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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. 

12

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. 

*

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. 

*

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

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:

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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.

Young Adult

The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye: Action Packed Adventure Tale of a Palestinian Teen Against All Odds

ArabKidLitNow recommends Taghreed Najjar’s Etisalat Prize-shortlisted novel, The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye (لغز عين الصقر):

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2014

Author: Taghreed Najjar

Illustrations: Ammar Khattab

Publisher: Al Salwa Publishing

Target age: 12+

Goodreads ratings: average 4.24 stars (out of 5)

Buy in Arabic: لغز عين الصقر

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.

After his father is arrested as a political prisoner, Ziad is forced to leave school and begin working to support his family. Toiling away each day from dawn ‘til dusk at the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, selling tea and tissues to the endless lines of traffic, Ziad must reluctantly say goodbye to his dream of graduating from high school and going on to university, family is just too important to him, and his mother is struggling to support him and his younger sister Najwa and little brother Selim. Things go from bad to worse when Selim falls gravely ill and requires an operation in an Israeli hospital which the family simply can’t afford. But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, locked up in his great-grandmother Sitti’s cloudy memories of the days before the Nakba…

Ziad must take a huge risk and leave everything he’s ever known to look for the ancient clues left for him by Sitti, taking him across the separation wall into occupied Palestine in search of his family’s ancestral village and the gold and jewellery that was buried there long ago. He must find the key to unlock his past and ensure his family’s 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 one of the leading writers of children’s and YA’s fiction in Arabic. It is a story to shine 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.

From: The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye

Below, an excerpt from early in the book, as Ziad begins to think there might really be something to his great grandmother’s story.

By Taghreed Najjar

Translated by Joseph Devine

At Qalandia checkpoint, Ziad waited on tenterhooks for their return from the hospital. As soon as they arrived, he hugged Salim and gave him a kiss. He gave Najwa an urgent look, his eyes asking her about the outcome of the appointment, but his mother’s expression and Najwa’s averted glance were all the answer he needed. He got in a taxi with them and, sensing they were all exhausted, asked the driver to take them straight home.

After Salim had gone to sleep, Ziad’s mother had to excuse herself as she broke down in tears. “The doctor said Salim’s condition is serious, and he needs an operation that’s too expensive.”

Najwa rubbed her mother’s back, gave her a tissue to dry her eyes, and tried to calm her down.

“Don’t worry, Mama, I’m sure there’s a way for us to help Salim. The doctor has our phone number and he said he’ll try his best.”

Their great grandmother Sitti suddenly cried out, “Oh my! Mahmoud’s in prison and his son’s dying!”

“Don’t speak like that, Sitti!” Um Ziad shouted. “Salim is not going to die. There’s an operation that can save him, and he’ll lead a normal life.” She paused for a moment and then went on in a hushed voice. “But where will we get the money for it? What a nightmare.” She started weeping again.

“Remember, Mama, didn’t the doctor say that if we can pay for the tests, he’ll try and find a way to pay for the operation?”

“Tell me, Najwa, how will we even pay for the tests? They’re expensive, too.”

“Simple!” shouted Sitti. “How about we sell my gold? There’s ten gold bracelets, twenty-five gold liras, six rings, four gold chains, and…”

“For heaven’s sake Sitti!” snapped Um Ziad. “When will we have enough of this story about the gold? You’ve been going on about it for years. If we had such treasures, then we wouldn’t be living this miserable life. We’d have had the best lawyer for Mahmoud, Ziad would be on his way to university by now, and we’d have paid for the tests already. No, please, Sitti. Enough of this gold nonsense, it hurts my head.”

Sitti drifted off, and a confused look came over her face, as if she were summoning a memory from the distant past. There was gold… she thought. Then, like a skipping record, she repeated, “Ten gold bracelets, twenty-five gold liras, six rings, four gold chains, and…”

She perked up after a few moments and continued, “I was a new bride, and Ismail was head of the household. Everyone in town respected him and valued his word. One day, he came home and called a meeting. He told us they’d received word that, two days earlier, Zionist militias had attacked the village of Deir Yassin, that they’d killed dozens of people and robbed their homes, and that they were heading our way. He said we’d all have to leave our village for a few days and then come back when the situation got better. Some of the women began wailing and hitting themselves, but Ismail shouted, in a voice that shook the house and made everyone as quiet as mice, and said…”

Suddenly, she went quiet. Then she turned to Ziad and said, “Ismail, tell them what you said!”

Everyone laughed as Ziad grabbed her hand and said, “Sitti, I’m Ziad, your great grandson.”

