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#SeekingAPublisher: Arabic children’s book recommendations 2022

Next week is Bologna Children’s Book Fair, with Sharjah as the guest of honor. To help publishers navigate what’s out there for children and young adults in Arabic, we’ve collaborated with World Kid Lit to share a few suggestions of Arabic books we think readers (of all ages) would love in English…

Picture books

Teta and Babcia: Kitchen Tales from Egypt, Poland, and Syria
Written by Miranda Beshara, illustrated by Heba Khalifa
Published by Dar al-Balsam, Cairo (2019)

Teta and Babcia is an intercultural coming-of-age memoir told through grandmothers’ recipes from Egypt, Syria, and Poland. Farah, 12 years old, lives in Paris, France, and is curious about her roots that extend across three other countries. Farah is lucky to have three grandmothers to help her on her quest: Teta Aida (her Egyptian great-grandmother), Babcia Monika (her Polish maternal grandmother), and Teta Afaf (her Syrian paternal grandmother). The amazing women walk with Farah down memory lane opening their hearts and kitchens and infusing their dishes with their delightful stories. The book is beautifully illustrated using collage combining family photos and drawings. It is suitable for middle grade readers to explore questions related to cultural diversity and mixed heritage. 

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The Nights of Shahr Zizi: A Tale within a Tale within a Tale
Written by Hadil Ghoneim, illustrated by Sahar Abdallah
Published by Dar al-Balsam, Cairo

The Nights of Shahr Zizi was Children’s Book of the Year in the 2020 Etisalat Awards. Divided over ten nights of storytelling, this new adaptation of the Arabian Nights updates the cluster of tales known as the Fisherman and the Jinni and brings it to present day children. The frame story is reimagined in a contemporary setting in which the three main characters are all children: Shahr Zizi, the clever girl who tells stories to her grumpy little neighbor, Amro Yar, and to her younger sister, Dina Zuzu. Readers are captivated by the cliffhanger that ends each night, and further teased by the enticing illustrations of some of the magicians, sultans, talking birds, and people who turn into fish that populate the book. It’s a bundle of interlinked stories that is characteristic of Arabic storytelling.

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Damascus: The Story of a City
Written & illustrated by Alaa Murtada
Published by Dar al-Balsam, Cairo, 2018

Damascus: The Story of a City explores the ancient and enduring history of the capital city of Syria, widely believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with evidence of habitation dating back thousands of yearsThe book follows Kitkitkan as he explores the story of the great city of al-Sham, one of the names for Damascus. The illustrations in this book use the miniature technique, a form of book art popular in the medieval Middle East.

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Grandma Nafeesa
Written by Taghreed Najjar, illustrated by Maya Fidawi
Published by Salwa Books, Amman, Jordan (2016)

Grandma Nafeesa is a charming story about an unusual grandmother, by the much-loved and multi-award-winning duo Taghreed Najjar and Maya Fidawi. Majid’s parents are busy with work, so he goes to spend the day at his Grandma’s house. He’s delighted, because what could be more fun than a day at Grandma Nafeesa’s place? After all, she’s not your typical grandmother. She’s an artist and an active grandma, and Majid has to work hard to keep up with her!

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Middle Grade

Me, My Friend, and the Donkey
Written by Mahmoud Shukair
Published by Tamer Institute, Ramallah (2016)

Me, My Friend, and the Donkey is a humorous detective adventure, with elements of fantasy, set in and around Jerusalem. It tells the story of Mahmoud (the narrator) and Muhammad (his friend) as they try to find Muhammad’s stolen donkey. Inspired by detective novels and adventure movies, the pair assemble a group of friends to solve this mystery, some of them adopting code names. Along the way, the donkey appears to the pair in their dreams, talking and roaming about freely. They are also visited regularly by two mysterious girls who know everything about them, and give advice on the mission, but who no one else seems to see. They do—eventually—find the donkey, but the dreams, and visits from the girls, continue. Years later, Muhammad has moved to the US and has a happy and successful life. The pair still reminisce about donkeys whenever they meet, leading Mahmoud to decide that he will honour the donkey by writing its story.

Inspired by the true story of Shukair’s childhood friend, the novel is a welcome addition to the flourishing child detective genre. Weaving together Palestinian history, culture, and a healthy dose of humour, readers learn that about the challenges of perseverance and the importance of friendship when faced with adversity.

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Sindrani: Diver of the Deep
Written by Umama Lowati, illustrated by Cesar Samaniego
Published by Salwa Books, Amman, Jordan (2022)

Sindrani is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Sindbad the Sailor, and in this swashbuckling voyage for young middle grade adventurers we explore the high seas and the treasures of the deep. Out in 2022, this is a brand new title by Omani author Umama Lowati, who has published several children’s books in Arabic.

