Below is Part II of an interview with Kalimat publisher Dareen Charafeddine. Read Part I: “Dareen Charafeddine on the Origins of Kalimat and How Good Arabic Children’s Literature Will Change the World.”
DC: The world of Arabic children’s literature has developed a lot in the last decade. We now have a lot more reader generated demand and this has led to the development of a flourishing community of author, illustrators and publishers in the region. We now have many more manuscripts to choose from than when we started.
Parents, schools, children and governments have become much more aware of the need to actively encourage the development of a reading habit. The distribution network can be better but Arabic book fairs help a lot. Now we have book fairs in almost every main Arab city and prizes such as the Sh. Zayed Award, Etisalat award, and Anna Lindh’s 101 book list. This has led to the development of a thriving community of writers and illustrators in the gulf as well, where it was almost non-existent when we started. In fact, we have just recently started working with talented Emirati writers and illustrators through our contacts at universities and through the workshops we have conducted. And our focus at the Sharjah Book Fair this year was “Emirati Talent.”
We have launched books by Emirati writers like Abdul Aziz Al Musallam, Maitha Al Khayyat and Marwa Al Aqroubi who I hope will go on to write more and more books for us. And, of course we will keep working with authors and illustrators from the rest of the Arab world
RKK: Along those lines…. Can you talk about the process of turning دجاجة باق بيق into an iBook application, and what you’re hoping will come of it?
DC: We turned Dajaja Bak Beek into an ipad application mainly to test the waters and to see what the response would be. We were gratified to see how enthusiastically both parents and kids parents took to the iPad adaptation at the Sharjah Book Fair and now at Beirut Book Fair.
As you know, reading books online is a great way to read when travelling or when it is not possible to carry books along. Though personally, I prefer to read a printed book, kids today are much more comfortable with technology and the internet than we parents are. 8)
Ebooks, iPad and mobile applications are going to be a lot more common in the future and if eventually such innovations help children to fall in love with reading and to read more, we are all for it.
Of course printed books have their merits. They are available everywhere and are not limited by software glitches, availability of batteries and can be read at any time and any place. Both printed books and digital books have their own time and place and can co-exist. At Kalimat, we are also exploring mixed media options including books with CDs like our new title Ahmad El Helou that reintroduces traditional Emirati songs Al Himar Jaddi, Dajaja Bak Beek and Wathifat Mama, all of which have audio CDs with a reading, and we are definitely looking into digitizing some of our titles.
RKK: What are the best things you see happening in the world of Arabic children’s literature right now (outside, of course, of the presence of Kalimat)? What makes you excited about the future?
DC: The landscape of publishing in the Arab world has changed much faster than I expected in the last decade and the changes are all for the better. 8) We have more and more publishers releasing wonderful titles in Arabic with local authors and illustrators on a wide variety of subjects. Governments across the region are encouraging the publishing industry with their initiatives such as Kitab, Thaqafa Bila Hudoud (KWB) and book fairs. Awards lend prestige and sometimes much needed finance to the publishing industry. There has been a marked increase in the number of parents who would like to read to their kids and teachers are also more interested in being selective about the books they choose for the school library and recommend to students. Social media and bloggers like you who are interested in our books help too. 8)
RKK: OK, and what makes you not as excited about the future? Or, in a more positive way, what are the challenges?
DC: Our main challenge is that we have a long way to go when it comes to getting Arabic children to develop a preference for reading as compared to other forms of entertainment like the TV, the internet as we do not have much of a reading culture to begin with. But this is now a universal problem and can be tackled only at the grassroots level through more extensive effort by parents and teachers to get kids to develop a fondness for books (or ebooks).
Distribution channels also need to be developed more vigorously. We still rely on book fairs for a lot of our sales. There is a lack of awareness among publishers themselves about books published in other countries and the emerging trends in publishing.
RKK: What can individual parents and teachers do to help make the world a better place for Arabic children’s literature?
DC: Parents can get kids started on reading early by reading aloud to them right from the time they are babies. As they grow older, kids should be encouraged to select and buy books suitable for their age group and should be helped out with difficult words or phrases. Having a parent who also loves books and will read along with them will encourage the children to become avid readers. A library membership and regular visits to bookstores and book fairs in their area should be made a part of their daily life. If possible, there should be a separate, comfortable area in the house where kids can snuggle up with their parents or on their own to read their favorite books.
Teachers can also do a lot when it comes to encouraging reading. A good teacher can be instrumental in giving kids a lifelong love for reading by creating interesting activities such as plays and readathons around books and discussing suitable books with passion and warmth. A teacher can guide them to read books that are most suitable for their age group so they understand reading is not just a chore but the pathway to a different world where they can meet characters from all walks of life and every part of the world. They can also encourage kids to use and select good books from the school library on a regular basis. They can create book clubs and reading competitions where the children who read best or read the maximum number of books are encouraged and serve as a model to other students.