x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Search for a new chapter in Arabic youth fiction

Officials hope private and public initiatives help introduce children - and their parents - to the joys of reading Arabic books.

ABU DHABI // It's an old story, officials say: children are not reading enough in Arabic and parents are not doing enough to encourage them. But publishers, authors and a programme by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) have united with the aim of bringing about a happier ending. The government initiative, part of a push to preserve language and literature, urges parents to become more involved in getting their children into books. Bedtime reading is vital, the experts say. The simple lack of Arabic reading material geared toward youth also presents a challenge. According to publishers and others involved in literature, even if children are reading Arabic books at a young age, there is a severe lack of fiction available when they hit their teenage years. The evidence, they say, can be seen in the best-sellers for teenagers at Abu Dhabi bookstores - a list dominated by Western titles such as the Twilight vampire series by Stephenie Meyer and J K Rowling's Harry Potter novels. The genre of Arabic young adult fiction "doesn't exist," said Dareen Charafeddine, a publisher. "If you find any [such books], they are very traditional. Nobody knows how to write for this age group. "Children's literature in general isn't very developed in the Arab world." Authors also could not broach certain taboo topics, she added. Ms Charafeddine works at Kalimat, a publishing house established in 2007 to address a gap in the market for Arabic children's books. While Kalimat (Arabic for "words") has published 40 Arabic titles since then and is working on 26 more by the end of the year, all are intended for children younger than 12. She said the relegation of Arabic in schools and bookstores contributed to a "vicious cycle" in which even if there were more Arabic books, children would still prefer to read English titles. Mohamed al Shehhi, the publishing manager at Adach, acknowledged the lack of young adult authors in the Arab world. "Of course there are some, but as an experience that we can generalise for the Arab world, the experience is still in its infancy," he said. Books for children in the region lack good production values, he said, "whereas a foreign book has more depth and excitement." He said Adach was trying to boost children's interest in books of all kinds through activities at book fairs and by providing schools with specialised librarians. Next year, the authority plans to set up specialised courses for parents to teach them how to read to children. Dr Judith Caesar, professor of English at the American University of Sharjah, said there were many things parents could do to encourage reading among children. "For one thing, they can read the books at the same time the child is reading them and discuss the books with the child," she said. "They can even read them aloud, if the child enjoys that, and take turns reading, which will help with the child's pronunciation, too. "But discussing the book with the child is really important. Even a question like, 'What do you think will happen next?' can excite the child's imagination. Even more, however, it's a chance to discuss actions and values without seeming to preach or lecture." She recommended that parents and children take turns picking a book to read as a way "for parents to interact with their children on the child's intellectual level and for the parents to help raise that level". Both Magrudy's and Jashanmal, which operate two of the country's biggest bookstore chains, have reported brisk sales of the Twilight saga, about a young girl, Isabella, who falls in love with Edward, a vampire. Jashanmal sold more than 25,000 copies of the series' four books and The Host, a science fiction novel by the same author. The company estimates that the books have sold more than 100,000 copies across the UAE. Both stores said teenage girls were the books' biggest demographic. Linda Parks, the chief retail officer for Magrudy's, said that the Arabic translation of the series, which was released in July, was also selling "briskly", but that a lot of potential fans had already read the books in English. Qais Sedki, who set up Pageflip Publishing in Dubai and recently released the first manga-style comic in classical Arabic, said: "In the West, generally speaking, children grow up with an association that a book can be fun. Here, books are associated with education. "When I look back at the books I read, it was more English books than Arabic ones. The Arabic books for children that are available are just not the same quality as, say, J K Rowling, and we don't have the supporting industry to market and promote books." Next month, Mr Sedki intends to take a reading roadshow to schools reaching out to children's and parents. "I don't just want to target children; the message needs to go out to the parents too. It's very unrealistic to expect children to just pick up reading. More effort needs to be put in." Dr Caesar agreed it was vital to get children thinking of books as an enjoyable pastime. "I would say that anything a child reads is good for him, because he comes to associate reading with enjoyment. "Even if she or he doesn't move on to "better" books, simply reading makes a child more aware of how written English works. This will help him do better in school, assuming it's an English-medium school." "Nobody started reading with highbrow stuff like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Faulkner or Camus," Mr Jashanmal added. "And even if they don't ever end up reading books by any of those or other "literary" authors that's nothing to look down on." kshaheen@thenational.ae