RAS AL KHAIMAH // When it came to getting her children to sleep at bedtime, Maitha al Khayat realised what was missing was a book to read to them. Frustrated at the lack of Arabic children's books, she decided to write her own. Mrs al Khayat hopes that its publication - it is due to be released in two months - will inspire parents to read more to their children, something she sees as a bonding experience.
Efforts are being made across the Emirates to promote a culture of parents reading to children, particularly at bedtime, and to stir children to read on their own. "It is a shame that no one reads here. There needs to be more awareness among the parents about the importance of starting early with their children," said Mrs al Khayat. "Through a well-told story, a parent can break through the barriers of communication between an adult and a child and get their message through."
She believes a large part of the problem lies with Arabic authors themselves. "They focus too much on the language and make it too long and the children get bored. It is OK to repeat lines so that children memorise it and build on it with their own imagination." Dareen Charafeddine, a senior editor at Kalimat, a publishing house specialising in Arabic children's books, agreed there was a lack of good children's books in the Arab world. "It is a vicious cycle where, due to the lack of good Arabic children's books, parents don't read to their children," she said. "Unfortunately there is no industry for children's books, as the Arabic authors and illustrators focus on adult books and work on children's books as an afterthought."
Last month, Kalimat held workshops for aspiring children's writers and illustrators in Sharjah in the hopes of promoting interest in creating more Arabic children's books. "Arab parents need to realise it is OK to buy children's books for fun. They don't all have to be educational books," Ms Charafeddine said. Mrs al Khayat's passion for reading and books began as a child. She spent the first eight years of her life in the US and then the UK, where her father was studying for a PhD at Oxford University. Feeling alienated, she turned to books and took refuge in her imagination.
"I never fitted in and so I lived in my own world with the help of books," she recalled. "Books were my only friends." One of her all-time favourites authors is Roald Dahl, the author of the classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. More recently she has turned to JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter saga. Both, in a way, wrote about "outcasts". "I identified with these books and I hope my books one day help Emirati children feel as happy as I felt when reading books," she said.
"I never forgot how English children's books drew in their readers through creative ways, such as rewarding them with badges for every 10 books read until getting the gold plated badge for reading a 100 books." Mrs al Khayat got the inspiration for her book from an evening with her children two years ago when they kept asking about their father, who was away working in Abu Dhabi. "As I was mentioning their father, they started telling me about how much they miss his beard," said Mrs al Khayat. She listened to each of her children explain why they liked their father's beard - how it "tickles" them when they hug him and how "nice" it smells when they pull on it.
By 3am that night Mrs al Khayat, who had no professional writing experience, had finished a draft of what was to become her first children's book, I Love My Dad's Long Beard. It contains seven rhyming poems as well as prose and elaborate and vivid drawings. The book, which is to be released in May by Zodiac Publishing UK, will have both English and Arabic editions. It took more than two years to reach the final version.Mrs al Khayat also drew all the illustrations that accompany the words.
"When I took my book to other publishing companies they wanted to use someone else's illustrations," she said. "But I refused to give up on my illustrations as they are complimentary to my written vision." Mrs al Khayat "tested" the illustrations and passages from the book on more than 50 children, including her own. She has a daughter, Namah, six, and three sons, Omar, four and a half, Ibrahim, two and a half, and Essa, three months old.
From the feedback, she revised her work until her young readers approved. "I love happy endings, so books should always have a happy ending, as it gives hope," she said. "What is important to me is for the book to have the good win over the evil." She hopes to open a library, with a room which would be devoted to readings for children on regular basis. As for her fledging writing career, she is already working on two other books, one about a flea and the other about a girl and her hijab.
"I want to write about our culture and how Islam is also part of it." firstname.lastname@example.org