The inaugural regional Conference of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY) brings authors, publishers and academics from the Middle East and beyond to discuss initiatives to foster a love of reading among the young.
Bringing Children and Books Together was the conference theme, something which Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, patron of the UAE Board on Books for Young People, hammered home in her opening address.
“It is much more than bringing children together with books,” she said. “Every child has a right to read. It sparks their knowledge and imagination and will light a flame in times that can be dark and melancholic.”
Learn with props
The more interactive the storytelling, the better; that was the message from the acclaimed Lebanese children’s author Samar Mahfouz Barraj. His presentation focused on methods to maintain children’s attention when reading.
“Children, especially very young ones, love expressions and the use of toys and props when narrating. These things really animate the stories for them. It also helps if there are striking illustrations. All this triggers their imagination even further. The more you are involved when telling the story, the more they will enjoy it and get involved, too.”
School visits by authors
Maitha Al Khayat, the Emirati author of I Love My Dad’s Long Beard, implored schools to be more organised when inviting visiting authors.
“In terms of the school, I am talking about simple things, such as organising water for the guests, and familiarising children with the books before the author arrives,” she said.
“In terms of myself, I like to come to the school early and prepare myself. I want storytelling to be a magical experience for everyone.”
Young adult fiction
The subject formed a spirited discussion, focusing on the need to improve the standard of both genres in the Arab world.
“It comes from a snobbery,” said the Lebanese author Fatma -Sharafeddine. “In my parents’ generation, you could get to the age of 15 and then you are an adult and you began to read such things. Now, you have a generation open to all sorts of experiences, especially social media, but we don’t have many books speaking about that -experience.”
The Australian-based author -Randa Abdel Fattah said that young-adult fiction needs to reflect the reader’s lifestyle. “It needs to be fast-paced,” she explained. “Young adults like to make fun of themselves. It has to include pop cultural references and they have to see themselves in the story.” Fattah also warned young-adult fiction authors on the pitfalls of sermonising in their text.
“I find a lot of the Middle Eastern books here can be preachy,” she said. “There is a difference between morals and moralising. The books have to be challenging but, at the end of it all, it is the young adults who should think about the solution. You have to trust them.”
Acknowledge special needs
The author Nadia Barakat delivered a riveting presentation detailing the need for tolerance in books dealing with children with disabilities.
Citing examples from Captain Hook to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Barakat said children’s literature has always been a minefield of unintended discrimination and “more awareness of subtle faux pas are needed”. “It is important to distinguish the person from the disability,” she said. “For example, instead of ‘mental retardation’, we can say ‘a child with an intellectual disability’.”
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