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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.

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.