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Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye
Written by Taghreed Najjar, illustrations by Ammar Khattab
Published by Salwa Books (2014)

When the discovery of an old family heirloom reveals a cryptic glimpse into his family’s past, 17-year-old Palestinian 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. The everyday details of life for refugees in the West Bank are seamlessly woven together with an oral history of Palestine before the Nakba in this exciting adventure story from Taghreed Najjar, one of the leading writers of children’s and YA’s fiction in Arabic. It is a story that shines a light on the reality of Palestine, while also showing young readers that Palestinian children have many of the same worries and desires as children anywhere else. The charismatic lead Ziad and his resourceful younger sister Najwa will inspire and charm young readers and leave them deeply invested in this compelling tale of a perilous journey into a mysterious forgotten world.

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Dates and Masala
Written by Mohamed Zakaria Nabulsi
Published by Wow for Publishing and Educational Services, UAE, 2017

Dates and Masala was one of three novels shortlisted for the Young Adult category of the 2021 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature. The novel, aimed at readers aged 10 to 16, is a culinary travel coming-of-age set between Sharjah, UAE and Kochi, India, which includes twelve Emirati and Indian recipes at the end. Mohamed Nabulsi is a Jordanian author and disability-rights trainer who lives in Sharjah, UAE.

Young Adult

Cappuccino
Written by Fatima Sharafeddine
Published by Dar al-Saqi, Lebanon (2017)

The second YA novel by celebrated Lebanese author Fatima Sharafeddine, Cappuccino won the 2017 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature for best book in the YA category and, according to researcher Susanne Abou Ghaida, is a favorite of Lebanese teen readers, who see themselves in the book. Like Fatima’s middle-grade novel Ghady & Rawan (published in English translation), the novel is co-narrated — by the characters Anas and Lina — and their lives unfold, chapter by chapter, in their voices. At the center is a story of domestic abuse, resistance, friendship, and hope that will resonate with young readers around the world.

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Against the Tide
Written by Taghreed Najjar
Published by Salwa Books, Jordan (2013)

Against the Tide is inspired by the true story of a young Palestinian girl named Madelein Callab, who became Gaza’s first fisherwoman at the age of 15. When the course of her family’s life changes forever, 15-year-old Yusra is faced with a choice. Either she accepts her new life as it is, or she defies society’s expectations and does something no woman in Gaza has ever done before: support her family by becoming a fisherwoman. Notable for its strong female protagonist, complex characters and relationships, and rich details about life in Gaza, Against the Tide explores universal themes: feelings of being trapped by family restrictions, frustration with society’s expectations, and eagerness for greater responsibility. Yet Yusra’s circumstances are anything but ordinary, and the novel candidly addresses challenging realities of poverty, family stress, and losing a loved one. Shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children’s Literature, and featured on the list of ‘10 Books by Arab Women Writers that Should Be Translated’, this title is not to be missed. The book has been translated to Italian as Contro corrente: Storia di una ragazza «che vale 100 figli maschi»; Italian translation by L. Mattar, published by Giunti Editore, 2018.

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Many thanks to the translators, authors, publishers and agents who helped us compile this list of recommended children’s and YA books. Thanks especially to the following for providing blurbs and sample translations: Marcia Lynx Qualey, Sawad Hussain, Anam Zafar, Taghreed Najjar, Joseph Devine, Elisabeth Jaquette, Hadil Ghoneim, and Miranda Beshara.

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How To Talk About Palestine With Kids: A Reading List from Hadi Badi

The team at Hadi Bad has put together a short list of resources — books, websites, and films — to help parents and educators as they talk with children about Palestine.

None of the Arabic children’s books on the list has yet been translated to English, although samples of several of them — including Hooda Shawa’s Dragon of Bethlehem and Taghreed Najjar’s Whose Doll is This?, Sitt al-Kol, and Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye — are available on this website.

Fatima Sharafeddine’s moving في مدينتي حرب (In My City, There’s War) has been translated to French and Dutch. The Hadi Badi team also suggests Sharafeddine’s العمة زيون وشجرة الزيتون (Auntie Zayoun and the Zaytoun Tree).

Hooda Shawa’s beautiful picture book سماء سامية الملونة (Samia’s Colored Sky) is part of a series that focuses on the work of Palestinian artists. The series also includes Ibtisam Barakat’s award-winning الفتاة الليلكية (The Lilac Girl, 2019).

