readers who are intrigued by life during wartime, as well as those seeking less intimidating shorter texts. It would be welcome if Roy were to follow this up with a continuation set during the second Iraq War. It is important for all readers today to learn more about life in the Middle East as global citizensLaura Dooley-Taylor, Librarian, Zurich Middle School North Lake Hawthorn Woods, Illinois

This slightly fictionalized biography of a half-Kurdish boy growing up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during Operation Desert Storm is riveting. The book is full of homey details of a family simply trying to outlive and out-wait the madness of war, the bizarre behavior of a narcissistic dictator, and the fact that their home in Basra is situated right between Hussein’s capital city of Baghdad and Kuwait—the small oil-rich country he has invaded. History in a nutshell.”— Jane Yolen of The Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking)


Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein

A young girl growing up in the Lodz ghetto during the Holocaust. A teenage boy genius with Asperger Syndrome. A video game-loving boy living in Iraq during the first Gulf War…

These are some of the characters whose stories I have told. Writing them required research and interviews and more research because thankfully, unlike Syria in “Yellow Star” or Ali in “Playing Atari With Saddam Hussein,” I have not had to endure the horror of war. And unlike Nathaniel in “Mindblind” I am neither a genius nor on the autistic spectrum. But my protagonists are counting on me to tell their stories, so I can and describe their experience – what they hear, smell, taste, feel… and see.

In “Playing Atari,” I got the opportunity to look through the eyes of eleven-year old Ali, a boy from Basra, Iraq. (This is where I get to introduce my co-author Ali Fadhil, whose real life inspired this book.) Ali, meet children’s literature. Children’s literature? Meet Ali.

Now that you’ve met, I’d like to share how I met Ali. My twin sister, author Julia DeVillers introduced us. Julia’s husband was one of three American prosecutors at the trial of Saddam Hussein. (!!!)
Ali Fadhil was an Arab-Kurdish-English translator at that trial. David told Julia about Ali. Julia thought I should be the one to write Ali’s story, as I had experience writing about survivors of war. And, fortunately, Ali agreed.

It took over two years to research and write “Playing Atari.playing-atari-with-saddam-hussein” So when my editor Elizabeth Bewley sent me an email with the subject: “Cover,” I couldn’t wait to see how illustrator [x] interpreted the words visually. It was just the black and white sketch, but I was already blown away. The stark scene was so right for the time and place in which the story was set. But I knew this wasn’t a black and white cover. I recalled my own time in the Middle East, (Israel with views of Syria, Jordan and Egypt and an accidental drive over the border into Lebanon.) I requested the obvious – the sandhued tones of the desert.  But I had never been to Iraq, so Ali gave his input, of course, too.

And then the full-color cover arrived.

In Ali’s own words,

“I could immediately smell the old city of Basra coming out of the picture. It’s just how I used to see it on the street. I used to walk to school. The building design, the kids playing soccer… it’s as close as it could be.”

My own reaction was “wow!” The addition of color gives the impression of being on the outside looking in and being on the inside looking out. Each of these perspectives relate to an aspect of Ali’s personality. Ali feels different from other kids, with his passion for all things American. He feels trapped in a country that doesn’t understand him, and he is looking for a way out.

The cover evokes two moods – light and dark. Ali was a light-hearted boy playing soccer with his friends until Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and brought the wrath of the United States military on his country, his town.

Finally, the artist used the sandy desert tones that I had hoped for. But he also applied orangey reds and blues that give the cover the modern feel that a book with a game console in the title deserves.

Ali is a character that deserves to be seen and heard. I am honored to be the one to share his story and – (wait for it!) – the incredible epilogue! “Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein,” an Arab/Jewish collaboration, is an invitation to peer inside one young boy’s world of fear and hope and resilience. And videogames.