Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

In this Year of Reading, we need writers to tell relevant stories

Children in the UAE have a burning desire to read stories about people just like them, writes Maryam Ismail.
Just reading is not enough – we need to ensure children have the chance to read books relevant to their lives. Silvia Razgova / The National
Just reading is not enough – we need to ensure children have the chance to read books relevant to their lives. Silvia Razgova / The National

Reading is a great thing. Yet, what is being read is as important as the act of reading. Do parents really want their children reading about wolves in tutus, swearing eight-year-olds or gang initiations? Many parents naively believe that their children are just reading stories, without realising that the characters and messages in some books can be harmful or go against their values.

Children who are avid readers often find a favourite writer or character and latch on to them. These characters become their friends and heroes, and they like to emulate them. One can’t read every book in the store, so how does one sort through them all? One place is the website, Common Sense Media, set up for parents who want their children to read, but are concerned about what they are reading.

While the site is not always conservative enough for me, as a Muslim parent, it is a good starting point for parents who do not want to spend hours in a bookshop checking for the developmentally appropriate book for their child, or who are suffering the consequences of buying the wrong book.

Books, along with other media such as games, films and DVDs, are categorised by age, genre and sub genre. My go-to is their rating system which notes strong language, sex, violence, positive messages, drugs, drinking, smoking and more.

My other concern is what kind of people are in the book. Are the characters in any way similar to my child? Why? Because everyone wants to see themselves in the characters they read about.

It might seem like a tall order to find Afro-Asiatic Muslim characters in a book, but after hours of searching and reading reviews, I found a suitable compromise.

Drita, My Homegirl by Jenny Lombard is a book about two accidental friends, one a refugee from the Balkans Drita, an Albanian, and Moxie, an African American, are both suffering from the trauma of loss. After being thrown together to do a class project, they learn about themselves and each other. This story of two different cultures living side by side is one that would easily fit into the hundreds of cultures that live together in UAE. Yet, I bought this book online, because it wasn’t available here.

The book ticked a lot of my daughter’s favourite boxes. She likes books about friends, Muslims and African Americans who are cool, sassy or shy, as well as culture crashes when two different ethnicities meet.

When I first found out about the UAE’s Year of Reading, I wondered whether it would be about providing books like Drita, My Homegirl. When I heard that Scholastic would be the company providing the books, I felt, that while they do have books that reflect American culture in general, they may not reflect the particularities of living and UAE.

“There isn’t such a publisher,” you might remind me, and my response is: “Well, why not?” Perhaps 2017 should be the year of writing and publishing.

There are enough publishing houses here and I am sure many inspired writers who would love to share their experiences of growing up in the UAE. It could be an entirely new genre: “Expat Khaleeji” or something like that.

Here are a couple of free ideas: Asrari, a Muslim and Harbijan, a Sikh, both Indian, are playing football and stumble on a mysterious box in the rubble. Or two girls, Esha and Aayisha, a Tanzanian and an American, who in their attempt to learn the Quran find that memorising the words is the easiest part – if they could only prove to their teachers they really mean business. These are scenarios with real kids who live in the UAE. I could make up a hundred more.

Every emirate has a special story, but who is going to tell it? Why not the people who are right here? Such stories can go a long way in teaching morals, values and sensitivity towards others from different cultures, social status and language groups.

The Arabic-language children’s publisher, Kalima, founded by Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, was created with the aim of publishing books that Arab children could relate to. At the Sharjah International Government Communication Forum this year, Sheikha Bodour noted that, after buying so many books for her children from British and American publishers, she began to worry how the culture found in the books would affect her daughter’s sense of self. I have the same concerns.

Reading may be fundamental, but searching though hundreds of books is not fun. Love stories for first graders, wanton invisible friends for middleschoolers and dystopian drug addicts for teens is not what I and my very large circle of friends want our children to read. Sadly, along with other questionable stories, that is what is available on the market. It is our responsibility as parents to ensure that what our children read is written for them. So, in this Year of Reading, it’s time to buckle down and start writing.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

Updated: August 6, 2016 04:00 AM

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