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:

Picture Books

RECOMMENDED: ‘The White Ravens’ Selection, ‘The Writer’

ArabKidLitNow recommends The Writer (الكاتب), with text by Nabiha Mheidly and illustrations by multi-award-winning artist Walid Taher:

Awards: SELECTION 2019, White Ravens

Author: Nabiha Mheidly

Illustrator: Walid Taher

Publisher: Dar al-Hadaek

Contact: alhadaek@alhadaekgroup.com

Buy in Arabic: Available on Jamalon

White Ravens Writes:

This book is about writing and an author’s love for his characters – characters that he must let go when his work is finished. The plot follows a writer as he strenuously searches for an appropriate protagonist for a new story, until he finally lands on a unique-looking cat. The shaggy, plain, but self-confident and brave animal becomes the hero of a tale full of adventure. When the writer later leafs through his work, the cat prances out and bids him a final adieu with the words: “You surely don’t want me to stay stuck between the book covers”. This original, cleverly-told book has witty and dynamic coloured-chalk illustrations. Lebanese author Nabiha Mheidly studied biology, publicity, and pedagogy and has directed AlHadaek, the publishing house she founded, since 1989. Egyptian illustrator, cartoonist, author,and painter Walid Taher is among the Who’s Who of Arabic children’s literature.

Recommended reading age: 8+.

Picture Books

English Edition of Nadine Kaadan’s ‘Tomorrow’ Shortlisted for 2019 Little Rebels Award

The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award is a prize for “radical fiction aimed at children aged 0-12,” and Syrian children’s-book author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan made this year’s seven-book shortlist with her self-translated picture book Tomorrow, published by Lantana.

As Little Rebels organizers write of Tomorrow:

Yazan no longer goes to the park to play, and he no longer sees his friend who lives next door. Everything around him is changing. His parents sit in front of the television with the news turned up LOUD and Yazan’s little red bike leans forgotten against the wall. Will he ever be able to go outside and play? A beautiful picture-book full of heart, and not without hope, set against the backdrop of the Syrian war.

The year’s winner will be announced at a special ceremony on July 10.

Picture Books

‘Rising to the Top’ and ‘Eid’ from Nabeeha Mohaidly: Surprise and Heartbreak

ArabKidLitNow recommends Rising to the Top and Eid from Dar al-Hadaek:

By Nashwa Gowanlock

Nabeeha Mohaidly’s stories, published by Al Hadaek Group, are touching and thought-proving texts with attractive illustrations that are sure to be revisited and reflected on by child and grown-up alike.

Two of her books — Rising to the Top and Eid — are strong contenders for translation, both compelling tales coupled with lively illustrations guaranteed to appeal to readers from around the world, as well as being distinctly placed in the culture of the Middle East.

Rising to the Top is a charming story with a warm ending that delivers a positive message. A group of children living in the valley are bored. Bored of their village and bored of their games. Tug of war, throwing stones and timing their echoing cries is not enough to keep them entertained anymore. One day their ‘ideas guy’ comes up with a plan for them to brave the journey up the hill to where the young people who live there are surely having much more fun, what with all those reflective mirrors and bikes to play with. After an arduous climb, they discover a children’s paradise of new ‘toys’ to play but are oblivious to the fact that they have been tampering with reflective sheets that had been specifically placed to reflect the sunlight onto their own village, which has now been plunged into darkness.

Despite their greatest efforts, they are unable to return the equipment to the correct positions but are rescued by the young locals who know how to return everything to the way it was. Just before the valley kids begin their disappointed journey home, heads hanging in shame, the mountain children beg them to stay so they can show them how to use the equipment, in return for being able to go down to the valley themselves to play with their games that they have been coveting all the while from up above. Unable to believe their luck, the two groups of children agree and are soon swapping locations and games on a regular basis. The story ends with another group of children from another town further away looking up at the hill and wondering whether there is anything new for them to play.

Two more of Mohaidly’s books have strong points, but also flaws:

Eid is a surprising story about loss from the perspective of a pre-schooler who is struggling to comprehend the concept of the religious holiday. As everyone around her celebrates the “coming” of Eid, Maha wonders who this Eid character might be. He’s not any of the relatives who come to their house that day but, she is told, he has been amongst them since the morning. Later she would try to picture Eid as long, then short, then flying like a bird and another time a ghost laughing. One day a conflict raging in neighbouring towns edges closer towards their own and the traditions she has come to associate with Eid – the smell of the special Eid pastries from the bakery, the constant stream of visitors, the new clothes and the sequined shoes – are gone. It is only through this absence that Maha finally grasps what Eid is.

This heartbreaking yet unsentimental final twist concluding a delicately narrated story of wonder and gratitude is coupled with exquisitely detailed illustrations by Raouf Al Karaay. It would be an evergreen choice for a publisher wishing to diversify their children’s literature collection since it ties in well with religious education curriculums but also provides a deeper insight into this Muslim festival.

Two more of Mohaidly’s books have strong points, but also flaws:

The Writer opens with a sequence showing a writer processing a number of ideas for a new story he is writing. Though the content might initially seem targeted at a slightly older age group than the picture book would suggest, the plot then becomes a lot more playful as the writer concocts a lovable feline character as his protagonist. He imagines a brown and black cat with a stump for a tail and tiny ears who gets into a scrape as the writer looks on, recording everything he sees, until the cat eventually overcomes his challenge and the writer can conclude his story. But the story is not over for the cat, who returns to the writer to bid him farewell, causing the writer to then look for his beloved new friend wherever he goes. The story ends with an open question to leave readers wondering if they will ever meet again. This is a tender story although the grown-up narration of a professional writer is perhaps a little high-brow for younger children, especially since the reader is not given any actual details of the scrapes the cat in the story gets into, nor how he managed to overcome them. Walid Taher’s illustrations perfectly express the symbiotic relationship between the two characters and the various events that intercept them.

In My Roving Dreams, with Hassan Zahreddin’s illustrations, a little girl lists the various professions she used to aspire to, all of them roving in one way or another: the candy floss seller and seller of other delicious treats, the man who travels around on a mule to sell kerosene, the man on the lookout for valuable scrap and junk and a brass polisher. Each profession occupies a page of descriptive text and illustration that would appeal to the nostalgic reader who longs to record society’s ever-changing landscape. In an apparent lament, the girl notes how she never entered any of these idolized professions in the end. However, the reader then discovers that she became a painter, using her art to convey the others instead. Though the ending seems to slip slightly from its mark, it is nevertheless a poignant reflection on the role of art in recording elements of a fleeting heritage.