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

Awards · Illustrators · Middle Grade · Picture Books · Young Adult

The 6 Winners of the 2020 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature

Judges for this year’s Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature went from 221 submissions from 22 countries to a 13-book longlist, to the six winners announced at an online ceremony streamed online today:

The top category, “Children’s Book of the Year,” went to Egyptian author Hadil Ghoneim and illustrator Sahar Abdallah for Shahrazizi’s Nights: A Tale Within a Tale Within a Tale, published by Dar al-Balsam in Egypt. Ghoneim has previously been shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize, in the YA category, while Abdallah won the 2018 “Best Illustrations” category with her Think of Others.

This year’s “Best Illustrations” category went to The Monster and Me, illustrated by Baraa Al Awour and written by Aisha Abdullah Al Harithi, while “Best Text” went to Words by Syria’s Jikar Khorshid. The book was illustrated by Maha Daher.

“Best Silent Book” went to The Apple, by Asma Amara, illustrated by Atifa Abdullah, while “Best Production” went to I’ll Be Okay, co-authored by Essam Asmir and Lama Azmar, illustrated by Hanane al-Kai, and published by Jabal Amman in Jordan.

And although there was no shortlist announced for this year’s Young Adult category, judges did announce a winner: شقائق النعمان (The Poppy Anemone), by Haya Saleh, published by Al Yasmine for Publishing and Distribution in Jordan.

According to the publisher, the novel follows two brothers who find themselves in unjust circumstances, who set out on an adventure to search for one another.

Watch the full announcement:

Middle Grade · Young Adult

RECOMMENDED: Fearless Upper MG Fantasy ‘Dragon of Bethlehem’

Huda El Shuwa’s popular and acclaimed 2017 novella Dragon of Bethlehem is about looking up at the sky, seeing things from a new vantage point, and how—even when things seem hopeless—it’s possible to change the small things around you.

Adaptations: 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:

Author: Huda El Shuwa

Publisher: Tamer Institute

Contact: info@arablit.org, tamer@palnet.com

Buy in Arabic: تنين بيت لحم 

This short work— just 76 pages in Arabic and perhaps 20,000 words in English—is built around a boy named Khidr who’s just turned 16, and who lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp south of Bethlehem. Khidr has recently lost his only friend, isn’t a good student, and his father is in a psychiatric hospital. The other kids at school bully him, and the teachers aren’t much kinder. Khidr meets a sarcastic dragon (or rather, the dragon barges into his tiny camp house during the rain, because dragons do not like rain) who takes him up into the skies above Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the surrounding areas to show him his world afresh. Although at first his teachers just punish him even more for his new creativity, Khidr is not deterred, and eventually even goes to visit his father at the psychiatric hospital.

In 2018, Dragon of Bethlehem was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. It is exciting, gives a brief brush of Palestinian history landscapes, and also manages to be uplifting, with a smile-through-your-tears ending.

An excerpt from the beginning appears on ArabLit and another, from near the end of the novel, is forthcoming on Words Without Borders.

It opens:

TO SCHOOL

Khidr…

Khidr…

Khidr…

“It’s six o’clock… Come on, get up…”

Khidr wriggled in his bed, drifting between sleep and wakefulness as he drew his woolen Tom and Jerry blanket up over his head. He couldn’t sleep outside this haven—it had sheltered him from his first year to his sixteenth, which had just begun last Wednesday.

He hated waking up early so much. And he hated school…and oh, he hated first period…

He wished he could sleep a little longer in this warm bed, under the ancient woolen blanket that was like a cave full of beautiful, safe dreams. To go to the high school near his house meant he had a morning walk down cold, dark lanes, before the sun dared spread its wings firmly across the sky above Dheisheh Refugee Camp.

“Mmmmsleeeepy.”

The smell of sage tea, hard-boiled eggs, hot bread with zaatar… That’s what his mother fed him every morning, and it sent a little warmth his way, pulling him out of bed.

“Zaatar kickstarts the brain,” his mom would tell him every morning, as he sipped his tea. Khidr wasn’t sure about this saying; his brain felt completely shut off.

“Did you forget I’m seeing your dad today? Won’t you come with me? It’s so long since you’ve seen him.”

Khidr looked over at the picture hanging on the wall; the two people in it looked like wax statues. His dad was smiling in a black suit, while his mom was beside him in a white dress, wearing a lot of makeup… His mom didn’t wear makeup like that anymore, and she didn’t put on bright-colored clothes, either.

“No, Ma, I don’t want to see him. What am I going to say? I mean, I feel like I don’t know him.”

“How is that your father’s fault?” She lowered her head. He knew that look—the look where the light in her eyes flickered out. He felt a prick of conscience, as he did whenever he saw tears shining in her eyes.

Keep reading on ArabLit.

Middle Grade

Hadil Ghoneim’s ‘A Year in Qena’: An Enjoyable, Kid-friendly Look at Moving from Relative Privilege to Rural Egypt

Alia Shalaby recommends Hadil Ghoneim’s Etisalat-shortlisted middle grade novel, A Year in Qena (سنة في قنا), by Hadil Ghoneim, which she calls “a masterpiece” that “all audiences will enjoy reading”:

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2014

Author: Hadil Ghoneim

Publisher: Dar al-Balsam

Contact:b@al-balsam.com

Buy in Arabic: سنة في قنا

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By Alia Shalaby, Special to ArabKidLitNow!

A Year in Qena tells the story of a middle-school boy who must move from Cairo to Qena, a city located in Egypt’s rural south. There, he’ll live with his family for a whole year. The story, which is relayed through the protagonist’s journal reflections, addresses a number of big issues through a young adult’s eye, paying attention to the small details that concern young people but might go unnoticed by adults.