“Oh goodness me, of course!” cried Sitti. “By the way, have I ever mentioned you’re his spitting image?”

Um Ziad clapped her hands. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Sitti. What will become of us?”

That night, Ziad couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about everything Sitti had said. He’d heard the story of the gold dozens of times before, but he’d never paid it much attention, since Sitti was always confusing events and forgetting things. But today, it had made him stop and wonder. Why did Sitti still insist on this story? Why did she repeat such exact amounts of gold? “Ten gold bracelets, twenty-five gold liras, six rings, four gold chains, and…”

No one ever took her story seriously, but…what if it was true? What if all that gold really existed someplace, and Sitti was the only one who knew where? If he could find out where it was and get it back, then they’d be able to pay for Salim’s operation, and he could finish school and go to university, and who knows what else…

“You’re really clutching at straws here, Ziad,” he told himself mockingly. “And even if the gold did exist, how would you find it? Is it even possible? They took over the whole country decades ago, so wherever it was left, surely someone would’ve found it by now? But then again, what if…?”

He stayed awake, tossing and turning in bed until the light of dawn crept in. That’s when he made his decision to talk to Sitti in private, in the hope that she could tell him more.

#

The next evening, after dinner, Ziad was able to talk to Sitti alone.

“Sitti, tell me about the gold. What’s the story? Did it really exist or not?”

She replied with excitement. “Of course it did! Who says it didn’t?”

“But whose gold was it? Tell me.”

“It was mine of course,” she said. “And it’s my will and testament before God and his prophet that this gold should be given to the family of my grandson Mahmoud, oh how he weighs on my mind!” She began to pray, “May God, most capable and generous, accept him and grant him success, relieve him of his worries, and release him from prison.”

“Inshallah, Sitti. Can you tell me more?”

Sitti looked around hesitantly, then said, “Okay, I’ll tell you. But listen carefully, and don’t tell anyone else. This is a secret between you, me, and your Jiddu Ismail.”

“Don’t worry Sitti, I won’t tell.”

“So, where was I?” she asked. “Oh, yes. Ismail had just told us about the slaughter at Deir Yassin. We were so scared, we were crying and wailing, because you know, Ziad, Deir Yassin was very close to our village of Lifta. But Ismail—God rest his soul—he was a tough man, and he quickly stopped all the fuss and came up with a plan. ‘Enough tears! We must leave our homes and go to a safe place, far from these Zionist gangs. It won’t be more than ten days or so before we’ll be able to return. We’ve heard that the Arab armies are on their way to defend us. So don’t take anything heavy or unnecessary. It’s only for a few days. Do you understand?’

“I understood, and so did my sisters-in-law: Safiya, Fatima, and Bahiya. We nodded and told him ‘Yes!’… See, Ziad, back in those days, we all lived together in a big house for the extended family, and… Where was I?”

Ziad was afraid that she’d get distracted and drift off-topic. “Then what happened, what was Jiddu’s plan?”

“Ah, yes!” she continued. “He looked at us, gave us an empty box, and said in a thunderous voice:

“‘Listen to me, all of you, and listen well. We’ve heard that these gangs have been looting all the abandoned homes and taking everything of value. So I need all of you to give me your gold. Put it in a bag, I’ll write everyone’s names on each bag, and we’ll put them in this box, which I’ll bury somewhere safe. Don’t worry, not even the Blue Djinn will find it! Everyone will get their gold back when we return after all this violence. I promise you all, and you know I always keep my word.’

“Your Jiddu, may he rest in peace, was famous in the town for being trustworthy, all the merchants said his word was better than any legal document, that he was always kept a promise and gave everyone what they were due. Everyone used to say, ‘This free man keeps his word’…”

Ziad began to feel that there might be some truth in Sitti’s story after all. He pressed her to keep going. “And what happened next, Sitti?”

“What happened?” she asked. “They stole Palestine and made us all refugees, that’s what happened! Enough, Ziad. I’m tired and need to sleep for a while. Get me my blanket.”

Joseph Devine holds a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic & Persian at SOAS University of London, and is currently studying a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature (Arabic-Western) at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar, where he also works as a research assistant, translator, and editor.

Taghreed Najjar is a pioneer of modern children’s literature in Jordan. A graduate of the American University of Beirut,Taghreed started her career as a teacher before becoming a full time writer of picture books and young adult novels. Her YA novels have been celebrated widely by her readers and various schools in the region have adopted them as part of their curriculum. A number of her books have won awards while others have been translated into English, Swedish, Turkish, French, and Chinese.