Children’s book author, critic, and translator Ahmed Al-Mahdi writes — among other places — for Egypt’s Fares magazine. As part of our #WorldKidLit Month coverage, he answered a few questions about the landscape of children’s magazines in Egypt and how he got his start. This piece also runs simultaneously at the World Kid Lit website.
Tomorrow, both sites will have a short story written by al-Mahdi, in translation, titled “The Enchanted Treasure.”
Why are kids’ magazines important? What do they do that children’s books don’t?
Ahmed Al-Mahdi: Children’s literature in general is very important; as Philip Pullman said, “Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play.”
Magazines are important part of children’s literature, and there are many differences to distinguish them from books. There is the excitement of waiting for the new issue every week or month. I remember that, when I was a kid, I was excited for Thursdays because that was the day my father would buy us three children’s magazines that were issued every Thursday: Bulbul (it was published by Akhbar Al-Yawm and now it’s called Fares), Aladdin (it was published by Al-Ahram), and Mickey, a Walt Disney comic that was published by Al-Helal and later by Nahdet Masr). There were other magazines, but those three were the ones I read the most. I can remember the excitement and happiness of getting the magazines, and sometimes they came with a CD or videotape of the cartoon or videogames; this was something very special.
The second difference is the variety of the magazine; it contains many types of stories, maybe because there is a little risk of experimenting and trying many genres and ideas, unlike in books or novels. Besides, it doesn’t have to contain just stories; it can have comics, poems, jokes, a guide to a craft that kids can make at home, and mail from fans of the magazine.
Last but not least, kids can mess with magazines. Unlike books, they can write in them, color them, and some magazines come with pages to color or connect the dots. A child has more freedom with a magazine than with a book.
Can you trace Fares’s history for us? And how did you come to write for the magazine?
AM: Fares was published first in 1998, more than twenty years ago, under the name Bulbul. It was later changed to Abtal Al Yawm (Heroes of Today) and finally to Fares (Knight), which is also a common Arabic name for boys. The editor-in-chief Howaida Hafez works hard to keep the magazine going in the age of smart phones. She is cheerful and energetic, always ready to listen to the writers and illustrators, finding new ideas for each issue.
I was introduced to Fares by my friend Shereen Al-Ashry, an illustrator for children’s stories. I knew her from her Facebook page, Shereenty Alashery Art, as she used to post illustrations and ask her followers to write a short story around it.
I contacted her and introduced myself; I told her that I love children’s literature, and that I had written many stories for the kids. At the time, I hadn’t yet published any of my novels or stories. She helped me contact Asala for Publishing and Distribution in Lebanon, a famous publisher in the field of children’s literature in the region, and they published my first book The Brave Rabbit, which was illustrated by the artist Abdulrazzak Alsalhani. It’s a story about a little rabbit who, through his bravery, proved that size doesn’t matter and that no one should belittle anyone because of his appearance.
Then she helped me publish with Fares. I was very happy, because I used to read the magazine when I was kid. It’s like joining the heroes of yourchildhood to be a hero for someone yourself. My first story was “The Bird’s Song” written by me and Illustrated by Shereen. It was the first collaboration between us, but it was not the last; we made other stories together, such as “Farah’s on the Search for Happiness” and “I Can’t Do It Alone.” We’re looking forward to more collaborations in the future.
How do you think Fares is different from children’s magazines from other cultures that you’ve seen?
AM:There are many writers and artists working on the magazine, to present a variety of stories, genres, and illustration styles. Children can learn a lot from the magazine. There aren’t just stories, there are also history lessons, scientific facts, summaries of world literature, mini games, puzzles, and more.
As an Egyptian and Arabic magazine, you can find many of the traditional themes in the stories, such as the stories that involve talking animals inspired by traditional tales like “Kalila and Dimna” and the 1001 Nights. Two of my stories where about talking animals: “The Bird’s Song” is about a lost bird,” and “I Can’t Do It Alone” is about a naïve donkey and anarrogant horse. There are many Egyptian and Arabic themes in the stories, as well as many special issues for events and holidays.
What sorts of experimentation does writing for a magazine allow?
AM:When you try to publish a book with a publishing house, they usually wants to take minimal risk, or no risk at all, to sell as many books as they can. This is not a problem only in Egypt or the Arab region; it’s a worldwide problem. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected by more than twenty publishers before it was finally accepted by Vanguard Press, because of his unusual style of writing and illustrating. In magazines, there is more space for risk and experiment, and it’s fun to write a very short story from time to time, without waiting for the long process of a publishing house.
What are the most interesting things happening in the world of Egyptian writing for young people, especially in the last decade?
AM:I think the biggest change is the Interest in Young Adult literature. There has always been an interest in the children’s picture books, but YA novels fell out of the scope of children’s literature, outside of the “Rewayat Masriya” or Egyptian Pocket Novel series, which addressed teen readers. The most famous writers in this field were A. K. Tawfik and Nabil Farouk. But recently we have seen a big shift in the market, with a lot of publishers interested in YA novels, especially after the success of the translated YA fantasy novels like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Nahdet Masr, the publisher of the Arabic translation of Harry Potter, brought out many YA SFF novels by Egyptian authors, such as The Dream-maker by Moataz Hassanien and Ajwan by Noura al Noman. There is also Al-Balsam; they published many beautiful YA novels, like A Year in Qena byHadil Ghoneim and King of Things by Tarik Abdel Bary.
There are many other Arabic publishers interested in YA novels, particularly fantasy, such as the Palestinian publisher Tamer Institute for Community Education, which brought out Sonia Nimr’s Thunderbird and Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands, and the Emirati publisher Kalimat Group, which has not only published YA novels, like the Noorsan series by Asmaa Kadry, but also published comics and graphic novels, like Antarah, written by Moemen Helmy and illustrated by Ashraf Gouri.
Also, there are many Arabic prizes for literature that once only had categories for younger children, but have now added a YA category, such as Katara in Qatar and the Etisalat Prize for Children’s Literature in the UAE.