'Children's books should make sense of the world': Sheikh Zayed Book Award winner Hessa Al Muhairi plots next release

The Dubai author was the first Emirati woman to win the prestigious prize

Hessa Al Muhairi became the first Emirati woman to win a Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2018. Courtesy Sheikh Zayed Book Award

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award has long been committed to opening a new chapter for children's literature.

The prestigious competition, which launched in 2007, has had a category championing the genre since its start, which comes with a cash prize of Dh750,000.

But that’s only part of the prize's benefit. Such is the international recognition of the award that it often results in international translations.

Such was the case for Hessa Al Muhairi, the first Emirati woman to win a Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2018 for The Dinoraf, which recently has recently been translated into English, French and Italian.

With the book awards this week calling for submissions for its 2021 edition, Al Muhairi encourages regional authors to give it a shot as the competition's seal of approval is a career booster.

“There are a lot of books coming out and it is sometimes tough to know which ones are of quality,” she says from her Dubai residence. “This is where the award helps. It is definitely a signal that this book is well worth reading and publishers internationally will be interested in it. Of course, as a writer it gives you a great deal of confidence, too, because winning these kinds of awards is not something you necessarily expect.”

Lost and found

Al Muhairi's response hints of a deep-seated satisfaction, as The Dinoraf's journey to success included numerous rejections from local publishers before Al Hudhud Publishing inked a deal to release the story about a homeless dinosaur who ultimately finds comfort among a tower of giraffes.

Al Muhairi recalls that her allegorical tale of co-existence and adoption was lost on publishers.

“They didn’t understand why the dinosaur wouldn’t end up back with his family,” she says. “I kept replying to them and said that the book is positive because at the end, the young dinosaur finally finds happiness and isn't that what we want from children?”

'The Dinoraf' has been translated into English, French and Italian. Courtesy Sheikh Zayed Book Award,

The book has also been useful in Al Muhairi’s other role as a kindergarten teacher and vice principal. In addition to being a handy aid when it comes to promoting the UAE’s message of tolerance, Al Muhairi said her interactive reading sessions around the country allowed children to discuss difficult topics.

“The feedback really gave me an insight into some of the children’s relationship with their families,” she recalls. “When I asked them how they would end the book, some said they would have the dinosaur go back to their parents, while others said they would do a second part of the book where the dinosaur mum would go out and finally find the child.

"Then we had some children, who were a little bit sad, say that they were happy that the dinosaur could still find happiness without their family.”

Making sense of the world

Expect more complex tales to come from Al Muhairi soon, with the ongoing pandemic serving as backdrop. Plans for a follow-up book have taken a back seat in order to keep up with the workload of distance learning, but the story ideas are coming thick and fast.

“I think children’s literature should always comment on what’s happening in the world today to help children make sense of it all,” she says.

“So I am thinking about a book that attempts to explain to children what is happening right now with the virus. But I don't think I am the only one,  there will be plenty of interesting stories coming from children’s authors around the world soon.”