Sharjah was the guest of honor at both this year’s London and Bologna book fairs. In the last decade, Sharjah has particularly invested in children’s literature. The Emirate is home to Kalimat, one of the biggest publishers of Arabic children’s literature, and the annual Sharjah Book Fair is home to one of the most prominent prizes for Arabic literature for young readers, the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature.
Salwa Shakhshir is managing director of the award-winning Jordanian children’s publishing house Dar al-Salwa. Egyptian children’s book writer Miranda Beshara is also co-founder of the key promotional hub for Arabic children’s literature, Hadi Badi Books, and her Teta and Babcia made the 2022 IBBY Honor List. Jordanian author and disability-rights trainer Mohamed Nabulsi, who lives in Sharjah, most recently published Dates and Masala, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the YA category.
These three publishing professionals spoke with me about the most exciting current initiatives in Arabic children’s literature, books they recommend, and what they’d like to see in the future.
M. Lynx Qualey (MLQ): What have been the most exciting initiatives, to your mind, that support not just the writing and publication of great Arabic literature for young readers, but also knowledge about and access to this literature? And what still needs to be done?
Salwa Shakhshir (SS): There are several initiatives that support creative literature and promote the culture of reading in the region, including the Art and Literature Grant from the Abdel Hameed Shoman Foundation, which supports creative writing in Arabic as well as the development of libraries. Other initiatives that promote reading are the We Love Reading campaign and the Arab Reading Challenge.
Social media has played an important role in promoting the culture of reading and spreading awareness of books, authors, and publishers. There are a number of interested parents, reading groups, and influencers who highlight the importance of reading. A few examples include the Instagram accounts for Hadi Badi and “Oh.the.books that.you’ll.read.”
We need more governmental support to ensure that libraries are established in every city to make books accessible for all and not just for the segment of people who can afford it. We also need more focus from the media on the importance of children’s literature and instilling the love and habit of reading in young children.
Miranda Beshara (MB): Well, I don’t know of any current initiatives focusing on the writing and publication of good Arabic literature for young readers apart from sporadic workshops and grants. However, there are several exciting initiatives that raise awareness.
There is Al-Nqsh platform, which provides an online repository of recent publications, with reviews from different people—sort of a Goodreads for Arabic children’s books. Then there is of course the Hadi Badi Initiative, which reviews books that were read and liked by its reading committee, in addition to curating special content and developing interactive and creative learning activities around children’s and young adult books in Arabic. I believe that there are many great Arabic children’s books that haven’t reached their young readers yet. What is needed is more creativity from publishers to improve the promotion and distribution of their books, as well as more collaboration with schools and public libraries to make such books accessible to all.
Mohamed Nabulsi (MN): I can summarize what we still need to do in three main points:
First: Publishers of books for children and youths must rally around these new Arab initiatives, wherever they may be found, support them with their positive criticism, and cooperate to improve and enhance them.
Second: We must support initiatives that encourage reading in Arabic for children and young people, as these types of programs are still timid, and are weakened in the face of the intensive production of English-language literature.
Third: Encourage the publication of books in new forms, such as ebooks and audiobooks, as well as other available formats that will reach a wider segment than the paper book alone.
MLQ: What has been the effect of prizes on Arabic literature for young readers? Which prizes would you suggest librarians, readers, teachers, parents, translators, and others keep an eye on? Or, if not prizes, how else do we find out about great new Arabic books for young people?
SS: Prizes such as the Etisalat Children’s Literature Award and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award have presented young readers with a guide for recommended books. This has encouraged young readers to discover new authors and publishers who have won awards. A lot of schools have also adopted certain books as supplementary reading in the curriculum, introducing literature to young readers who will later seek out other books from the same writer/publisher if they enjoyed what they read.
Digital platforms have risen in importance and popularity during the coronavirus pandemic, and they have become a significant tool for discovery, as they allow the reader to view lists of many publishers in one location.
MB: Over the past decade, awards have created competition in the Arabic children’s literature industry. On one hand, this is great because it raised the bar in terms of quality and quantity, but on the other hand, those awards didn’t change much in terms of content, as the majority of book authors and publishers have opted to play it safe in order to increase their chances of winning. Nevertheless, awards are a good starting point to learn about the latest publications. Prizes to watch include the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, the biennial IBBY Honour List, and regional awards focusing only on illustration, such as the Mahmoud Kahil Award, which mostly focuses on comics but has a special category for children’s illustration. There is the recently launched Ouka Award for Children’s Book Illustrations, too.
MN: The three awards I see as the best for Arabic children’s literature are the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Books, the Abdul Hameed Shoman Prize for Children’s Literature, and the Arab Forum Award for Publishers of Children’s Books.
The problem with awards is that they become a target even before the writing begins. There is also a lot of controversy and debate over the integrity of these awards.
I see literary prizes as an important incentive for the children’s book industry, but we also need other initiatives that encourage the publication of books and their delivery to readers.
MLQ: If you could name one or two books (that aren’t yours, although of course all yours!) that you’d like to see read more widely, and perhaps translated into world languages, what would they be, and why?
SS: Waleed Duqqa’s The Oil’s Secret Tale (حكاية سر الزيت), which was published by the Tamer Institute, tells the exciting story of Jude, a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his mother and dreams of meeting his imprisoned father but is prevented from doing so time and again by the Israeli authorities, who consider his father a threat to the occupation. Jude doesn’t give up on his dream and goes through a dangerous adventure to finally meet his father. The story is full of imagination. The book won the 2018 Etisalat YA award, and Waleed Duqqa, the author, wrote the book while a political prisoner who is sentenced to life in jail.
