Chapter Books · Middle Grade · Picture Books · Young Adult

#TranslateThis: 10 Great Palestinian Books for Young Readers

By M Lynx Qualey

The twentieth-century renaissance in Arabic literature for young readers owes a lot to Palestine, starting with the pioneering children’s publishing house Dar El Fata El Arab, launched in Beirut in 1974 and animated, in part, by a politics of liberation that began with the youngest readers.

As Hassan Khan wrote in an essay-interview on the publishing house for Bidoun, the publishing house, which was “staffed by artists, designers, and writers devoted to bringing attention to the Palestinian cause,” “produced some of the most visually striking and progressive children’s books in the region.”

Prominent Palestinian novelists and short-story writer, such as Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Shukair, also recognized the importance of writing radical books for children. Kanafani himself wrote two texts published by Dar El Fata El Arab: Atfal Ghassan Kanafani (Ghassan Kanafani’s Children) and al-Qindeel al-Sahir (The Watchful Lamp), both published posthumously.

Dar El Fata El Arab closed in 1993, before the current surge in creative attention to Arabic literature for young readers. Yet Palestinian artists, writers, publishers, and librarians continued to grow an innovative and loving literature for young people. The award-winning Tamer Institute, founded in 1989, has been an important hub for producing and distributing Palestinian literature for young readers.

As librarian Elisabet Risberg has noted on ArabLit, “the Tamer Institute’s efforts to promote reading have created a strong foundation for Palestinian children’s books.” She writes:

It was 2009 when Warshah Filastin lil-Kitab (The Palestine Writing Workshop) was founded. At first, it really was a single workshop. But from it arose the idea of founding a support organization for Palestinian writers and illustrators. Today’s Warshah is very much about creating possibilities for children’s-book creators to develop, and support the economic conditions for the creation of literature.

With such a wealth of Palestinian literature for young readers available in Arabic, it is disappointing to see so little in English translation. There are a few books that have become available in recent years: poet and children’s-book author Maya Abu Alhayyat’s The Blue Pool of Questions (ill. Hassan Manasrah) was translated by Hanan Awad and published by Penny Candy Books; a few of award-winning Palestinian-Jordanian author Taghreed Najjar’s picture books are in translation, although disappointingly none of her young-adult novels; Ahlam Bsharat’s YA novel Code Name: Butterfly was translated by Nancy Roberts and her Trees for the Absentees by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland; and Sonia Nimr’s thrilling Etisalat Prize-winning Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands is also available in translation.

But this barely scratches the surface of the fantastic works available in Arabic by Palestinian writers.

The books recommended below are not all books about Palestine, but they are all books by Palestinian authors. Any interested publishers can contact info@arablit.org. We will do our best to provide samples, put you in touch with rights-holders, and whatever else we can do to get these books into translation to English or other world languages.

PICTURE BOOKS

بولقش (Bulqash)

يارا بامية (Yara Bamieh)

This is a fabulous and fantastic story about Bulqash’s  visit to an island full of wild rabbits that takes place on a certain day each year — the day of the first spring flower. Since it happens each year, they all wait longingly for the day, just as a child might wait for Christmas. It’s a story about longing, about play, and about what a source of amazement life can be, in its aspects both mundane and unique. Yara Bamieh plays masterfully with words and pictures, and the fact that Bulqash won the Etisalat Award for Best Production is no surprise.

Recommender: Elisabet Risberg

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ذاكرة منصور (Mansour’s Memory)

محمد خالد و ديالا زادة (Mohamed Khaled and Diyala Zada)

Mansour has a unique ability to recall, but the memory police are after him, trying to confiscate his memories of the past. You can find a video from inside this book on the illustrator’s Facebook page and many enthusiastic reviews online.

Recommender: Miranda Beshara, Hadi Badi

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فكر بغيرك (Think of Others)

محمود درويش (Mahmoud Darwish)

WINNER of 2018 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, illustrations category, this picture book brings together the moving and popular poem “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish with charming illustrations by award-winning Egyptian-Canadian illustrator Sahar Abdallah.

