Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Palestinian-Jordanian author Taghreed Najjar on the importance of Arabic books for children

'Kids who don’t find original books that interest them in their language will read in other languages – or not at all,' Najjar says

Najjar's book 'Whose Doll Is This?' came out this fall. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar
Najjar's book 'Whose Doll Is This?' came out this fall. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar

When author Taghreed Najjar was in high school, she spun stories for her mischievous and inquisitive younger brother. The child would ask her to tell these stories again and again.

And so she did. She has told stories for so long now that it has become something of a way of life and even earned her this year’s Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category, with her book Whose Doll Is This? taking the prize.

I desperately wanted to write, but I wanted to write in Arabic

Taghreed Najjar

The Palestinian-Jordanian author studied at East Jerusalem boarding school Schmidt’s Girls College in her high school years, before returning to her family’s home in Amman in 1966 for her last three years of schooling. It was at about this time that she developed a voracious appetite for books.

“I read Enid Blyton as a child and then all the unabridged classics by Charles Dickens and others,” she says.

As a teenager, she says she continued reading in English, taking a keen interest in detective stories, romance, and best-sellers, interests that would later be reflected in her YA novels. But the road to writing for teenagers was not short. Najjar’s first YA novel didn’t appear until 2012.

The cover image of Najjar's first picture book, Safwan the Acrobat. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar
The cover image of Najjar's first picture book, Safwan the Acrobat. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar

In high school, the stories Najjar told her little brother were in Palestinian Arabic. Her family encouraged her passion, telling her to write the stories down. “The major obstacle I faced was language,” Najjar says. “That is, writing in classical Arabic. All my life I’d attended private schools where English was the main language. I desperately wanted to write, but I wanted to write in Arabic.”

She took Arabic courses and started reading in Arabic. Even as she studied towards a degree in English, she slowly set off on the path of writing books in Arabic.

Najjar began her career as a teacher in 1974 and published her first picture book, Safwan the Acrobat, in 1977. “For years, I thought the picture-book age group was my niche, the age group I felt most comfortable with,” she says. “I had this theory that maybe I was emotionally stuck at this age.”

Almost two decades and many picture books later, in 1996, she launched Al Salwa Publishing, which set out to produce fun books for young readers. Later, the boutique publishing house branched out into music, videos, and computer-assisted reading. Najjar was joined in her efforts by her daughter, Salwa Shakhshir, who helped turn the charming picture book A Home for Arnoub into an interactive CD. “It didn’t take long for me to realise that this is what I want to do,” Shakhshir says.

Taghreed and her daughter, Salwa, at their book stand with the Etisalat award and 'Whose Doll is This?' book. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar
Taghreed and her daughter, Salwa, at their book stand with the Etisalat award and 'Whose Doll is This?' book. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar

Throughout her career in and around children’s literature, Najjar has been constantly trying new things and wearing new hats. That means her reputation often precedes her.

“Taghreed is certainly one of the movers and shakers in the field of Arab children’s literature,” said children’s literature specialist Dr Yasmine Motawy. “She has been a constant contributor to the field in these exciting times when prizing practices, scholarship and digital journalism, and book production itself is evolving and expanding.”

In the past decade, Najjar pivoted towards books for teenagers. She says she found that a growing number of publishers were offering fun Arabic picture books, but that fewer were bringing out books for adolescents. “There was and still is a big gap in Arabic children’s literature for this age group,” she says.

Najjar’s first fiction for teenagers, the title of which translates to Raghda’s Hat, follows Raghda, 13, who is recovering from cancer treatments as she moves to a new school. Najjar says she wrote this book “with a heart full of trepidation”.

“I felt that I was working outside my league, but when the book was published, it was a success and I got a lot of positive feedback from young readers and teachers,” the author says.

Taghreed standing in front of the Etisalat Banner with her award. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar
Taghreed standing in front of the Etisalat Banner with her award. Courtesy Taghreed Najjar

Her second book in the genre, Against the Tide, was inspired by the true story of Madeleine Kolab, who became Gaza’s first fisherwoman at the age of 15. Against the Tide was followed by The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye, a fast-paced treasure hunt that centres on Ziad, 17, who secretly crosses into Israel to look for the gold his great-grandmother claims is hidden outside their ancestral village.

After that came One Day the Sun Will Shine. Its protagonist is a Palestinian-Syrian teenager who is captain of her championship basketball team in Damascus before the Syrian civil war breaks out. All three of these novels were shortlisted for the Etisalat Award in the YA category.

Najjar’s latest book, Whose Doll Is This? takes place in two time periods. One strand of the story is set in the present, with Arwa, 17, tracking down her grandmother’s beloved childhood doll, which was left behind when her family was forced to flee Jaffa. The other strand is set in the late 1940s, first in Jaffa and then in Beirut, where Arwa’s grandmother Laila’s family is forced to relocate.

But these books don’t represent only an individual effort. Whose Doll Is This? also has a striking cover and Shakhshir says she reads her mother’s drafts from the first one Najjar writes. Shakhshir says that while she reads them she braces herself “for the emotional rollercoaster” of her mother’s books, which “often manage to make me cry”.

Although Najjar still writes for younger children, including some innovative early readers, she says she devotes a lot of time to YA. “Having books for this age group is very important,” she says. “Kids who don’t find original books that interest them in their language will read in other languages – or not at all.”

Najjar says she enjoys meeting her readers “in schools, in book fairs, through email and through social media” and explains that the experience is rewarding. Several schools have adopted Najjar’s YA novels. “I am very happy and humbled when I hear from teachers and parents how much the kids enjoyed reading them,” she says.

Several of Najjar’s picture books have been published in English translation, including her popular Watermelon Madness, the gentle My Brother and Me and the folktale-­inspired The Ghoul. Although Against the Tide has appeared in Italian translation, none of her YA novels have yet been published in English. For the sake of English-language readers, we can only hope this will change – soon.

Updated: November 27, 2019 03:16 PM

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