Publisher Dareen Charafeddine on the Origins of Kalimat and How Good Arabic Children’s Literature Will Change the World

Below is Part I of a very fruitful and interesting interview with Dareen Charafeddine, publisher at the UAE’s premier children’s publishing house, Kalimat.

Dareen Charafeddine (left) with Emirati author Maitha Al Khayat and Lisa Milton, CEO of Orion.

Read Kutub Kids: How and when did it become clear to you that it was important (and important to you) to publish quality Arabic children’s literature?

Dareen Charafeddine: Kalimat was established by Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi in 2007. She badly wanted her daughter to develop a love for the Arabic language and get her quality Arabic children’s books to get her started on reading. But she was unable to find any in bookshops; not just in the UAE but even on her trips abroad. There were hardly any books dealing with issues that children face.

The only books with reasonably good stories were translations of foreign books and children could not easily relate to these as they are from an environment that is not really familiar to them. The print quality and the illustrations were also of really poor quality and since this is important to get kids to fall in love with reading, she took it upon herself to get quality Arabic children’s books published with stories that kids can relate to and will enjoy reading over and over again.

That is how Kalimat took root and now in just three years we have slowly started with baby steps, moved on to walk and now we are running at full steam with 75 titles.

RKK: How do you see this growing literature as impacting the future of your family, your community, your country, the region, and (why not?) the world?

DC: For my family, it has meant that my children now have access to Arabic books right from their early months and are able to speak, understand and fall in love with Arabic.
For our community, I hope it means that as children grow, they will develop awareness and a love for not only their language, but also their culture and their heritage and a smoother path to adulthood through the positive messages we convey in our stories about their parents, about the environment and the problems they are likely to face as they grow here. It also means a growing literary culture and a developing community that is aware of the joy of reading and that will hopefully spread to the coming generations.

For the region and the world, the increasing number of book fairs such as the Doha, Muscat, Tunis, Riyadh, Cairo, Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah book fairs and the growing literary community and output of books points to the fact that Arabic literature is finally making a mark.

The increasing literary activity in our region has made the world sit up and take notice as is clearly manifested through the growing international participation in our book fairs and the number of books that are being translated from Arabic (inshalla always on the increase).

RKK: Why is it important to have Arabic children’s literature *written* in Arabic, as opposed to just translated from other languages?

DC: Home grown writers and illustrators will be able to identify more with the kids here and our culture and develop stories that will interest them more. Though children generally face the same issues the world over, the best way to tackle them will vary a lot depending on their culture and the environment they grow up in. When modern stories are translated from another language, there will always be a missing element and they take place in a setting that children will find it tough to understand or identify with. That is why we feel it is essential to have Arabic children’s books written by Arabs.

Another factor is that when books are translated from English or other languages, the translation is generally word for word and quite poor. What the writer originally intended to convey does not quite come through.

RKK: I am particularly interested in Arabic YA lit. I read Fatima Sharafeddine’s Faten and have been looking around to see what other options are available. Is Kalimat also on the lookout for more YA? How do we cultivate more Arabic YA authors?

DC: We have made a great start in this segment with Fatima’s Faten and it made me very happy when Faten won the Beirut Book Fair award this year. We are working on two other books in this category with very talented writers. Once the market develops a taste for similar books just like it did for Arabic children’s books in the past decade, we will have more manuscripts to choose from as writers develop a greater understanding of what readers in the teen and young adult group are looking for, especially in the Arab world.

Just like we moved from 5 books to 75 in the younger age group, five years down the line, I hope to look back and think that Faten will be the launchpad to our success in the young adult category. We definitely look forward to having more writers in this category, and I think gradually there will be more YA writers as more people in the community and from the industry express interest. It will be a reaction to rather than an action.

RKK: How do you walk the line between creating a product that meets current demand—what parents think they want—and changing that demand, opening up parents and children to new reading experiences and new ways of living with books?
DC: We sometimes publish that we know will not really sell but are mainly geared to change the way parents perceive books. Many parents buy books that they term “useful” such as number books or activity books or books that will convey a moral. We are working on slowly changing this viewpoint to one where books are bought just to promote a child’s pleasure in reading by producing books that have really good stories in addition to a message. We want the demand for our books to be driven from our ultimate customer, the child as he is the one who should enjoy our books most.

They definitely do not enjoy books that are preachy or talk down to them. But they will enjoy books with warm stories that will convey the same morals and values in a subtle manner. The difference lies in the manner the message is conveyed and the ability of the storyteller. I am confident that with the progress we have made so far, this will eventually happen.

RKK: Kalimat’s mission seems to be more than just publishing; it seems also to help change the culture into a reading culture. How do you work toward that?

DC: We participate in book fairs on a regular basis and hold many activities around special occasions such as National Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day etc. For example, we had a launch party for our book Hithaa Al Eid recently where kids got an idea of what Eid festivities involve with henna, sous and the traditional call for suhour. We also had a special book launch for National Day with an abra ride and a reading for children.

We hold book readings in schools with our authors and try to work closely with Arabic teachers to make this a fun activity for the students so that they develop a taste for reading. We also hold workshops and coffee mornings for parents to discuss ways to develop reading habits with children, what kind of books to start with, etc. Plus of course book signings and meet the author events.

RKK: Why is reading important?

DC: It is very important to get kids started on reading right from childhood by reading aloud to them. Reading during the early years helps the child in improving his/her language skills. The child learns to recognize written words. Studies say that reading before going to bed, for example, helps the child feel secure and comfortable while sleeping.

If the habit of reading is formed during an early age, reading soon becomes the part of a person’s routine. Research has shown that avid readers stand out from the rest because of improved cognitive abilities. They can think creatively. It improves their grasping power. It makes them better analyzers and problem solvers. It is one of the best ways of relaxation. Reading novels or stories will take them to a new world where they will develop an understanding of people, countries and cultures that are different from their own. Books indeed make very good friends and can be highly addictive.

RKK: Are school markets an important part of your considerations, and are you trying to reach teachers as well as parents? How does the education system fit into your mission?

Yes, school markets are very much a part of our plans. We visit schools regularly for the readings as I mentioned earlier and we would like to think we have at least a handful of partner schools in the community.

We are also extending our efforts into this market by recently starting work on resources for Arabic teachers as these are the need of the hour. Teachers in Arabic have very little to choose from when it comes to teaching aids such as worksheets and activity books unlike teachers in other subjects. They use up a lot of their time and energy on planning and developing these and we hope to make this task much easier for them with the materials we are working on for various age groups. They should help to make the learning process easier and more fun for students and teachers alike, and hopefully, one day Arabic can become their favorite subject. 8)

Tomorrow, part II: The Future of Arabic Children’s Lit.

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