Interview with Laureate Hessa Al Mehairi and her publisher Ali Al Shaali
In 2017 Hessa Al Mehairi was working as a kindergarten teacher when her first book, The Dinoraf, was published by Al Hudhud, a UAE-based children’s publisher. When this book was awarded the 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, she found her work supported and placed before a global audience.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children’s Literature celebrates literature for young people which has ‘enriched Arab cultural, literary and social life’.
As well as a generous prize fund, the Award makes funding available for all shortlisted and winning authors’ work to be translated into other languages through its Translation Fund Initiative. This allowed Al Mehairi’s work to be translated into English, Italian and French in a trilingual edition released by Italian publisher Marcos y Marcos, reaching young audiences the author had never anticipated.
Below, Hessa Al Muhairi and her publisher Ali Al Shaali weigh in on the effect of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award on their work and reflect on the state of children’s literature in the Arab world.
Hessa Al Muhairi, Sheikh Zayed Book Award Laureate for Children’s Literature 2018
How important were books to you in your childhood?
Very important indeed! I grew up in a family that always loved reading, surrounded by people who were readers and writers, which made me and my sisters treasure books from a very young age. My grandfather taught in the first school established in Dubai – the Al Ahmadiyah School, founded in 1912. He was a lecturer and occasionally a writer of poetry too. I still remember his large cabinets filled with books and his neat handwriting. One of the sweetest memories of him was when, on weekends, he would call me and my sisters to sit by him and listen to one of his folk stories. I can still remember my excitement every time he gathered us around him. He was a great storyteller!
That’s why I grew up loving stories and I always had a book on my nightstand to read before I went to sleep. Whatever books my oldest sister had were passed down to my middle sister and then to me.
When did you first decide to write children’s literature and why?
Becoming an early childhood educator and spending many years with kids had a big influence on my career path. The first time I tried my hand at writing for kids was in college, where I was enrolled on a course focusing on creative writing in children’s literature. There, I learnt about different writing styles and different types of children’s books, which inspired me to write my first story for kids. Experiencing the creative process behind writing the book and the children’s reaction when I read the story to them helped me discover that this really was my passion!
I think my biggest reason for deciding to write for children is the desire to share the love for books and storytelling which I experienced as a child: I want children to feel the same excitement when holding a book, I want them to have fun and learn from the story in their own special way. There are so many changes occurring in the world nowadays and so many ethical issues to navigate when we want to help our children to be the best version of themselves. What better way to teach them than writing stories for them to enjoy and help their individual growth?
Your work has now been translated into English, French and Italian using funding from the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s Translation Grant. How does it feel to see your work available to children in other countries?
It is such a blessing to be able to reach children in other countries and I’m very grateful to the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) for their support and trust. When I wrote the book, this was merely a dream! Seeing that dream come true looks like a miracle to me: I always hoped for my message to reach everyone.
As an early childhood educator and author, it is my duty to help children enrich their knowledge of the world by helping them to understand the diversity of cultures, thoughts and social differences around the world. It’s the ability to have tolerance toward each other that helps nations to grow. In the future, thanks to great initiatives such as the SZBA Translation Grant, I’m certain that many more great Arab writers will flourish and establish themselves internationally in the literary world.
Why do you think it is important for Arabic children’s literature to reach an international readership?
In the past decade, the UAE has witnessed a massive change in the children’s sector thanks to the great effort of the government to encourage reading and writing. The work of many emerging Arab authors deserves to be known by everyone for the beauty of their creative writing and the richness and value that they bring to children’s literature.
Arabic is a very rich and eloquent language, able to carry the most meaningful and powerful messages. Thus, Arabic writing deserves to be enjoyed by the whole world, for everyone to see the beauty of this language and the cultural diversity that it is able to display. From our part, as Arabs, it’s important to share the values of tolerance and peace and show the true morals that our culture represents.
You won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2018 for your book The Dinoraf. Can you explain what that book was about and what you wanted to achieve with it?
The story is about a dinosaur who is out on a journey to find his parallel among the rest of the animals. In his journey, he compares the differences and similarities between him and the animals he meets. The dinosaur goes through a roller coaster of emotions before he finds his peace and happiness. In the end, he finds a connection with a giraffe, which leads the giraffe to name him ‘Dinoraf’.
