In 2006, two years before I began my doctoral research, children’s literature in the Arab world was in the midst of a remarkable revival as a result of the convergence of many socio-political factors.
In 2006, two years before I began my doctoral research, children’s literature in the Arab world was in the midst of a remarkable revival as a result of the convergence of many socio-political factors. My soon-to-be doctoral supervisor Dr Nadia El Kholy, had become involved in a new United States Agency for International Development-backed National Book Program for Schools in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the Integrated Care Society. This was a large-scale project whose explicit goal was ‘to ensure the next generations of Egyptians [would] become anation of readers’. It built upon the momentum created by major national Egyptian book initiatives such as the Reading for All Campaign and The Family Library. From what she described at the time, it was already clear that the Egyptian – and as a result, Arab – children’s literary scene was experiencing a tipping point after which itwould never be the same again. In retellings, I generally cite this as the moment when I shifted my dissertation topic to focus on Arabic picture books (1), and the rest is history. Within the expansiveness that characterised those exciting generative years, I worked various angles of the field, experiencing the change – that did come, as prophesied – up close.
In 2021 my first complete book al-Sukun ma bayn al-Amwaj: Kutub al-Attal al-Musawara wal-Mujtama’ al-Misri al-Mu’aser (Stillness between the waves: Egyptian Children’s Picturebooks and Contemporary Egyptian Society) (2) came out. In it, I claim that the two decades from 2000 to 2020 represent a ‘new wave’ of Arab children’s literature. The book is scholarly yet accessible, and documents, historicises, and contextualises this shifting moment in book production within othersocio-political changes in Egypt and the Arab world, and analyses key thematic clusters that show what values the State and private industry that produces bookshopes that Egyptian children will adopt in order that they may excel as our bid for the future.
Today, at the precipice of 2023, I venture to claim that if the past two decades have brought great changes to the field, then the past few years have accelerated the rate at which changes are taking place. The pandemic-control measures have seriously disrupted all industries and sectors, particularly education, through the mainstreaming of online learning. They have also transformed the relationship we now have to media-delivery devices, platforms, and streaming services. The content and delivery modality of streaming services contributed to changing learning and reading habits (https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/jeunesse.6.1.119) in the region, as Netflix began streaming in the Middle East and North Africa in 2016.
Starting in 2016, Egypt and Lebanon, the two main producers of children’s literature in the Arabic-speaking world, began to experience seismic events. Egypt underwent two major economic devaluations of currency (in 2016 and 2022) and the cost of traditional publishing skyrocketed. It also experienced an infrastructural boom that expanded cities, built new ones, and developed major transportation networks. Lebanon also experienced an economic crisis in 2019, followed by the catastrophic Beirut port explosion in 2020. On a more global level, there have also been major supply-chain disruptions as well as a dramatic increase in the cost of paper, felt especially keenly in countries experiencing currency devaluations.
It would have made sense to wait another decade for the dust to settle in order tomake any claims about the characteristics of this time, or to assess the impact that these events have had on children’s book production. But I was curious.
At book fairs and other events that bring book people together, publishers, writers, illustrators, book promoters, and educators often share that ‘things are changing’. For this article, I chose eight influential players in the field from various countries in the Arab world and asked them the same question: ‘What trends have you noticed in Arabic children’s picture books over the past five years?’.
This is what they said.
Sonia Nimr, (3) award-winning writer, storyteller, translator, ethnographerand academic from Palestine has noticed that the production quality of children’s books has improved as publishing houses compete for lucrative children’s literary prizes that have proliferated, such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award Children’s Literature Category (4) and the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature (5). As publishers’ eyes remain on the prize, they pay close attention to topics thatthe award organisers have indicated are desirable, such as disability, producing attractively formatted and beautifully illustrated books, as well as more books in age categories that correspond to prize categories, such as early reader books. This has left a huge gap in books for readers aged 7 to 12.
And while traditional early reader books that socialise children, as well as translations of Disney publications, are highly visible in bookstores and on preschool shelves, Nimr indicates that there is notable growth in an interesting category of books that she calls ‘postmodern’.
Publishers such as Tamer Institute (6) in Palestine have begun publishing interesting postmodern books recently. These books are of two types. The first are stories that play on words and use wit in exploring concepts like an apple tree that becomes a crocodile or a hazelnut that becomes a hotel. The second type of books are ones that children – and many adults – are unlikely to comprehend, such as the beautifully illustrated yet cryptic titled A Cat Named Feather for instance.
Naseeba Alozaibi, (7) award-winning children’s author from the United Arab Emirates and juror on the 2022 edition of the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature said:
I have noticed a recent increase in texts that present philosophical issueswith stylised presentation and internal monologues, and open questions appearing on the market.
She echoes Nimr’s concern that these are not really children’s books at all. She also finds that in spite of an increased interest in using simplified standard Arabic inpicture books in order to overcome the diglossia of the Arabic language (8), that there still seem to be many writers who are still intent on showing off their sophisticated language skills. Again, the concern here is that the texts they produce may frustrate and alienate young readers.
Alozaibi has also shared that recently, the quality of Arabic picture book illustrationshas somewhat exceeded that of the writing,
it seems that there is a lot more stimulating the visual craft than the story building one. For instance, there is an abundance of lnstagram accounts that display picture-book art from around the world.