The second book is Waleed Taher’s picture book The Black Dot (النقطة السوداء). The simplicity of the story and matching illustrations is what makes this book resonate so well with kids and adults alike. A story about creative thinking, positivity, and perseverance. A universal picture book that deserves to be translated widely.
MB: For their beautiful range of illustrations in different styles and the kind of questions they trigger about identity and difference, I would recommend Walid Taher’s Seven Lives (سبعة أرواح), already available in a bilingual Arabic-French version by Le port a jauni, and an Arabic version by Dar Al Shorouk, Egypt; and The Cup (الكاس), written by Maya Abu Al-Hayat and illustrated by Hassan Manasrah, published by the Palestine Writing Workshop. For cultural heritage, I would recommend two award-winning books from Dar Al Balsam: Damascus . . . the Tale of a City (دمشق.. قصة مدينة) by Alaa Mortada and The Nights of Shahr Zizi (ليالي شهر زيزي ) by Hadil Ghoneim, illustrated by Sahar Abdallah.
In the YA category, I loved One Day the Sun Will Shine (ستشرق الشمس ولو بعد حين) by Taghreed Najjar, published by Dar Al Salwa, for its timely firsthand account of a Syrian teen escaping the war and trying to find refuge and start a new life. I would also add one of the titles that has already been translated into other languages, my all-time favorite, Watermelon Madness, for the funny story by Taghreed Najjar and the beautiful illustrations by Maya Fidawi.
MN: Against the Tide (ست الكل) by Taghreed Najjar, as a book for young people, focuses on the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the solid system of social solidarity there. I also recommend She, They, They (هي هما هن) by Nahla Ghandour—it’s a picture book that breaks down stereotypes of disability, written in beautiful, robust, and carefully illustrated language.
MLQ: What have been the most striking developments in Arabic literature for young readers in the last five years? What do you think happens next?
SS: I think maybe the most striking recent development is how the coronavirus pandemic made the publishing industry aware of the importance of digital publishing and having content accessible online. I might also add that in the past few years, there has been an increase in the publication of Arabic children’s books. This will no doubt bring more variety and encourage healthy competition, all working to raise the standard of publishing.
MN: The production of children books has improved a lot in recent years. However, we still suffer from a low level of freedom of expression and choice of topics, as we are still not writing about emotional and sexual relationships among teens, and the accompanying new concepts of freedoms and sexual identities. Unfortunately!
We need all authors to free their minds and stop confiscating the freedom of child readers to form their own beliefs. We should be encouraging their critical thinking and giving them space to go in their own new directions.
Besides that, publishers need to hire editors.
MB: I would point to the new players who are making the sector of Arabic literature for young readers more dynamic than before! One example is Alia Publishing and Distribution, which had an unprecedented five books shortlisted for the 2021 Etisalat Award. Their lovely, whimsical book 70 Kilos won in the newly introduced comics category. It’s about two seals who are friends trying to meet, but they live on opposite poles. Another exciting development is the proliferation of publishers of children’s books in spoken Arabic such as Tuta Tuta, Asfoura, and Makouk for the Egyptian dialect, and Liblib Publishing for regional Arabic dialects. Established publisher Dar Al Shorouk also published two YA novels by renowned author Rania Hussein Amin in the Egyptian dialect side by side with their classical Arabic versions. Another recent development is the launch of two new awards: a children’s literature category within the prestigious annual Sawiris Cultural Award in Egypt and the first edition of the Ouka Award for Children’s Book Illustrations. It is a really exciting time, with new entrants pushing the boundaries with language as well as visual genres. I am hopeful that more authors (me included) will be tackling a wider range of topics in a more creative way.
Miranda Beshara is a children’s author/translator and co-founder of Hadi Badi. She also teaches Arabic online to children at Kalamna. Miranda translates and edits from/to English, French, and Arabic. In 2020, she participated in the Antwerp University’s Children’s Literature Summer School and also received a diploma in the mediation of children’s and young adult literature from the Ecole du Livre in Montreuil, France. Teta and Babcia published by Dar Al Balsam, Egypt, is her first book. Miranda’s second book is forthcoming later this year.
Mohamed Nabulsi is a Jordanian author and disability-rights trainer who lives in Sharjah, UAE. He has been working in the field of disability rights for the last two decades and is passionate about making sure disabled children and teens have access to good literature and theater, and that they see themselves positively reflected in their books and can participate in live theater. As an author, his novel Dates and Masala was shortlisted for the 2021 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the YA category, and his children’s book The Library Ghoul won a 2020 Shoman Children’s Literature Award. He has two books forthcoming from the award-winning Tamer Institute in 2022, a children’s book and a YA novel, The Tale of Ayman and His Butterflies.
Salwa Shakhshir is the managing director of Al Salwa Publishers, an award-winning boutique publishing house that specializes in creating original Arabic content for children and young adults. Salwa took over a small home-run family business and turned it into an award-winning publishing house that implements state of the art book publishing procedures and processes. She has trained and empowered a young team of motivated individuals with attention to detail and a united goal. Many of Al Salwa’s titles have won awards and were translated into over ten foreign languages.
© 2022 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.