The Power of Books: Isobel Abulhoul on Engaging Young Readers

In News by Hannah Johnson

Isobel Abulhoul, who founded the Emirates LitFest and Magrudy’s bookstore chain in the UAE, focuses on turning children into readers.

Isobel Abulhoul. Image: Emirates Literature Foundation

By Hannah Johnson | @HannahSJohnson

‘New Trends Can Be Adapted and Utilized’
Isobel Abulhoul is a singular figure in the United Arab Emirates’ literary scene. Her credentials are impressive thanks to her decades of work focused on one goal: fostering a love of books and reading. In particular, she says, children need access to good books in order to become lifelong readers.

To that end, Abulhoul co-founded the Dubai-based Magrudy’s bookstore chain in 1975, and she founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in 2008. She currently serves as a trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation—which she founded in 2013—and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Abulhoul will share her experiences and outlook on reading culture at Abu Dhabi’s upcoming International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries. She’ll speak on a panel Sunday (April 28) called New Readership: Fostering a Love for Reading in the Next Generation alongside Luis González (director general of Spain’s Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez) and Mohamad Al Baghdadi (president and CEO of Al Manhal Arabic Electronic Information Platform).

Ahead of her talk at the congress, Publishing Perspectives interviewed Isobel Abulhoul about her expertise in connecting children and adults with literature.

‘Wondering What Makes a Person Become a Reader’

Publishing Perspectives: You have been instrumental in promoting reading and literature in the UAE. What strategies have you found to be critical in fostering a love for reading among young people?

Isobel Abulhoul: I’ve spent more than 50 years wondering what makes a person become a reader. In pursuit of the answers, I’ve read numerous scientific research papers, studied different methods, observed children and their engagement with books and reading, to try to find the answers.

I now believe that the strongest influences for turning a child into a reader are the parents and the home environment. If children grow up in homes that have books, and parents and family members who happily read to their children from their earliest days, those children will develop a love of stories and books. They’ll develop a wider vocabulary, a sense of empathy, and knowledge of the world outside their window.

Children need regular access to interesting, colorful books, a free choice of which books they want their parents to read when they’re toddlers, and regular times they’re read to daily. Bedtime is a perfect reading time, as a wind-down after a busy day.

Parents can become members of their local library and include books as presents for their children. Parents can ensure that everyone has time off their devices, and that family meals include conversation, news, and sharing of both food and ideas. Reading to children at bedtime helps them to sleep better, it lowers both heart rate and blood pressure.

With the age of AI, and the widespread adoption of smart phones and devices, people are spending less time reading books, but allowing hours to pass while they scroll through endless social media posts. Children have been particularly affected, as their brains are still in a developmental stage, and the essential neural pathways are not being created in areas that develop creativity and critical thinking.

If we want to develop a literate society and readers who become lifelong learners—always hungry for new ideas, new experiences, able to put themselves in others’ shoes, those who have a knowledge of the past, as history does have a habit of repeating itself—we need to work closely with parents, so they’re aware of their importance to their children’s journeys to love books and reading.

Publishing Perspectives: Since you co-founded Magrudy’s bookstore chain in 1975, what changes have you seen in the UAE’s reading and publishing landscape?

Isobel Abulhoul: There have been huge strides forward. Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was launched in 1981, and Sharjah International Book Fair was launched in 1982. Both book fairs have done so much to create havens for book lovers, for publishers from around the world, and centers for all that is related to books: the writers, the readers, the publishers, the illustrators, the agents, and the booksellers.

“If children grow up in homes that have books, and parents and family members who happily read to their children from their earliest days, those children will develop a love of stories and books.”Isobel Abulhoul, Emirates Literature Foundation

At Magrudy’s, we were one of the earliest adopters of technology in the region, so that we could source any book in English in print, via Nielsen, and using a dedicated software called Bestseller, to control stocks, orders, and to serve customers. This was at a time when the Internet was in its infancy.

At the start in 1975, orders and correspondence were by post, then we moved on to telex, and finally the fax. With the arrival of the Internet, it was such a joy. Life sped up, and we could bring books in by air and keep up faster with customers’ demands. Most publishers had representatives who visited the booksellers in the region, and we’d also receive early book covers to help us decide what to order. I’d read all the reviews in The Sunday Times and watch their bestseller lists to see what books would be of interest in our market.

We tried to provide a similar service for our customers with Arabic books, but the lack of a global database for books published in Arabic made it more challenging. It has been wonderful to see the explosion of attractive and captivating books for children in Arabic, and that trend, thankfully, continues.

Publishing Perspectives: How have you seen reading trends and tastes change in recent years? What are some of the most popular genres or book series that have captured the interest of young readers in the UAE?