To this list, we would also add Sonia Nimr’s brilliant طائر الرعد (Thunderbird) trilogy, which foregrounds a time-travel fantasy, but always has contemporary Palestine in its sights.

Publishers who want to know more about these titles can email info@arablit.org.

For those looking for English-language titles, children’s literature media and culture MA student Ala’ Qaraman also suggested Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation by Anne-Marie Young and Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood and Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine by Ibtisam Barakat.

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An Excerpt from Mahmoud Shukair’s ‘Me, My Friend, and the Donkey’

A humorous donkey detective novel for young adults, set in and around Jerusalem:

By Anam Zafar

For its 70th issue, Banipal magazine will honor the beloved Mahmoud Shukair, one of Palestine’s leading writers. His portrait will grace the cover, painted by Iraqi artist Sattar Kawoosh, and the magazine will include a special feature on his contribution to contemporary Arabic literature. Here at ArabLit, we celebrate the acclaimed, award-winning writer with a sample from his 2016 YA novel, Me, My Friend, and the Donkey. In 2018, the novel was selected by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) for its honor list of the top 100 children’s novels from around the world.

Me, My Friend, and the Donkey is a humorous detective adventure for teens. Set in and around Jerusalem, it tells the story of Mahmoud (the narrator) and Muhammad (his friend) as they try to find Muhammad’s stolen donkey. Inspired by detective novels and adventure movies, the pair assemble a group of friends to solve this mystery—some of them adopting code names, as seen in the sample. They do—eventually—find the donkey. Years later, Muhammad has moved to the US, and the pair still reminisce about donkeys whenever they meet or speak on the phone. Muhammad invites Mahmoud to visit him in the US; however, Mahmoud’s visa application is rejected. The novel is inspired by the real-life story of one of Shukair’s childhood friends.

An excerpt, in my translation:

10

A few weeks later, me and my friend Muhammad had the plan well underway. We were working on the investigation as hard as we could, inspecting a whole bunch of donkeys, mules, and horses, questioning all kinds of men, and looking everywhere we could think of. But we still hadn’t found Muhammad’s donkey.

One day, the vegetable seller told us she couldn’t complete her mission. She looked sorry, and explained that her eyes were tired out from studying all the people and donkeys passing through the market. We respected her decision.

“Don’t worry, we can still count on Layla and the others,” we said, after thanking her for working with us. 

11

Just about two hours before sunset, Ocean Whale came running up to us. We noticed he was completely worn out from running so fast. If only we could have used a carrier pigeon instead! We’d really hoped to use one, to send news to each other. But when we realized nobody used birds to communicate anymore, we didn’t dwell on the idea for long.

Ocean Whale had come to tell us that he, Lightning Bolt, and Forest Lion had captured a man with a dark birthmark on his face, just like the thief’s. It wasn’t above his right eyebrow, but they’d decided the birthmark in itself was enough proof. As we listened, me and my friend Muhammad looked around the Friday market: there was no one around except a few cattle sellers.

We asked Ocean Whale how they’d managed to capture the man.

“We were following him, and he seemed suspicious of us. So we got closer and surrounded him, and Forest Lion said: ‘Would you like to introduce yourself?’ And the man scowled and said: ‘What do you want from me?’”

After seeing pure evil in the man’s eyes, Forest Lion decided to play a trick on him and said: “I, Forest Lion, mean you no harm. I am simply inviting you for a drink at the coffee shop.”

Ocean Whale went on: “Then the man followed us to the coffee shop, and when we got there, Forest Lion whispered in my ear to come and find you straightaway.”

The three of us sprinted along the pavement to the coffee shop. To my friend Muhammad’s surprise, that man was not the thief. Muhammad apologized and let him finish his drink. The man accepted the apology, thanked Forest Lion for the coffee, and left, seeming happy and a bit relieved.

We looked at each other awkwardly. Then we left the coffee house, too. Layla was standing at the market entrance, camera in hand—she wouldn’t let any donkey walk past without getting at least one shot of the animal and its owner. Glancing at her, Forest Lion said, “That was just our first try. Lots more will follow.” There was a proud swagger in his step, as if he was now a seasoned detective.

“Yeah, all you need now is to open your own prison, for all the people you’ll capture!” we said, jokingly. 

Forest Lion nodded with determination. It seemed Lightning Bolt and Ocean Whale believed in what he’d said, too. Me and my friend Muhammad exchanged a look—we weren’t as convinced as the others. Then we decided to split up and go home before sunset. And that is what we did. 

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The next morning, on our way to school, Muhammad told me about the strange dream he’d had the night before.

