Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, Again ‘Animated’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, running through May 12, stages its second Sharjah Animation Conference.

The Florence Pops Orchestra plays a short program before a raucously fluid background for Sheikh Sultan during his tour on May 1 of the 2024 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival and its Animation Conference. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

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Storytelling: In Books and on Screen
Last year’s introduction of an “Animation Conference” has made a return and runs through Sunday (May 5) at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (through May 12). In Wednesday’s (May 1) opening of the Reading Festival by the Sharjan ruler, Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, it was clear that the Animation Conference-within-the-festival was a major stop on the royal tour at Expo Centre Sharjah.

This year that the show—a targeted book fair for kids and families—is less compacted on the exhibition floor than in the past, and opened across an expanse of beige carpet to the entire main hall of the exhibition center.

On Wednesday, Sheikh Sultan was assisted by a granddaughter—a daughter of the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi—in cutting a pink ribbon to open the show for its 12-day run, soon to bring in the big yellow buses of students who traditionally will be numbered in hundreds of thousands during the run of this popular fair for kids and their families.

Sharjah’s Sheikh Sultan is aided by his granddaughter in cutting the ribbon at the 2024 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, watched by her mother, the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, and, at right, Ahmed Al Ameri. Al Qasimi is the chair and Al Ameri is the CEO of the Sharjah Book Authority. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Dark-trunked Into the Woods trees twist upward from the floor with Sondheim-sleek white lighting  running along their branches.

A show of competition-winning children’s artwork is hung in a circular thicket, the individual illustrations carefully lit. These are near a presentation stage that weary parents can watch for—a welcome seat among romping youngsters.

Members of the news media await the arrival of Sheikh Sultan at the spacious, bright setting of the 2024 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Booksellers’ stands in the main hall give way to workshop and craft hutches in one of the halls, each activity area designed as a small fairy-tale house, a clever way to muffle sound within each event at a noisy show.

In a hall of targeted workshop venues, one hutch at the 2024 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is focused on educational activities about “The Brain.” Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

And on Wednesday, after Sheikh Sultan had led his entourage in his traditional walk-around at the Reading Festival—nodding appreciatively to stand-workers and looking at books on display—he headed to the Animation Conference enclave.

The Sharjah Animation Conference

The cartoon of the Sharjah Animation Conference greets visitors to the event’s enclosure at the 2024 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. Image: National Network Communications

Sheikh Sultan’s chair was waiting in the Animation Conference enclave as he arrived to hear a short concert of the music that the Florence (Firenze) Pops Orchestra has for him this year. During excerpts from Japanese gaming and cinematic soundtracks, he and Bodour Al Qasimi listened and talked—animatedly, in fact—a father and daughter happily comparing notes as the ensemble worked. Its string section carries even more warmth this year than last, thanks to some rich altos in the violas.

Once more, this specialized orchestra is on-hand with an augmented ensemble of some 35 accomplished symphonic musicians and at least one vocalist onstage in a larger enclosure than last year’s, a concert bowl-within-the-building. The Florence ensemble itself is similarly built to purpose, you may recall, created in 2014 to deliver primarily American and Japanese animation soundtracks in cartoon-focused concerts.

That small but fully professional symphonic ensemble is the “sizzle in the steak,” as advertising folks would say, for the Sharjah Animation Conference in its second year at the Children’s Reading Festival—an event that this year deserves more attention of its own.

The hall dedicated to the Sharjah Animation Conference, as directed for the fair by Khoula Al Mujaini, this year has not only a much larger concert hall and a theater for conference presentations, but also an artfully constructed new display area for books focused on elements of cinema and animation—not kids’ books, but anthologies of high-level animation craft from many masters. There’s a lengthy glowing-tunnel entrance of black-and-blue stripes; a corner for fans of Shaun the Sheep; and several more informational and networking areas, including a café.

And in programming and innovation terms, there are a couple of interesting developments to consider here.

