In the Arabic speaking world children’s books have been seen as an extension of the education system with an emphasis on reading for learning or learning to read. The idea of reading for pleasure is not widespread. But things are beginning to change. Sue Unstead explains.
‘So much energy … such passion for books and reading… children positively devouring books.’ Could this be the Bath Children’s Festival, Cheltenham perhaps, or Edinburgh? No, halfway across the globe, the destination is Sharjah, neighbour to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is now in its fourth year. It occupies ‘a space as big as Bologna’, according to Fiona Kennedy, Children’s Publisher at Orion, who was there at the invitation of UAE publisher Kalimat to celebrate two events. First the publication in English of My Own Special Way, the tale of a small girl’s choice to wear the veil, written by an Emirati author and illustrator, translated from Arabic and retold by Vivian French for Orion’s Early Readers series. It is the first of what Kennedy hopes will be an ongoing commitment to a publishing exchange with Arab markets. While in Sharjah a press conference was held for the Arabic edition of another Orion title, The White Giraffe by Lauren St John. Such was publisher Kalimat’s commitment that the final translator was the sixth person they had chosen.
Commitment and passion
This kind of commitment and passion is witnessed in other markets, nowhere more so than in Qatar, where Bloomsbury have recently celebrated the publication of 25 titles on their list of Arabic children’s books. Consultant Publisher Andy Smart tells me that he splits his time between London and Doha. ‘When we first set up Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation we had a single room. Now there are over 30 staff in the office in Education City, 90% of whom are Qatari.’ Smart himself is an Arabic speaker, with a teaching background who moved into publishing via ELT to run Longman’s Cairo office. After a number of years he set up his own publishing company with his Egyptian-born wife, publishing books in both English and Arabic. He joined Bloomsbury when the BQF was set up in 2009. ‘It was something I had always hoped would happen, for a British publisher to set up an Arabic company.’
Andy Smart explains that the Arabic world publishing industry goes back a long way, but is largely confined to country-based books, rather than Pan Arab publishing. Traditions he says are very entrenched. There is also a very different author/publisher relationship where an author would normally be expected to finance the first print run. ‘If you ask a child which is their favourite book or favourite author, the concept doesn’t exist. There are, as yet, no household names.’ Children’s books are seen as an extension of the education system with an emphasis on reading for learning or learning to read. The idea of reading for pleasure is not widespread. Beyond the publishing capitals of Cairo and Beirut, bookshops are few and far between, chains appearing only in the last 10 to 15 years. Virgin entered the market, establishing chains for supply across Saudi, Egypt and the Emirates, but of course books are only one element among CDs and DVDs. Distribution, says Smart, is still a major issue. I ask whether the internet is changing this. He responds that in the Gulf, where income levels are high enough to support such purchasing, Amazon is the preferred supplier, although there is a local equivalent, the appropriately named Neelwafurat, roughly translated as Nile and Euphrates.
BQF was set up to publish books in Arabic and in dual language versions. The initial choice of titles was made by Andy Smart, who looked for books with a strong visual impact, and headed first to bestsellers or award-winners in order to give their sales team the best chance in a competitive market. Their first title was Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, and while the choice of a tale set in a Northern European forest might seem unlikely, its similarity to folk tales and the use of rhyming couplets were two features common to the Arab tradition. That first translation was done jointly by Andy Smart and his wife, but they now use a pool of local translators. All publishing functions are based in Doha, apart from printing which is handled by Bloomsbury’s London production team, although printing is occasionally done in Dubai or Lebanon to save shipping time.
Reading literature in Arabic
The BQF list includes a fine selection of picture books, ranging from Debi Gliori’s No Matter What, the Ahlbergs’ Funny Bones and Faustin Charles’ The Selfish Crocodile, as well as titles by Emily Gravett and Emma Chichester Clark. There appears no difference in the production quality from the well-loved UK editions, though of course the Arabic layout means they read from back to front. The Selfish Crocodile is also available in dual language format. Andy Smart hopes that such books will find a market among what he calls ‘heritage readers’, families who are of Arab origin but find themselves living in an English-speaking environment and worry that their children might grown up not knowing their mother tongue.
This concern is echoed in a recent report in Gulf News in which the Professor of Arabic at Georgetown University Qatar imagines the prospect of a future where citizens of Gulf countries wear dishdashas and abayas but are unable to speak Arabic. ‘I am afraid that after 20 years, Arabic will just be a language of religious ritual.’ But not if this new generation of publishers has anything to do with it.