“In the dream, we were going to Alhambra Cinema with Rahaf and Fadiya. We were excited because it was a Jeff Chandler movie. We’d already seen a few clips and couldn’t wait to watch the whole thing. So, one night, when it started playing, the four of us went to see it.

“Then, the surprise, the part that confused me the most: I saw my donkey coming toward me! He asked if he could come with us to the movie. I asked him, ‘How can you be here? Weren’t you stolen by a thief in broad daylight?’ He said, ‘Yes, I was. But, when night falls, I can go wherever I please. Near and far.’

“That really cheered me up, and I hugged him. But told him I was worried the ticket collector wouldn’t let him in. What he said next confused me even more. He told me he was a Jeff Chandler fan, too, and that he just had to watch him beating the bad guys. So I promised I’d make a deal with the ticket collector.

“The next strange thing is that the ticket collector was happy to see him. He even said it was no problem, the cinema had seats especially for donkeys. I was amazed. Then all of us—even the donkey—walked into the movie theater!”

I was amazed, too. “Your dream is a good omen,” I told my friend Muhammad. “We’ll find the donkey. I can feel it.”

“Let’s hope so,” my friend said. “God knows it’s all I want.”

13

Our sixth meeting was held one afternoon in Forest Lion’s house. As usual, his mother brought us cups of sweet, sugary tea. After thanking her, we waited for her to leave so we could continue the meeting. But she stayed standing there, quietly watching us. 

Eventually, she spoke. “You’re all going after this poor thief and forgetting who the real crooks are.”

Her words surprised us. We fired question after question at her: Who were the ‘real crooks’? How did we go after them? How would we know who they were?

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she said. 

“How do you know the man who took the donkey is poor?” we asked.

“Oh, so you think he’s rich!?” she replied, sarcastically. “Maybe his children were hungry!” 

“So, because his children were hungry, that makes it okay?” Muhammad asked.

“No,” she said, “but a hungry man is an angry man. You need to understand that.”

She threw her words at us and left. They fluttered around the room like a flock of pigeons. We stared at each other. The way we felt, we couldn’t continue the meeting. 

“Don’t worry about her,” said Forest Lion, shaking us out of our thoughts. “She only said that because she’s mad at me.”

“Why’s she mad at you?”

“I got a bad grade on the math test.”

We told him how sorry we were, and then went back to the meeting. But we couldn’t shift the feeling that this mysterious world was full of paradoxes. 

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Mahmoud Shukair was born in Jerusalem in 1941. His novel Praise for the Women in the Family was shortlisted in 2016 for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression. His book for young adults, al-Quds madinati al-ula (Jerusalem, My First City, 2014), was shortlisted for the 2015 Communication for Children’s Literature Award. Shukair has authored forty-five books, six television series, and four plays. His stories have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. After spending time in Beirut, Amman and Prague, he now lives in Jerusalem. 

Anam Zafar (anamzafar.comtranslates from Arabic and French. Most recently, she was a mentee on the National Centre for Writing’s 2020/21 Emerging Translators Mentorship programme. She is on The Linguist magazine’s Editorial Board, and volunteers for the World Kid Lit online initiative. 

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Seeking publisher. More information about the book available upon request. Contact Anam Zafar via info@arablit.org or through her website, anamzafar.com.

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5 Arab Authors, Storytellers, and Illustrators Are Candidates for This Year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

For 2021, 263 candidates are in the running for Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which is worth around $500,000, the largest prize for literature for young readers. As prize organizers note, “The list includes some of the world’s foremost creators of literature for children and young people, as well as reading promoters.”

The new laureate will be announced on the April 13, 2021.

Previous winners have included the Tamer Institute in Palestine, Argentinian author-illustrator Isol, the Australian author-illustrator Shaun Tan, and many others.

This year’s Arab candidates are:

Egyptian storyteller Randa El Sawi.

El Sawi (@elsawiranda) is an oral storyteller best-known for her YouTube channel, “Randa’s bedtime stories قصص أطفال راندا”. The stories on her channel are composed in a straightforward Egyptian Arabic and targeted at children ages four to 10. El Sawi writes the stories and records them as audio-only “to encourage kids to listen rather than watch.”

Jordanian author Taghreed Najjar.

Taghreed Najjar is an always-innovating author and publisher of Arabic children’s literature. A graduate of the American University of Beirut, Najjar started her career as a teacher, before shifting to writing and publishing. Her popular YA novels have won several awards (including two shortlistings for the Etisalat Prize and won win), and she has also pioneered chapter books for the transition from picture books to novels. Her books have been on the White Ravens’ list twice, and she has several books translated to English: The Ghoul (tr. Michelle and Tameem Hartman), Watermelon Madness (also tr. Michelle and Tameem), My Brother and Me (tr. Michelle and Tameem), and The Little Green Drum (adapted by Lucy Coats).