Recommenders: ArabLidKitNow! collective and Miranda Beshara, Hadi Badi

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فلفول في بيت الغول (Filful in the Troll’s House )

مايا أبو الحيات واناستاسيا قرواني (Maya Abu Al-Hayyat and Anastasia Qarwani)

Falful is a little mouse who lives with al-Ghul — the troll — and his three troll siblings: Maltoub, who’s afraid of the dark, Banurah, who’s always chewing gum, and Sansur, who’s always roaring with anger, causing havoc, and terrifying poor Falful. Should he be quiet as a mouse, as Maltub suggests, or should he yell back, as Banurah says? In the end, Falful asks al-Ghul for help, and the story ends just as well as any magic story can.

Recommender: Elisabet Risberg

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نصائح غير مهمة للقارئ الصغير (Unnecessary Advice for the Young Reader )

أنس أبو رحمة ولبنى طه (Anas Aburahma and Lubna Taha)

Although unnecessary, this advice can be just as amazing! Consider the following:

Do not read when you are hungry.

Do not read when you smell freshly baked bread.

Invite your favorite character to dinner with your family.

Don’t ask to become friends with your favorite author on Facebook.

Choose any book, but especially the one that you find in your grandfather’s room, or out on the street.

Don’t tell anyone what book you’re reading until you’ve read it.

Read to your dog!

If I had to pick one piece of favorite advice from all this, it would be the advice to google a photo of one of my favorite writers, memorize the picture, and draw it. The book includes a drawing of Mohieddin El Labbad (1940-2010), a great Egyptian illustrator, of whose illustrations I am inordinately fond. 

Recommender: Elisabet Risberg

CHAPTER BOOKS

مغامرة عجيبة غريبة (A Strange Adventure)

تغريد النجار و شارلوت شما (By Taghreed Najjar and Charlotte Shama)

While Hind is examining the contents of a straw basket she got as a present from her Aunt, she is suddenly transported to a strange world where thread spools talk and a lobster plays a musical instrument. But all is not well in this beautiful place. There is an impending danger in the air. Will Hind and her friends be able to save the day? An exciting story that is full of fantasy and adventure, told through the lens of Palestinian tatreez embroidery.

Recommender: Susanne Abu Ghaida, PhD in Education from Glasgow University

MIDDLE GRADE

ثلاثية طائر الرعد (Thunderbird Trilogy)

سونيا نمر (Sonia Nimr)

The Thunderbird books are a time-travel fantasy led by a young teen girl, Noor, who was orphaned after her parents died in a plane crash. Only Noor’s grandmother continues to show her love as strange things happen around her, particularly the strange fires that burst out when she gets upset. When her grandmother dies, Noor is left with a ring and a few hints about her parents’ research. She’s joined by a djinn that’s taken the form of a cat, Sabeeka, from whom she learns about the danger facing both our world and the world of the djinn. She then must set out across space and time — and even travel past the wall to the world of the djinn and other creatures — in this hugely exciting fantasy adventure series that takes place between Ramallah and Jerusalem in different historical periods. A radical book series that will also thrill and delight.

Recommender: ArabKidLitNow! collective

YOUNG ADULT

ست الكل (Sitt al-Kol, or Against the Tide)

تغريد النجار (Taghreed Najjar)

Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2013, this book follows 15-year-old Yusra, who is faced with a choice. Either she accepts her new life as it is, or she defies society’s expectations to do something no woman in Gaza has ever done before. After the tragic death of her elder brother by an Israeli rocket, and an unfortunate accident that leaves her father paralyzed and bound to his wheelchair, Yusra’s family is forced to beg for handouts from their neighbors. Between her family’s struggles and the restrictions of life in occupied Palestine, Yusra feels like the walls are closing in on her. Then she has an idea: she decides to fix up her father’s fishing boat and take up his trade to become the first and only fisherwoman in Gaza. More, including a sample by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Recommender: ArabKidLitNow! collective

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تنين بيت لحم (The Dragon of Bethlehem)

هدى الشوا (Huda El Shuwa)

Huda El Shuwa’s 2017 YA novel Dragon of Bethlehem is built around a 16-year-old who lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp just south of Bethlehem. In 2018, it was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and the The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. This wonderful, fantastical tale follows the bullied young Khidr who meets a dragon that changes his life. More, including a sample by M Lynx Qualey.