The title of the story emphasises the peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance of cultural differences within the global society. That was my main message: that no matter how different we are from each other in cultures, traditions, in appearance and in personalities, we can create a peaceful tolerant world where we can live happily together.
As an author, how has winning the Sheikh Zayed Book Award been helpful to you?
First of all, I’m honoured that I have won an award named after the late Sheikh Zayed – may he rest in peace. We all grew up learning about him in school and all his efforts to unite our country. I always admired his kindness and tolerance towards everyone, so winning a prize named after him meant a lot to me.
Of course, winning such a prize is also a blessing that helped me a lot in my career. It has opened so many opportunities for me, such as having my book translated and being able to reach children around the world. The Award widened my social circle immensely as I got the chance to meet so many authors and illustrators. I also had the opportunity to participate in many international festivals and literary events, meeting hundreds of children who loved the story and shared their feelings about it.
I now feel the responsibility of my role as an author of children’s books more than ever and I’m committed to keep writing to the same standard or, hopefully, better.
Ali Al Shaali, Director of Al Hudhud Publishing
How did the Sheikh Zayed Book Award Translation Grant support you in translating the book into other markets?
It is unusual for most Arab publishers to be able to take into consideration the translation of their titles. Personally, I would attribute that to the imbalance in demand on both sides of the translation scale. This is why I’d like to express my sincere and utmost appreciation for the support provided by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award to both publishers and readers.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award Translation Grant helps to build and strengthen bridges between our culture and other parts of the world by taking the creations of our authors and illustrators to the territories that are most active in culture production and consumption. This helped us and our partners to gain much desired exposure, which is a cornerstone of art and culture.
What attracted you to Hessa Al-Muhairi’s work?
At the time, Hessa Al-Muhairi was a schoolteacher, which meant she had been fortunate enough to gain inspiration from her experience with children in her day-to-day work. Just like bees do when they make honey, she was able to draw inspiration from kids to create her own storytelling, language structure and imagination.
Talking specifically about her Sheikh Zayed Book Award winning book, the idea of the manuscript was gripping at first sight, as it discusses a very current and pressing matter – which is identity – in a context and form that is appealing to children. This text was complemented by Sura Ghazwan’s fine illustrations, and with a bit of luck, voilà, the book won the prize!
How much impact do literary prizes tend to have on your book sales?
Every publisher, regardless of their target group or the genre they specialise in, needs two key types of audience: general readers and specialised and academic critics. Therefore, we find that major awards, whether regional or international, affect book sales as they provide both credibility and exposure.
What are the emerging themes in Arabic children’s literature today?
We are very fortunate as educators and publishers to work in an encouraging cultural ecosystem such as the one we have in the UAE. This means that Arabic children’s authors and their publishers are more willing nowadays to tackle critical and sensitive social matters.
We find that the most important characteristic of publishing for children in Arabic today is the attempt to deepen the child’s connection to their heritage and identity, in addition to introducing the world in its entirety and diversity to the child.
For example, there are plenty of books being published that present the richness of culture found in daily popular proverbs and Arabic folklore in a modern key that appeals to twenty-first century children thanks to a fun and enticing style.
You publish books in both Arabic and English. Are there any upcoming titles you would recommend?
We will be publishing nine new titles soon through Al Hudhud Publishing and Distribution in collaboration with Al-Futtaim Education Foundation. These include an Arabisation of several stories by prominent and acclaimed authors, such as Oliver Jeffers and Ross Collins. Like every good children’s story, they’re readable and can be enjoyed by adults as well.
Hessa Al Muhairi (2017) al-Dinoraf. UAE: Al Hudhud Publishing.
Hessa Al Muhairi (illus. Sura Ghazwan) (2018) The Dinoraf. Trilingual edition. Milan, Italy: Marcos y Marcos.
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award is one of the world’s leading prizes dedicated to Arabic literature and culture. The Award is organised by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, under the auspices of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. Across nine prize categories ranging from ‘Children’s Literature’ to ‘Translation’ and ‘Arabic Culture in Other Languages’, the Award showcases a unique breadth of Arabic-language literature, as well as books written in any language about Arabic culture; The Award not only promotes literary and cultural achievements but also aims to foster intercultural dialogue through strategic partnerships, and support the publishing industry through its Translation Grant.