The phenomenon of wordless books has taken flight, but Alia and Ayesha Al Badi's wordless stories are the UAE's first
Whisper it... Emirati sisters' beautiful silent books to spur children's interest in reading
The authors of children’s books do not usually give away their narrative responsibilities to the little ones poring over their pages – that is until recent years, when the phenomenon of silent, or wordless books has taken flight.
These books consist of only illustrations, allowing children to pull from what they see, using their imaginations, their own words and their vision to make a story, building confidence and resilience, language skills and literacy along the way.
Although these books have been growing in popularity for more than a decade and they have roots in literary history, they haven’t had a tradition or much of a presence in the Arab region or the UAE, until now.
This year marks the launch of the first two Emirati silent books, each illustrated beautifully by a pair of creative sisters.
Alia Al Badi, 29, a Dubai mother of two, conjured up the world in Fly, a book about a mischievous, red-haired boy who wants to fly and the rabbits who follow him, with an underlying message about never giving up.
Her younger sister Ayesha, 26, a freelance illustrator, drew Oh! It’s Becoming Bigger, about a girl who wishes her cat could be life-sized until her wish comes true and mayhem ensues.
Their books came about after Alia contacted Alyazia Khalifa, the Emirati founder and director of Alfulk Publishing and Translation.
Ms Khalifa launched her company in 2015 with translations of children’s picture books from authors in Italy, Iceland and the UK.
She added purely illustrated titles the following year, publishing British illustrator Alison Jay’s Bee & Me in the UAE at the same time as the UK, then two Korean titles.
Works by the Badi sisters were introduced at the recent Abu Dhabi Book Fair. Both women learnt and loved to draw as young girls, inspired by their mother, who was also artistic.
They developed their first works, encouraged by Ms Khalifa, during a workshop on wordless books organised by the UAE Board on Books for Young People.
“We started very young,” Alia says. “This was our hobby, we used to draw.”
She has long been drawn to red hair, hence the main character in Fly, and says the hardest part of the book process was having to write down a story before she could move on to make a story board and draw it.
“I’m really bad at writing,” Alia says. “So after that I transferred my text to pictures. Pictures I’m good at.”
Ayesha based her oversized animal at the heart of Oh! It’s Becoming Bigger on her sister’s pet.
“She has a cat. She left it with me and I got inspired,” she says.
Her project got off the ground after she took part in the American illustrator Jake Parker’s Instagram challenge Inktober.
Ms Khalifa hopes to bring more Emirati illustrators on board now that the Badi sisters’ books have been launched, and introduce wordless books in a much wider way to help boost literacy and entertain children in the Arab world.
“It gives them the courage to say what they feel about the images, because there is no right or wrong,” she says.
Wordless books explained
Unlike traditional children’s picture books, in silent books the stories are never read the same way twice.
And wordless books are increasingly recognised as an important step in literacy, helping children to build their vocabulary, ability to understand and listen and boost their confidence and imagination. They also teach children about the structure of a story.
“Now it’s trendy in Europe because of immigrants,” Alyazia Khalifa says. “It’s going over the barrier of language. They manage to get the kids from different nationalities to tell the story. It helps from the psychological side. It helps them to spell out their feelings.”
Dr Marcella Terrusi, a research fellow at the University of Bologna in Italy, published the first international critique on wordless books in March and was a guest at the recent Sharjah International Children’s Book Fair.
“The physical book gives you direction,” Dr Terrusi says during a panel discussion. “When you read what’s on a page and create your hypothesis, you know if you are right when you turn the page.
“You fill gaps in silent books with your own imagination, which is not much different from what you do in case of the written novel.”
She explains that the most important part wordless books is that they change the “hierarchy” created between readers of different levels and capacities. At the most basic level, she says in her paper, they are able to trigger children’s wonder.
Silent books have roots back to Mutus Liber, or Mute Book, a circa-1677 philosophical work on alchemy, Dr Terruci says. Her paper also quotes Shaun Tan, the Australian artist widely recognised for his 2006 wordless book on migration, called The Arrival, to sum up their inclusiveness.
“Who are my books for?” Tan asks. “They are for as many different people as possible. I just trust that we all have something extremely valuable in common: an unpredictable imagination.”