Remember, the Sharjah Book Authority, led by chairperson Bodour Al Qasimi and CEO Ahmed Al Ameri, now is actually operating three events in its spring cycle of activities, no mean feat of programming and delivery:

The Animation Conference, although set both physically and on the calendar “inside” the Children’s Reading Festival, is not explicitly a children’s event. That’s not to say that kids can’t enjoy the cartooned creatures, comics-crazy colors, and that gentle Shaun the Sheep nook from Aardman Animations. There are student discounts and activities for young people, even if the three orchestral concerts of animated-production music may not be moments in which smaller kids easily sit still.

And it’s true that the more-than 50 speakers, 25 workshops, and 20 talks do include several professionals who work in and around youngsters’ formats, including:

  • Allegra Dami of Just for Kids
  • Beniot di Sabatino of Banijay Kids and Family
  • John Attanasio of Toonstar
  • Olivier Dumon of Hasbro Entertainment
  • Tom Beattie of Tiger Aspect Kids & Family

Still, however, they’re outnumbered by animation-related pros whose work is not children-specific, to name a few:

  • Vanessa Sinden, a senior producer at Triggerfish Animation
  • Animation producer Masao Maruyama of Tezuka Studio
  • Giorgio Scorza, CEO of Movimenti Production
  • Stefano La Porta, a media and entertainment attorney

What becomes clearer in this, its second year, is that the Animation Conference is a different proposition for its audience than the Children’s Reading Festival is.

Books on animation artists’ work at the Sharjah Animation Conference 2024. Image: National Network Communications

The Sharjah Animation Conference is put together by Pietro Pinetti, as it was in its first year in 2023. In Italy, the home event is called Bergamo Animation Days (coming this week, May 10 to 12). If you compare the two animation programs, the original in Piazzale della Repubblica in Bergamo and the new one in Sharjah, you see some similarities.

At Sharjah, La Porto, the attorney, for example, does a session called Mastering Audiovisual Rights: A Guide for Publishers. That’s a valuable program to offer publishers anywhere, not just in Sharjah.

There also are sessions for creative people who want to work in animation arts, such as Crafting Your Story: Mastering the Pitch Bible for Animation Success with Mounia Aram and Screenwriting for Animation with Rabab Halawani. There’s a “sketch area,” an “innovation lab” and a “creative hub” for these teaching sessions.

And here’s the bottom line: The Animation Conference at Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival has a programmatic intent behind it that’s maybe a bit less to entertain than expected by some. It’s designed more to teach and introduce interested creative workers to what animation players are doing, especially in the highly regarded Italian animation market represented at Bergamo.

The presence of this program at Sharjah’ children’s book fair is clearly a very good thing. But it’s not easily understood in the context of the Children’s Reading Festival. After the success of last year and this year, perhaps Al Qasimi, Al Ameri, Al Mujaini, Tony Mulliken, Mansour Al Hassani, Emma House, and the team at Sharjah Book Authority can consider repositioning the Animation Conference as an event that stands on its own.

This is not because there’s anything remotely wrong with the Children’s Reading Festival—far from it—but because it’s hard to realize how valuable the Animation Conference is when it’s presented as something on the sidelines of a book fair for kids. The important question isn’t how does this relate to children? It’s how it relates to the storytelling arts.

As a conference of animation instruction and professional presentations, it’s a valuable and unusual event much less for kids than adults. So the question becomes how to communicate that to the creative talents in the United Arab Emirates and the greater region, folks who may take it to be a kids’ event, because it’s staged within the Children’s Reading Festival.

Perhaps No. 3 will be the charm and the Sharjah Animation Conference next year, its third, will be able to “step out” more clearly as what it is. Certainly there are many professionals in book publishing who could benefit from the insights of the Animation Conference’s speakers. Whether it’s at the Reading Festival or in another setting, the Animation Conference and its attendees can benefit from having this interesting program marketed wholeheartedly as a center for adult professionalism and career challenges in a tough but flourishing media form.

A corner exhibit on Aardman Animations’ popular ‘Sean the Sheep’ at the 2024 Sharjah Animation Conference. Image: National Network Communications

More from Publishing Perspectives about the Sharjah Booksellers Conference is here, more on the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is here, more on the Sharjah Animation Conference is here, and more on Sharjah and its market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.