Recommender: Miranda Beshara, Hadi Badi

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لغز عين الصقر (Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye)

تغريد النجار (Taghreed Najjar)

Shortlisted for the Etisalat Award for Children’s Literature Award in 2014, this YA mystery follows Ziad and his family. When the discovery of an old family heirloom reveals a cryptic glimpse into his family’s past, 17-year-old refugee Ziad must embark on a dangerous journey across the impenetrable border that divides him from the buried secrets of a past Palestine, a journey which may hold the key to his future. More, including a sample by Joseph Devine.

Recommender: ArabKidLitNow! collective

Chapter Books

‘Mama, My Classmate’: A Charming, Funny Story About Embarrassment, Parents, and Learning New Things

ArabKidLitNow! recommends Lubna Taha and Maya Fidawi’s chapter book, Mama, My Classmate:

Awards: WINNER of the 2018 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the “Best Text” category

Author: Lubna Taha

Illustrator: Maya Fidawi

Publisher: Salwa Books

Reading ages: 6-9

Contact: info@arablit.org, rights@alsalwabooks.com

Buy in Arabic: From Al Salwa Books

This charmingly relatable eight-chapter book is told from the perspective of young Noora, who — spoiler alert — is also the book’s author. Noora has lots of nightmares, but the worst of all is one that comes true when her mom decides she wants to improve her English.

Noora’s intrepid, fearless mom isn’t just the sort to change her own tire at the side of the road, which is embarrassing enough. She also wants to learn English, and so she comes to sit in on Noora’s very own English class.

Noora is understandably mortified by this development, especially when one of the other girls — Rana — realizes the new grown-up student, Abeer, is Noora’s mom.

Big-mouth Rana tells everyone the new student is Noora’s mom….

Even worse, Noora’s mom is good at English class, and she makes friends with the other girls. Noor’s mom wants to work together on their homework, but ugh! Noora is having none of it. Anyhow, she has other subjects, too.

Then one day, when Noora’s mom is out sick, and the other girls genuinely miss their friend Abeer, Noora comes to appreciate her mom’s presence. In the end, her mom even helps her to write this book.

Mama, My Classmate is a wonderful story about a mother’s continuing education and the very relatable embarrassment this brings to a young girl, and how she (slowly) gets past this embarrassment. It’s relatable for any reader (since all our parents are embarrassing, at some time or another!), but especially for kids whose parents are language learners.

Sample from Chapter One:

Do you ever have nightmares about school?

There is one nightmare where you find yourself in the middle of the school playground. You’re wearing your pajamas, and all the other kids are gathered around, laughing meanly.

Or there’s one where you accidentally fart in the classroom. Everyone knows you’re the one who did it, and they’re all pointing at you and giggling.

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Or there’s the nightmare where the other kids steal your shoes, and you have to walk all the way home barefoot.

Or the one where you suddenly fall asleep in science class. When you wake up, you’re surrounded by kids who are mimicking the sound of your snore:

Khkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkhkh

Or… or… or… or… I mean…

Aaaahhh! I’ve had all these nightmares so many times. And honestly, they really scare me!

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But the biggest and most dangerous nightmare is one that appeared to me all of a sudden. This nightmare was worse than you could possibly imagine.

Yes, this was the worst nightmare that can happen to any person. It’s a nightmare so scary I couldn’t even believe it.

The title of this nightmare is:

Mama Is My Classmate.

Waaah!

And yes, what I’m saying is true. My mom is now in class with me!

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Additional material available upon request.