SHARJAH: “The Arab-speaking world does not have a reading culture per se as in the West,” says Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, daughter of the ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “Parents don’t read bedtime stories to their children and there is a tendency for parents to rely on schools to give their children their first reading experience.”
As a consequence, says Sheikha Bodour, “Parents don’t have the habit of buying books as presents for their children, so publishers have become relatively laid back and produce mediocre books that require very little investment.”
This dim view of Arabic-language children’s publishing spurred Sheikha Bodour into action. In 2007 she founded both her own publishing house, Kalimat, and the Arab Children’s Book Publishers Forum, a trade organization which now boasts 60 members. This year, Sheikha Bodour enlisted UAE telecommunications company Etisalat to sponsor a significant new book award: The Etisalat Award for Arab Children’s Literature, promises one million dirham ($270,000) to the best Arabic children’s book of the year. The prize money will be split between the publisher and authors and/or illustrators.
“The Etisalat Award will hopefully bring about some healthy competition between the current publishing houses,” says Sheikha Bodour. “My intention is for us to see eye-catching, well produced, interesting books for children out there in our bookshops. At the end of the day publishing is a business and money is a motivating factor and will hopefully spur the publisher’s interest to put more time and effort into the books they produce.”
The prize, together with the Abu Dhabi-based Sheikh Zayed’s Book Awards – which offers an additional 750,000 dirhams for children’s publishing – should be plenty of motivation to step up their game.
In addition to encouraging better publishing practices, Sheikha Bodour would like to see a commitment among publishers to produce more titles written specifically for Middle Eastern and North African children.
“There is a large trend in the Arab world to translate books from other cultures into Arabic,” she said. “This is a great way for a child to learn about a different culture. However, there also needs to be some home grown books that are written and illustrated by Arabs who will be able to interpret the world the way an Arab child sees it.”
The very mission of Kalimat, she says, is to publish books that portray Arab looking children, with dark eyes and dark hair. “I want Arab children to read Kalimat books and think that this book is about someone familiar,” she says. “Unfortunately most bookshops in the Arab world contain drab, boring books that don’t capture a child’s imagination or interest. We will change that.”
VISIT: Kalimat and the other members of the Arab Children’s Book Publishers Forum at BookExpo America, Booth 2422.
HEAR: Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi discussing Arabic children’s publishing at BEA on Friday, May 29, 11:00AM – 12:00PM, Room 1E02.
CONTACT: Kalimat directly