The Good, the Better, and the Brilliant: Highlights from the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature Judges Panel

After the winners of the 2017 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature were announced at the opening of this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair, the jurors sat on a public panel at the Sharjah International Book Fair to field questions and discuss the choices they made. Eman Mohammed, Programs and Award Executive at UAEBBY (The UAE Board on Books for Young People) moderated the discussion.

Juror Yasmine Motawy sketched out highlights from the discussion.

By Yasmine Motawy

Photo courtesy of Mona Yakzan. From left to right: Eman Mohammed (EM), programs and award executive at UAEBBY, Tamer Said (TS), the general manager of Kalimat Group (UAE), Intelaq  Mohammed Ali (IM), illustrator, graphic designer, art director and writer (Iraq), Yasmine Motawy (YM), children’s literature scholar, editor, translator, and instructor at the American University in Cairo (Egypt), Mertxe Paris Leza (MP), founder and editor of Mosaic, a publishing house specialized in children’s literature (Spain). Judge Nahla Ghandour, children’s writer and  director of the Ghassan Kanafani Preschool which caters to disabled children (Lebanon) could not be present at the panel.

The Etisalat Award is important because of the trust that publishers have in it, the transparency, and value of the award that keeps the books flowing in. It is also crucial in the financial remuneration that it provides, that allows artists and writers to support themselves for a little while longer in their financially precarious careers, and encourages publishers to pursue quality projects. Finally, because the award is so highly regarded, the content and form of the winning and shortlisted books are studied carefully by Arabic language industry players, as they become beacons of quality from year to year. They also receive the attention of the foreign book industry, as they are considered the year’s definitive candidates for translation and understanding the Arab world.

The ninth edition of the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature received 166 entries from 61 international publishing houses in 15 countries, a 10% increase from last year. The entries included 100 children’s books, 45 young adult books, and 21 digital book applications. Most entries came from Egypt with 31 submissions, followed by Lebanon with 30 entries. The UAE submitted 28 entries; Jordan 16; Palestine 11; Iraq 7; Saudi Arabia 5; Morocco 4; Syria 3; the US making its debut with 3; Kuwait and Tunisia, 2 each; Oman with one entry; and the UK and Cyprus – who are both participating for the first time – also with one each.

Eman Mohammed: What were the values of this jury?

Yasmine Motawy: The books that shone did so fairly quickly, and the books we unanimously eliminated also had a number of characteristics:

  1. We groaned out loud several times at what we labeled “missed opportunities.” This is when a book has great potential but is missing a book editor or an art director.
  2. Books that inadequately or uncreatively tackled important topics that are still fresh in Arabic children’s literature, caused the jury a great amount of frustration.
  3. Books that were divisive and whose principles did not promote the kind of world in which we wanted to live, such as books that reinforced negative gender stereotypes by making women the object of all the humor in a book.
  4. Stories that were thinly veiled lectures that hijacked the book form to stand on a podium and “tell” a child or a YA what the adult author had always wanted to say them. Readers are not captives, they can just walk away, so we consider these works to be partially the reason children do not read.
  5. Books that were better left in other media such as a social media account, a script for a television adult comedy series, a video game, or an app. It is important that the book form have a reason, children are sensitive to books that are other things in disguise.
  6. Books that were produced very expensively but did not make full/any use of the potential of the form, eg: silent/board books that were unnecessary in this form, or art books that were stylistically sparse but weak and without compelling illustrations or art direction, foldout books that had no reason for being so.
  7. The topic of refugees was tackled 11 times in the books we received. Many of these stories were insensitive and amounted to cultural appropriation and stealing the voices of refugees to say things it is doubtful real refugees would want to say about themselves and do not serve the refugees or the non-refugee reader.
  8. Heavy dialect that alienated readers who could not understand it.
  9. Purely informative books that are important to have but are not really literature.

EM: You were on the jury in 2012, what differences have you noticed in the quality of submissions between the 4th and 9th editions?

Intelaq  Mohammed Ali: On the whole Arabic books have improved and multiplied and I hope this continues. As an illustrator, I want to draw attention to the fact that lack of originality is not restricted to topics, it extends to art. It is possible to trace complete illustration concepts to the works of other successful illustrators. I also noticed that some of the prominent illustrators had not developed their style at all over the past five years. And while some illustrators do get ‘comfortable’ in certain styles and are reluctant to experiment, publishers are also often guilty of trapping them in the styles that they are most known for and have the widest acceptability. This is death sentence for illustrators, and will continue as long as some publishers continue to perceive illustrators as executors of the publisher and author’s joint will.

Audience member: Are children involved in the judging of these works? Why not?

Tamer Said: You have touched on a central issue in children’s literature: the writer of the book and the recipient are rarely the same. This is further complicated when awards are given to reward and highlight quality books. There are many awards where children are the sole judges, but this is not one of them. It may be a good idea to have a parallel award where children and young adults participate, but there is a great deal of documented value to having specialist juries select award books.

Audience member: There were two books on divorce in the shortlist, is this sensitive to children from regular families? Also, how did you pick the winner of the two?

IM: Divorce is an equalizing force, like being a refugee for instance, the story is always the same, it is the extenuating circumstances that create the differences. While the stories are not dramatically different from each other, and probably similar to other stories of divorce we have seen, this one feels very genuine, and sensitive, and executed with psychological acuity.

YM: I think all children need to see themselves and empathize with the situations of others in books. With divorce being so prevalent, I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘regular family’; in fact, that is why we loved the book that won best text, My Mother is a Gorilla and My Father is an Elephant so much, because it shows just that.

EM: What are the main differences between the books you saw here and those that win European awards?

Mertxe Paris Leza: I am always asked this question in Europe and at book fairs in the West, and I always answer, they are not very different! The topics sometimes vary, but the quality of production in the Arab world is often higher. There are some books from this year’s shortlist that would also work very well in translation as well.

Also read: Yasmine Motawy’s discussion with Fatima Sharafeddine, who took the prize in the Young Adult category.