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

Young Adult

Sonia Nimr’s ‘Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands’: A Feminist Folk-Historical Novel for All Ages

ArabKidLitNow recommends Sonia Nimr’s award-winning young-adult novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands (رحلات عجيبة في البلاد الغريبة).

Post-award edition of the Arabic.

Awards: Winner of the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, 2014; IBBY Honor List 2014

Author: Sonia Nimr

Publisher: Tamer Institute

Contact: info@arablit.org

Buy in Arabic: رحلات عجيبة في البلاد الغريبة

Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands was published in 2013 by Tamer Institute. In 2014, it won the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, in the YA category, and also was an IBBY honor-list book that year.

This gorgeous feminist-fable-plus-historical-novel is the sort of literary folktale that’s enjoyable for all ages. Take 1001 Nights and the narratives of the great 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, put tell them through an irrepressible Palestinian girl.

In English, there’s nothing like it.

Our story begins hundreds of years ago, when our hero — Qamr — is born at the foot of a mountain in Palestine, near her father’s strange, isolated village. Her mother solves the mystery of why only boys are born in this odd, conservative village. But then, in proper 1001 Nights style, this tale moves into another. Qamr’s parents die, and a prince with many wives wants to marry her. Qamr takes her favorite book, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, as she flees through Gaza, to Egypt, is captured and made a slave to the sister of the mad king in Egypt. After many adventures in the palace (and a time helping the sister to rule!) she then runs away to study with a polymath in Morocco. But when it’s discovered she’s a girl, she must leave there, too, and disguises herself as a boy becomes a pirate to sail the Mediterranean. Qamr has a child, who is stolen from her, and she follows her daughter to Yemen. In the final moments, we hold our breath, as it seems she’s about to find her little daughter. There is never a boring moment in this clear, charmingly told, girl-centric book.

Wondrous is around 220 pages inthe Arabic and about 70,000 words in translation. It has already been translated into Spanish.

Sample:

Cover of the Spanish translation

And so it was that my mother went into labor while sitting astride the donkey that was carrying her from the city to our village. My father had to halt the caravan, then pitch my mother a small tent at the foot of the mountain.

It was a difficult birth. If it weren’t for the quick-wittedness of her servant, and the instructions my mother gave in spite of her condition, she would’ve died bringing us into this world. My mother bore twins in that tent at the foot of the mountain, and she stayed in it seven days before she managed to continue on the hardest part of her journey: the ascent up the mountain.

That summer was scorching hot, and at this time of year the trip was almost suicide. Yet it was also the only time of year when the wide valley surrounding the mountain could be safely crossed by those who wanted to reach our village. My father had left his nameless town nearly four years before, thinking he would never return.

Yet fate had other plans.

“The Village” was the name of this tiny, hard-to-reach hamlet that sat high on a mountain, whose people lived off farming and sheep-herding. The men of the village went down to the city once a year, traveling for two days until they reached it, either on foot or by donkey. There, they would sell their produce of cheese, fruit, olives, and leather, and they would buy what they needed of clothes, tools, and sometimes books. In the city, the villagers would also learn news of the past year, the name of their country’s ruler, and other tales.

“The Village,” as the people who lived there knew it, was so isolated that no one knew of its existence, save a few of the city’s merchants who traded with the villagers. No one visited the village. Since only adult men went down to the city, none of the women knew what the city looked like, nor even how to reach it. The men made their journey in the summer, when the valley around the mountain dried out. For the rest of the year, the village was isolated by the wide, water-filled valley below.

All the people in the village were relatives born of one original family. The story went like this:

Sheikh Saad, the village’s first elder, fled the south of Palestine hundreds of years ago. He’d murdered a man, and feared revenge from the man’s family. Sheikh Saad wandered with his own family for a long time, until he had a dream. In it, he saw an enormous tree with leaves that were always green, throwing their broad shade over a mountain, and so he went north until he found that tree. There, on the mountain, he built his house and the village.

Over the years, our village established its own laws and beliefs, created and enforced by its Council of Elders. The villagers believed, for instance, that if anyone left the village to live somewhere far away, it would bring a curse on the village, dragging in its wake ruin and misfortune. They also believed that, if a stranger were to come into the village, it would bring difficulties, perhaps leaving them cursed for all times. So marriage to men outside the village was forbidden—even though, since the women weren’t allowed to leave, marriage to an outsider was impossible!

In the village, only boys were allowed to learn to read. Girls were barred from education and denied access to books, for fear the books would corrupt them.

Life in the village had gone on like this for many years. The laws took root and grew increasingly complex, such that no one even dared think of staying in the city more than the two sanctioned weeks. Certainly no one dared marry outside the village. Neither did the women think of learning, nor the girls of playing. And no one dared raise his eyes to meet the gazes of the village’s long-bearded elders, who were its absolute rulers. If one of the elders passed by on the road, the men would stop working. They’d bend their backs and stare at the ground until the elder had completely disappeared.

As to women, whether they worked in the fields or stayed at home, they were not allowed to have a single honest look at the elders. They had to be satisfied, or even happy, that the only reason they might be allowed in the elders’ presence was during an appearance before the court. That’s where they would end up if one of their husbands filed a complaint against them. In these cases, the elders’ rulings were harsh. Either they would order the woman be beaten in the village square, or they’d order her locked up in a house with other guilty wives. They would stay that way for one to three months, depending on the strength of the accusation.

The House of Shamed Wives was a small, single-room shack at the edge of the village, without windows or light, where women would live on dry bread and water until the end of their sentence. Then she’d have to promise not to raise her head in front of her husband, nor speak to him, unless she had been spoken to first.

And yet despite all the strict laws and extreme caution, a curse came to the village: One day, a man named Suleiman fled from them and didn’t return. The men of the village said that Suleiman loved a girl from the city who, they claimed, was a djinn. It was she who seized his mind and made him commit this crime. The curse had been in place since his departure, and the village elders could do nothing about it.

Entire manuscript available in English upon request.

Middle Grade

Sonia Nimr’s ‘Thunderbird’: First in a Time-Traveling Palestinian Fantasy Trilogy

ArabKidLitNow recommends Sonia Nimr’s award-winning middle grade novel, Thunderbird (طائر الرعد).

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2017

Author: Sonia Nimr

Publisher: Tamer Institute

Contact: info@arablit.org

Buy in Arabic: طائر الرعد

Thunderbird begins as the local fortuneteller (a reader of coffee grounds), Umm Arab, has a strange and mysterious prediction for the orphaned Noor’s future. For the last two years, since the untimely deaths of her scientist/archaeologist parents’ in a plane crash, Noor has been living in the old family home with her Uncle Ziad, Aunt Widad, her cousin Wafaa, and her grandmother. Noor’s aunt and cousin do not make her feel welcome. Indeed, they deeply resent her. To make things worse, when Noor gets upset, mysterious fires flare up around her. The only person who believes in her is her beloved and sympathetic grandmother. Her grandmother gives Noor a gift–a strange ring–from her father before she dies.

This fantastic, Harry Potter-esque time traveling novel follows Noor as she hooks up with a cat (who’s really a djinn), discovers that the King of the Djinn needs her help to save the world, and travels back 500 years — although not before she has a harrowing trip through checkpoints to get to contemporary Jerusalem.

We learn about history and folklore as Noor and a girl from 500 years ago — Andaleeb — team up to find the first of the Phoenix feathers that will help them keep the world together.

Extended samples, plot summary, and more available upon request.