I shan’t repeat here what I wrote over there, but instead wanted to share the full version of an email Q&A I did with the award-winning author of the Farhana series, Rania Hussein Amin, (who will be appearing at Cairo’s Al-Balsam Books this Saturday) about her forays into environmentally themed literature for children.
Thanks to Rania for her time!
*How do you walk the line between writing a book that is “beneficial” (helps children learn about the environment, or in Farhana’s case sometimes has a “girls-can” twist) and writing a book that is “entertaining”—i.e., a book that children want to read and re-read?
I believe that – if we are talking about real-life type of stories, such as the ones I write – and if a story is honest, if it has many small details we can all relate to, and if – at the same time – the writer is aware of why he’s telling this story and has a specific message to deliver, then automatically the story will be both beneficial and entertaining. Being aware of the message is important, but it’s also very important to try as much as we can to avoid direct messages, which is not very easy to do as an adult writing for children. To avoid this I try to relive my childhood in my mind and write as Rania, the child. In that case I will not lift my finger & say “do this & don’t do that”, but I will say what I think & feel as a child would express himself exactly.
I don’t claim I always succeed in this process. Sometimes I feel so compelled to give a certain advice or I feel that a direct message would get through to the child easier & faster than a hidden message. And this is where I think I can honestly say I failed as an author for children, and this is what I should always be watching out not to do in my future books.
*Would you be interested in writing more “environmentalist”-themed books in the future? Do you have any ideas brewing? Would Farhana ever come out with an environmentalist theme?
I have mainly – so far – been interested in psychological issues and small problems in the child’s daily life, but I have always wanted to write to children about the beauty of nature & help them appreciate it. I think that for children – like the Egyptian children – who are not so much exposed to nature, it is important to make them aware of the nature around them, as a first step before introducing more serious environmental themes.
They should be encouraged to look around them and learn about the names of the trees & flowers they see, they should be encouraged to go on trips to the desert, to the farm, the sea, etc. Then they should start acquiring more information about those places and their inhabitants (animals & plants), and learn how important it is to protect them & help them survive & flourish.
I have already written & illustrated a book for very young readers called “Siwa – a tiny little love story” about a girl going on a trip to Siwa & recounting every little detail on the trip, showing the children how enjoyable it is to be in touch with nature. My intention was to show them the beauty of the desert and of a simpler life, which so many of them are not aware of. I also wanted to encourage them to go on similar trips.
I have no specific topic in mind now, but I would like to make a series – similar to the book about Siwa – about different places, where nature is still wild & pure, adding to it an entertaining story to make it more interesting & enjoyable for the children to read.
*Do you particularly recommend any of the five books that you’ve written thus far over and above the others? (Is one a favorite?)
My two favorites are the ones I illustrated (“Farhana & the Egyptian Nature” and “The Disappearance of the Nile”). In the first one I give a brief view of the 4 different natures we have in Egypt (the desert, the Nile, the sea and the farm), as well as the nature we don’t have, which is just as beautiful (the jungle, snow desert, green mountains, etc..) combined with a social theme, telling them the importance of making friends & mixing with all kinds of different people & nationalities.
In the second one (The Disappearance of the Nile) I wanted to show them the difference between the Nile during the Pharos’ time & how they took care of it & protected it and worshipped it, and how on the other hand we treat it so badly & have no appreciation or awareness of its importance. The story is about the Nile feeling hurt and tired of being treated so badly & so runs away & tries to find a place where it is treated with more love & respect.
*Why do you say that you “should” write more about the environment?
As mentioned, I think in Egypt children are not taught to appreciate nature, mainly because they very rarely ever have first-hand experience with nature. Nature is mostly something they read about or watch on TV. But no one can appreciate something he never really knew. So the first books absolutely HAVE to encourage the child to go on trips and explore nature first-hand.
Other environmental topics, such as air & water pollution, or preserving water & electricity, or cleanliness and recycling, are all very important topics that are absolutely necessary to tackle, especially in a country like Egypt, so badly polluted and in which water & electricity are becoming more & more scarce. Awareness has to increase in adults and children alike, and being a writer of children’s books, I certainly have to have a role in this.
And will, inshaaAllah…