Isobel Abulhoul: Because of my younger children, I was alerted to Harry Potter right at the beginning, and could tap into the global phenomenon of the books taking the world by storm. We organized midnight openings, a Hogwarts School Fete, Hogwarts Treasure Hunts, to name but a few, and it was beautiful to see thousands of happy, captivated children, who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the books.

Magrudy’s has always made sure that children’s books are an important part of any of the 18 shops across the UAE. I think that currently the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and the “Dog Man” series are top of the bestsellers, as children like the familiarity of what to expect. The comic book format is enjoyable, as is manga. Fantasy has grown in recent years. It’s always good to see that when books become films, it does boost sales of the books.

Isobel Abulhoul speaks on a panel in the 2020 edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Publishing Perspectives: The Emirates Airline Literature Festival has been a significant platform for showcasing Arabic and international literature. What initiatives have you introduced at the festival to engage younger audiences?

Isobel Abulhoul: Since the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature began in 2009, it has grown and flourished. Young readers are at the heart of what we do. At the first festival in 2009, we introduced an education program, and authors visited schools and universities as part of their commitment to help share a love of reading. This has continued, even during COVID years. We now have both a physical program for schools and universities, as well as a virtual one, which allows schools anywhere to watch the recordings of key sessions from the UAE Month of Reading, March till end of term.

We run competitions for students, in Arabic and English, across age ranges, including the Chevron Readers’ Cup, the Emirates NBD Poetry for All Competition, the Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition, the Arcadia Book in a Box Competition, a Letter Writing Competition and—in Arabic only—the Al Futtaim Digital Storytelling Competition.

Under the patronage of UNESCO and with the support of Sheikha Hissa bint Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, we run the “Voices of Future Generations” program for the Middle East region, a unique creative writing competition with a focus on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This wide variety allows students to select the competition best suited to their talents, and the number of entries have grown year-on-year, with students from across the GCC coming to the finals of the competition during the festival.

The amazing children’s authors who attend the festival provide such inspiration for the young readers, and it’s incredible to witness the long signing queues every year. We receive such heartening feedback from schools about the positive impact of the festival on the rates of reading amongst their students. The immersive storytelling experiences that happen at the festival are a powerful tool in fostering a love for reading among young people. These experiences go beyond traditional reading by engaging multiple senses and creating a compelling narrative environment and memories.

Publishing Perspectives: With the increasing internationalization of the publishing industry, how can Arabic literature and authors receive adequate representation and exposure among young readers?

Isobel Abulhoul: Until such time as Arabic bestsellers are sold in millions, it’s challenging from an economic point of view. There needs to be an adoption of a central database for all books in print in Arabic, with the details of the publishers and distributors. The publishing industry in the West is a thriving industry, for the writers and all those working in various aspects of publishing. The most lucrative offshoot appears to be selling film rights. It’s difficult for authors writing in Arabic to achieve exposure and build on their readership if their work is limited by distribution across the Arab world.

Publishing Perspectives: What opportunities do you see for Arabic publishers and authors to leverage digital platforms and technologies to reach a wider audience, particularly among younger generations?

Isobel Abulhoul: I think that there are enormous opportunities to embrace digital platforms to engage with young readers. New trends can be adapted and utilized to bring up-to-the-minute reading experiences to those who read in Arabic. Perhaps more collaboration with publishers and ensuring that bestsellers in Arabic are translated into other languages. We’ve witnessed the popularity of all things Korean, and there’s the opportunity to explore how they’ve managed to achieve this success with the new generation.

More About Congress PCI

Comic book writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis speaks about his work on Marvel Comics’ ‘Ultimate Spider-Man’ at the 2023 Abu Dhabi International Congress of Publishing and Creative Industries. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Now in its third year, the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is organized by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and takes place the day before the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair opens. Organizers say they intend to continue expanding this conference event into “a knowledge-sharing hub for regional and global publishing and creative content developers in the Arab market.”

In addition to a full day of professional discussions, the program includes workshops and masterclasses for creative professionals and students, as well as an exhibition of technology and creative companies working in the Arab world and internationally.

Follow Publishing Perspectives for more coverage of this year’s Congress PCI.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is here, more on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here, more from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here, more on the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, another program produced by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.

See also:
At Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: Diwan’s New Naguib Mahfouz Book Covers
Abu Dhabi: Rehana Mughal on Public Policy That Supports Creative Industries
Abu Dhabi’s Congress: Arabic’s ‘Rightful Place’
Jailed Palestinian Basim Khandaqji Wins the 2024 Arabic Fiction Prize
Marwan Hamed: Bringing Arabic Literature to the Big Screen
UAE: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Expects 1,350 Exhibitors
Ubisoft’s Fawzi Mesmar on Bringing Arabic Voices to Video Games
Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Outlines Early Details

About the Author

Hannah Johnson


Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.