Among the issues addressed are major life changes and how a young person struggles to handle and adapt to them; feeling alienated when moving to a new place where everyone shares the same background but has nothing in common with them; and the conflicts and mixed feelings that come with leaving home and adapting to a new culture. It also describes the challenges faced by a  privileged boy who just moved from the city to a rural place where most of the facilities he’d been accustomed to aren’t there. Throughout this, the novel gives a glimpse of the Saedi (southern) culture, represented in the grandmother’s character, in a very interesting and simple way. The story also touches on some social issues in the Egyptian south, such as tribalism.

But A Year in Qena’s biggest strengthlies in the fact that it presents the Saediculture in a way that defies the common “Saiedi” stereotypes, as viewed in popular culture and internalized by many people (including children) in Egypt, as a result of media presentation. All this is relayed in a simple, interesting, kid-friendly language that can also appeal to adults.

Sana Fe Qena is a beautiful book that all audiences will enjoy reading.

Sample:

Cairo, August 7th

A whole year in Qena?! No way!

Why should I leave my room, my friends and my school and go live in the rural deep south? How would I survive in my grandmother’s old house? Ewwww! I still remember how much I hated the smell of that place last time we visited Teta.  And I don’t even want to imagine what the school there would be like and the kind of kids who will be in my class.

What a nightmare!

I do love Teta Rouka and I totally want her to get better. Mama says Teta needs her there because my uncle’s wife is busy with a new baby. If I were only a couple of years older, I could have convinced her to leave me behind in Cairo where I belong. I would have been perfectly fine living without an annoying little sister, and with one parent who travels all the time like Baba. But I’m not old enough, so they get to turn my life upside down just like that.

Of course if it were any other grandmother in the world but my headstrong Teta, she would have made everybody’s life easier and just come stay with us here. It’s nicer and better and all the doctors are here anyway. But no. Not Teta Rouka. She would never leave her precious smelly farm and her crowded crumbling home for anywhere else.

Anyway. This is useless. There’s no escape and I just have to deal with my destiny. God help me! Maybe I won’t notice the difference if I isolate myself from everyone and everything. I’ll bring along my boredom-shattering weapons: electronic games, books, art supplies and this diary. I’ll probably be busy studying and doing homework all the time. Everybody says the second year in middle school is the hardest. Which means I was up for a miserable year anyway. I just wish I had a computer. Baba promised to buy me one at the end of the year.

Honestly, that would be a fair reward for being tortured a whole year!

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Qena, September 10th

We arrived in Qena a couple of days ago. Mama saw how shocked Dina and I were, so she told us that it might be easier if we take it in one day at a time, and not think too much about the fact that we’re spending the rest of the year here. Dina is still in fifth grade, so maybe she can forget facts and get used to anything quickly, but I can’t stop thinking. I already miss my friends, and I’m really worried about the new school, about sharing a bedroom with my cousins, and about toilets! Yes, toilets here make me nervous! I’m not used to squatting!

But I must say that after the great soccer ball game we played today, and the even greater lunch we had after, I felt better.

Teta is so sick that she hardly moves, but she still holds the power around here. Everyone listens to her, even my fearsome Uncle Omar. She watches everyone and comments on everything. Sometimes, her comments are funny. Today she heard Mama mention that the weather is nice and not as hot as we expected. She then said; “Thoth orders the heat to die.” Then she looked at my uncle and yelled “Thoth, water thy land, don’t laze around”!

I didn’t really understand what she meant by Thoth. At first, I thought she was talking about berries, which are called toot, and I had never seen a berry tree here. But Mama explained that tomorrow is the New Year according to the Coptic calendar and that Thoth is the name of the first month and the name of the ancient Egyptian god of math and science. My silly sister asked her what does Teta have to do with all that, since we’re not ancient anymore and we’re not even Copts.   

From what Mama said, it turned out that Egyptian farmers still use their ancient calendar because it’s very good at describing the farming seasons and the climate. I was kind of impressed that Mama and Teta knew these things. Maybe it was a good sign that we came here right at the beginning of the new agricultural year. I decided that in my case “Thoth orders my fears to die”! 

Translation by Hadil Ghoneim. More upon request.

Middle Grade

Sonia Nimr’s ‘Thunderbird’: First in a Time-Traveling Palestinian Fantasy Trilogy

ArabKidLitNow recommends Sonia Nimr’s award-winning middle grade novel, Thunderbird (طائر الرعد).

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2017

Author: Sonia Nimr

Publisher: Tamer Institute

Contact: info@arablit.org

Buy in Arabic: طائر الرعد

Thunderbird begins as the local fortuneteller (a reader of coffee grounds), Umm Arab, has a strange and mysterious prediction for the orphaned Noor’s future. For the last two years, since the untimely deaths of her scientist/archaeologist parents’ in a plane crash, Noor has been living in the old family home with her Uncle Ziad, Aunt Widad, her cousin Wafaa, and her grandmother. Noor’s aunt and cousin do not make her feel welcome. Indeed, they deeply resent her. To make things worse, when Noor gets upset, mysterious fires flare up around her. The only person who believes in her is her beloved and sympathetic grandmother. Her grandmother gives Noor a gift–a strange ring–from her father before she dies.

This fantastic, Harry Potter-esque time traveling novel follows Noor as she hooks up with a cat (who’s really a djinn), discovers that the King of the Djinn needs her help to save the world, and travels back 500 years — although not before she has a harrowing trip through checkpoints to get to contemporary Jerusalem.

We learn about history and folklore as Noor and a girl from 500 years ago — Andaleeb — team up to find the first of the Phoenix feathers that will help them keep the world together.

Extended samples, plot summary, and more available upon request.