The BQF catalogue also includes a trio of books by Sally Grindley – Dear Max, Bravo Max and Relax Max. Told in the form of letters between a boy and his favourite author, this is an interesting choice not only to reinforce the idea of author profile, but also to encourage language and writing skills. Smart is keen to emphasise that this shows BQF’s commitment to children who have outgrown picture books and need something more challenging. The future catalogue lists a range of further titles for the 6-9 age group as well as developing a list for Young Adults including such authors as David Almond, Neil Gaiman, but also Arabic authors such as Al Tameera. Andy Smart talks proudly about the home-grown titles including Hamda and Fisaikra, a Cinderella-like folk tale with a Gulf setting by a Qatari author and illustrator which has been longlisted for a major new children’s book prize to be awarded at the next Sharjah Bookfair. The award carries a significant cash prize, equivalent to around £150,000, divided among publisher, author and illustrator. According to Smart, a win could transform a publisher overnight and build an author’s reputation.
The market for book sales
Bookfairs are important in this market, providing an opportunity for publishers to access markets outside their own country. Abu Dhabi is the main rights fair, but Sharjah is open to the reading public with publishers selling copies from their stands, as well as meeting institutional buyers who can see the range of books on offer as publishers catalogues are not easily available. Public libraries hardly exist in this market, although 12 were established in Egypt under Mrs Mubarak. Lebanon has a more established library system, and Jordan a small one, but the main emphasis is for private sector schools and some Gulf countries where governments fund book buying.
Egypt is the biggest market for book sales in terms of volume, but pricing is fiercely competitive, with a typical retail price being the equivalent of £2.99. Price expectations in Egypt are very different from say the Gulf States, Lebanon, Jordan and North Africa. There is optimism about the long-term future in Egypt, with estimates varying between two to five years or longer before normality, openness and a real sense of security are resolved. For now there remains instability, concern about personal security, land grabbing, kidnapping and violence met with repressive responses. Yet in spite of all this there is a real sense of cultural reawakening, a sense of identity and pride in cultural matters.
I ask Andy Smart about future plans for BQF. He states his hope that BQF can establish some of the fundamentals of a lively children’s book market, developing authors hopefully into household names, building a list to establish a canon of good children’s books. He is particularly interested in developing books for children ready to move beyond picture books. At present there is little in this area and it is one they are addressing. Future plans include some original non-fiction as well as bought-in titles from Usborne, plus books on social skills and behaviour, a strong area for this market. He is keen too to develop local authors and titles that are of special interest to the Gulf and Arab world. Whether these will travel back into other markets is too early to say, although Orion have shown that the right title can have universal appeal.
A number of other publishers have had some success in selling titles into the Arab market. Francis Lincoln for example have sold We are Born Free, published in association with Amnesty International, into Arab markets via a Lebanese publisher. At DK Emma Llewelyn looks after the Arab markets, selling rights to publishers in Egypt, Lebanon, and thus to Iraq, Arab Emirates and Algeria. She reports that there is a definite wish to promote children’s literature, with government grants for translation widely available. ‘Everyone is looking for change.’ Even Iran is looking more interesting, where Farsi is the language. Past problems with pirating are being addressed, and there is more interest in issues of copyright. She reports that educational series are of strong interest, thematic science encyclopedias for example or books on the body or how things work. There are tricky issues to watch, such as the amount of flesh on display (more an issue in adult pregnancy titles) or the avoidance of culturally sensitive images such as dogs or pigs.
There is a growing awareness too which finds its voice in a number of Arab websites and blogs that every country, every culture needs its own children’s literature. The author of one blog describes enjoying a search and finding books with her children. ‘Apparently there isn’t an Arabic Where’s Wally? which is good. We don’t need him. We need Waleed.’
Gulf News in May quotes a publisher at the Abu Dhabi International Bookfair as saying that local YA literature is fighting for existence due to the lack of Emirati authors willing to write in this challenging field. A massive influx of translated books is overshadowing books written originally in Arabic, making it more difficult for Arab authors to shine and ‘find their shelf space’.
So one must applaud the efforts of champions such as Sheika Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, Founder and CEO of Kalimat Publishing who has just announced the sale of two Arabic books to Swedish and Canadian publishers. In a statement she says ‘Kalimat endeavours to publish books that not only touch children on a personal and emotional level, but also inspire in them a love for reading. Through bringing books from this region to children everywhere we hope to foster greater compassion and cultural understanding among future generations, regardless of where they are from.’
Clearly this is a market to watch. As BQF’s Publisher states ‘It’s great to be pioneers and we look forward to publishing our 100th title!’
Sue Unstead was a publisher of children’s non-fiction publisher for 25 years and is a consultant.
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation now have official shelves in Arabic on Public Library Online:www.publiclibraryonline.com/DisplayShelf.aspx?shelfId=123″>