Lebanese author Fatima Sharafeddine.

Over the last 15 years, Fatima Sharafeddine has written and translated more than 130 books working with a number of publishers (Kalimat, Al-Saqi, Asala, Turning Point, Yuki Press, Al-Shourouk, and Mijade). Her works have earned her many awards, among then: Etisalat Award for the best YA book of the year for her excellent novel Cappuccino, and the Bologna Ragazzi New Horizons Award for her book Lisanak Hisanak. Her books have been translated to various languages, among them: French, Italian, English, Spanish, Catalan, Dutch, Danish, German, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Turkish, Norwegian, and Swedish. Some of her English titles are the YA novel Faten, translated to English by the author as The Servant; the Middle Grade novel Ghady & Rawan, co-written with Samar Mahfouz Barraj and translated by Sawad Hussain and M Lynx Qualey; and picture books about Ibn Battuta and Ibn Sina.

Palestinian author and storyteller Sonia Nimr

Sonia Nimr is a star Palestinian author and storyteller who weaves together contemporary stories with folklore for readers of all ages. She won the prestigious 2014 Etisalat Award, for Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, and was also shortlisted for the prize for Thunderbird, the first title in a fantasy trilogy. She is also the author of two books in English: Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories and A Little Piece of Ground (co-written with Elizabeth Laird). Her Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands is forthcoming next month from Interlink Books.

Sudanese illustrator Salah Elmur

Sarah Elmur is a contemporary Sudanese painter, graphic designer and filmmaker, living and working in Khartoum. Elmur also has illustrated a number of children’s books, published in Arabic, French, Italian, and Spanish. His titles include: Chacodile (Grandir, 2002), Jameil et Jamila: Conte Baggara du Soudan text by Patricia Musa (Grandir, 2003), Diakhere, la Cadette: Contes de Mauritanie, text by Mamadou Sall (Lirabelle, 2006), Sous Le Soleil, text by Badr Eddine Arodaky (Syros, 2007), Une Famille d’Artiste (Grandir, 2007), Le Soudan with Patricia Musa (Grandir, 2010), and A Qui est cet Oeuf? with Camille Pilet (Grandir, 2013).

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Four Arabic Books for Young Readers Named As 2020 ‘White Ravens’ Selections

From the White Ravens 2020 booklet.

The International Youth Library today published its 2020 White Ravens list: an annual selection of recommended children’s and youth literature from around the world.

Each year, a multilingual team at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany, selects recently published books that they consider especially noteworthy: in art, theme, literary style, or design. This year’s 114-page White Ravens catalogue contains a selection of 200 notable children’s and young adult books from 56 countries published in 36 languages.

Four of the selected titles were written in Arabic: three are picture books and one is a coming-of-age YA novel recommended for readers 14+.

The four books are:

Hikaya tarwiha al-khyut (A Story Told by Threads), by Nabiha Mheidly, ill. Hassan Zahreddine. A picture book published by Dar al-Hadaek in 2018. From the booklet:

Nabiha Mheidly’s original, poetic story about threads and the art of telling a story by interweav- ing narratives is a masterpiece both in terms of its form as well as its language. 

Hala (Aura), by Moemen Helmy, ill. Matze Döbele. A picture book published by Yanbow al-Kitab in 2019. From the booklet:

The perceptive story, written in beautiful language, is accompanied by restrained black-and-white pictures in which only the colour- ful halos of individual people shine forth intensely.

Sirr A’sad (Asad’s Secret), by Najla’ Atallah. A Young Adult novel published by Tamer Institute in 2018. From the booklet:

Author Najla Atallah (b. 1987), who hails from Gaza, sensitively and genuinely captures the young man’s life as well as the hard reality of the largest Palestinian city. 

Al-himar w al-bulbul (The Donkey and the Nightingale), by Jekar Khourchid, ill. Ghazaleh Bigdelou. A picture book published by Dar Al-Aalam Al-Arabi in 2019. From the booklet:

Jekar Khourchid tells the story in a lively, humorous and fast-paced way. The text lends itself well to being read aloud and is accompanied by Ghazaleh Bigdelou’s double-page colour illustra- tions, which caricature the animals in comical ways. 

This year’s Arabic specialist was Dr. Azad Hamoto. The list is always published in the lead-up to Frankfurt Book Fair, set to open on October 14. While the catalog is usually available as a print edition, since Frankfurt Book Fair will take place mostly online this year, the IJB has produced a digital-only version which can be downloaded as as a PDF.