Nadia Al Najjar, award-winning author from the United Arab Emirates finds that publishers have shown a greater interest in books on critical issues that werepreviously missing from the Arabic picture-book repertoire; ‘there are also more books on illness and disability, as well as more books on painful topics such as death and divorce’. She also commented that prizes have played an important role in incentivising publishers to improve the quality of their book production, use morechild-friendly language, and foster a new generation of young and bright illustrators.
Maya Fidawi, (9) award-winning illustrator /artist from Lebanon is in agreement with Elnajjar on many counts. She says that children’s books today have a much higher production value and that the new generation of young illustrators are producing wonderfully fresh illustrations. She has also noticed that there are topics that have become highly visible; ‘bullying and cyberbullying, and harassment in all its forms are no longer taboo topics in picture books. There is also a continued trend of books on migration as children adapt to a world where forced movement is still a reality’.
Fatima Sharafeddine, (10) award-winning author, editor, and translator of children’s literature from Lebanon echoed Alozaibi’s observation that illustrators are rapidly and visibly developing their craft, adding that ‘today more publisherswork with illustrators from outside the Arab world, and this has changed the feel of the Arab book’. She shares that the field itself has grown and become more intertwined with others, and that this has resulted in an increased awareness of howthe child ought to be addressed as a distinct type of reader. And while the pandemic has turned eyes towards screens and perhaps away from the page, causing the number of books published since 2020 to slightly dip, Sharafeddine feels that ‘what finally does make it in print is of far better quality’.
Weaam Ahmed, author and owner of award-winning Alia publishing house (11) from Egypt finds that in the past few years, many publishers are making notable efforts to win children over as readers by producing more child-centred picture books that utilise humour more extensively in order to make children happy. Illustrations support this growing direction with bright designs and bolder colours, ‘I am seeing less faded colour schemes and the mood is definitely “happy” picture books’.
She notes that picture books about everyday life are on the rise, to counter thecurrently predominant picture books that deal with hard topics. Ahmed agrees that books on serious topics contribute to sensitising children to the – often invisible – plights of others, nevertheless, children in crisis situations themselves need books that function like secret doors that open onto secure and happy places. And as we remain glued to our borderless screens since the beginning of the pandemic, global trends are appearing more prominently in Arabic picture books, ‘for instance, I am seeing a global aesthetic whereby it is often difficult to tell whether an illustration comes from the Arab world or from outside it. On the downside, electronic publishing is on the rise, which I find concerning from a pedagogical and developmental point of view’.
Eman Mohamed, manager of the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature (12) sees hundreds of picture books every year and is aware of the critical role that prizes play in influencing the field. She says,
we find that as prize coordinators we have a unique opportunity to promote diverse book forms. For instance, we saw a rise in silent books following our efforts at the United Arab Emirates Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) (13) to promote them in the Arab world, and we hope to see a similar vitalisation in Arabic children’s comic books following the new comic books prize category that we launched in 2021.
She says that she has seen more books that break taboos in order to discuss topicssuch as sexual harassment, books that encourage children to protect their personal and physical boundaries, and books that explore uncomfortable feelings. This is in addition to the greater number of books that deal with subjects such as illness, disability and death. Mohamed celebrates ‘the strong new generation of illustrators coming out of so many countries in the Arab world’ and appreciates their attempts to glocalise their illustration styles. She also hopes to see a similar improvement in the work of editors in the field. From a production perspective, she notes that since the pandemic, she is seeing a decline in fancy production, as publishers often adopt a segmented approach; where fancy editions are submitted as prize entries or taken to book fairs, and simpler copies are sold on the market.
Susanne Abou Ghaida, is a researcher of Arabic children’s literature, and was a juror on the 2022 edition of the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature. She feels that given the lack of training and support that authors and illustrators receive in the Arab world, it is remarkable what they have been able to achieve.
There is certainly a thirst for more information about the making of children’s books, at the level of both illustrators and texts, and we are seeing a proliferation of workshops on the topic. These workshops may be useful, but there is definitely a need for longer training schemes and mentorship.
From her experience as a juror, she, like Mohamed, is convinced that in the coming years, publishers should prioritise the development of editors who can guide writers with good ideas and writing talent, of which there is no shortage, and give them the chance to evolve. One thing she does lament is the drying up of a radical tradition in Arabic children’s children that directly discusses the differences between the powerful and the less powerful with children, and engages them more actively as advocates for political positions.
Haytham Shoukry, pioneering travelling storyteller of the independent ‘hakawaty’ initiative in Egypt, is a creative promoter of books.
There is a sense of joyousness in the children’s book scene at the moment! I think it comes from our well-established illustrators constantly reinventing themselves and from the energy that the new illustrators coming into the field are bringing to it. Publishers are also enjoying playing with format, and I am finding it easier to find the large format books that work best for storytelling purposes. But as books get more expensive with the current devaluation, children’s magazines may become more affordable.
However he finds that the distribution of children’s magazines in the rural areas he travels to with his storytelling kit is not much better than books.
My interviewees are optimistic about where Arabic children’s literature is today, and concur on many points: That awards continue to influence the topics, aesthetics and age categories that publishers pay attention to; that illustrations are much more exciting; that there are more books tackling difficult topics and experimenting with unusual forms. For myself, I also see more efforts to tackle psychological issues and topics of global concern in picture books, more parents and educators professionalising their interest in reading material for their children, as well as more books about books and the act of reading itself.
Yasmine Motawy teaches at the American University in Cairo and is a scholar, translator and editor of children’s literature. She is author of Silence Between the Waves: Children’s Picturebooks and Contemporary Egyptian Society that was published in 2021 in Arabic by Al-Balsam Publishing House.