Looking for Solutions to the Challenges of Arabic Children’s Literature

During Cairo Book Fair week, Balsam Bookshop hosted some of the most prominent Arabic-language authors, publishers, illustrators, and booksellers who work with books for children and young adults:

By Yasmine Motawy

As the 2020 Cairo International Book Fair galvanizes the city and brings exciting guests to town, a fantastic powerhouse of Arab children’s book authors, publishers, illustrators and bloggers came together at Cairo’s children’s book sanctuary, Al-Balsam Bookstore, to participate in an open discussion. The main discussants were Taghreed Najjar, award-winning author and pioneering publisher from Jordan; Fatima Sharafeddine, award-winning Lebanese children’s-book and YA author with over 130 books; and Nahed AlShawa, an author and pioneering publisher based in Canada. All three guests have had books translated into many languages, including Korean, Turkish, Romanian and Chinese.

Attendees were just as prominent as the authors. They included Amira Aboul Magd, from the publishing house Dar El Shorouk; Stephan Trudewind of Edition Orient; Dina El-Ghamry of Al Kotobgeya bookshop; and storyteller Haytham Shokry. There were also several illustrators — Ahmed Soliman, and Mohamed Taha, Suhayla Khaled, Basma Hossam, Aya Khamis, and Abeer Hassan — as well as authors such as Iman Afandi and Amira Mamdouh. The event also saw the founders of hawadeet.net, Hadi Badi Books, and bilarabyahla. Balsam Saad, the owner of the bookshop and of Al-Balsam Publishing, hosted and moderated the exciting two-hour session.

From the start, the out-of-town guests were pleased with the warm Cairene reception. Nahed AlShawa exclaimed: “In Egypt, my heart beats fast and I feel that, as a writer and publisher, I am trying to sell the proverbial water in the alley of water sellers!” Fatima Sharafeddine added, “Every time I enter this bookstore, I wish that every city in the Arab world were blessed with one like it. In Lebanon, bookstores are closing down, and we need far better distribution channels into the rest of the world.”

Their first question was from an aspiring writer who wanted to know what made a successful book. Najjar suggested that the litmus test was if the book was, first of all, pleasing to the author. AlShawa said that what was important was that children could extract ideas from the story by themselves. She described her book He and the Other, which is about a line that keeps people apart until the characters in the story find out that it can be easily erased. While the author said she was thinking of more globally divisive issues when writing the book, the children who read it first thought the line represented the jealousy that sometimes destroyed friendships, or the sense of overwhelming sadness that sometimes made it impossible to enjoy life.

Aboul Magd sparked a conversation about the sometimes-fraught relationship between writers and publishers. Two of the topics that emerged were: working with illustrators, and censorship.

Working with illustrators

The attendees discussed the disappointment writers felt when they saw illustrations that were not as they’d imagined, but also agreed that, once the writer had finished a book, they had effectively said all that they had to say, and that the illustrator needed some level of independence to develop a vision parallel to that of the writer.

The publishers talked about the diplomacy it took to mediate the relationship between the writer and the illustrator. They acknowledge that some publishers elected to keep them so separated that the writer often felt completely alienated from the final draft. A lot of the experiences shared in this area clearly came from diplomatic failures, and what emerged was a need to trust one’s publisher and the back and forth of the feedback process. After all, “publishers are not printing presses,” Aboul Magd said. She said that sometimes she received manuscripts of picture books, complete with illustrations, that gave no room for any publisher input.

Publishers and censorship: bending gender and language norms

Sharafeddine also noted that publishers were hesitant to publish content that bent gender-normative expectations, or that broke grammatical rules or inserted colloquial terms into a generally fusha text.

The reason is, she noted, that the most lucrative market for Arabic children’s books is schools. Sharafeddine made attendees laugh by saying that while most publishers — such as Najjar and AlShawa — did have review committees, publishers often hid behind a nonexistent “committee of readers” when they wanted to reject a book that did not interest them. The discussion that followed confirmed that the field would benefit greatly from fostering more acceptance of feedback amongst writers and sharper editorial skills in publishing houses.

Focus groups?

Publishers were also asked whether they tested their books on children before they published them, and the responses varied. Some tested just the plots of YA or middle-grade books, while others felt that this testing was not very informative, because readers were very diverse in their tastes. Others resorted to focus groups only when there was some doubt as to whether the content and language levels of a proposed book were in sync.

The price of books

Finally, the conversation came around to the prohibitive pricing of quality children’s books, particularly ones imported from other Arab countries. These prices have made it difficult for broad segments of society to own children’s books.

AlShawa suggested that Arab publishers cooperate with Egyptian ones to publish jointly for the Egyptian market, the largest in the Arab world. Others said that publishers could apply to have their books published as part of the General Egyptian Book Organization’s Family Library subsidized book offerings. This constructive brainstorming opened another discussion about the focus on upper-middle-class characters in books. Samaa Arafa of bilarabyahla humorously referred to this variety as the “Tala and Jad ride their scooter” books.

While this was not a deliberate practice, authors and publishers also recognized that the commodification of books had indeed encouraged the production of many books that did not depict the lives or concerns of the majority of Egyptians. Also, many of the writers working today come from a specific social class and are more comfortable depicting their surroundings for readers of the class that are more likely to purchase and own books. While the need to cast wider nets was recognized, participants also commended the research and efforts writers and illustrators were making today to give voice to concerns and issues that were never dealt with before in Arabic children’s literature.

Attracting reluctant readers

The conversation closed on an important question: how could books “reach” dormant readers?

Raneem of Hadi Badi Books suggested that books be placed where children could find them: on beaches, in waiting rooms, in hospitals. She shared her experience of working on a library/book exchanges at an Egyptian orphanage with promising results. More brick and mortar bookstores, rather than online bookstores were needed in both new suburbs and rural villages, to give children the experience of being surrounded by books.

Haytham Shokry shared his experiences with the Goethe mobile libraries project, and how creative storytelling was used to encourage reluctant readers, initially by offering a compelling alternative to the plethora of distractions available to them. He shared the transformative impact of this approach with an anecdote about how an entire village in Damietta reported having changed its Friday rituals, moving the traditional family lunch gatherings of the villagers to later in the afternoon, since the mobile library scheduled the storytellings after Friday prayers — when the lunches were normally eaten.

This dynamic conversation — with an engaged audience of people who worked various angles of the field — was important and inspiring, and it underlined that, as long as we can maintain the flow of ideas and books, we can collectively work to get more quality Arabic books in the hands of young readers.

Yasmine Motawy is an educator and a children and young adult literature scholar, translator, editor, and consultant. She is a senior instructor at the American University in Cairo.