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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.