From Roald Dahl to JK Rowling, children's books for all ages remain the domain of English-language authors. However, there is now a growing demand for books that offer more culturally aligned characters, telling relatable stories, and with themes that link more closely to the local environment.
Dubai author Zenubia Arsalan felt that as a mother, there was a lack of materials to read to her children which related the same faith, values and identity, and she used that as inspiration to put pen to paper.
It all started during her own childhood in Pakistan. "Growing up, I did not see myself or my faith represented in the books I read and even at that time it perplexed me," she says.
"Fast forward many years, as a parent and as a curator of children's books for our story circle, I felt a dearth of books that were interesting and fun to read out loud while covering topics that are integral to our beliefs and values."
The final push was when her eight-year-old daughter asked her what names to call characters in her creative writing homework. “I suggested names like Aisha, Ali and Fatima, but she dismissed them as ‘very silly names for characters’ and went on to give them very English names and set her story in the English countryside.”
In spite of having lived solely in the UAE, Arsalan’s daughter had become fond of the stories by authors such as Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. “These books are amazing and I cherish them from my own childhood, but these should not be the only books that our children read,” she adds. “Books are mirrors, and our children should see a reflection of themselves in them.”
A Muslim child's journey
Her third and most recent book, Between Fear and Hope: A Muslim Child's Journey, will be released in August and, as with her first two, she draws on her own life experiences as a mother, and a Muslim, to convey the story. She portrays the central character as a mini superhero, dressed in a cape, and the book is illustrated in comic-book style to help convey this empowering message that all children have the potential to be a superhero.
The book is a cultural lesson, written from the point of view of a father who is supporting his son in following his heart, not the career expected of him by family and society.
“Culturally, there were only a few professions that parents approved of and children were forced into professions they didn’t quite own,” she says. “With this book, my hope is that both the parents and the children look at the bigger picture and define their aspirations in terms of how they can create value in the lives of others,” she adds.
Faith and parenthood
Motherhood has been a huge inspiration for Arsalan's storytelling. Her first book, Before Allah Made You (previously known as Before Birth, Beyond Life), came as a result of two profound questions her own children asked her so many times: "Where did we come from?" and "What happens when we pass away?"
She often draws on her faith, with scripture-inspired themes to help give parents the vocabulary to tackle such tough topics.
“Some children’s books are not just for the children and I think this [latest one] is one of them,” she says, adding that it was written as much for the parents as the children, focusing on values like courage, speaking the truth, defending the weak, being humble, gratitude and establishing prayer.
Such lessons are strong throughout her writing. At one point in the story, the father tells the son “to be a defender of the weak, the one who speaks for the meek” and to be “the one who walks away from a fight, and gives up an argument even when he is right”.
Writing in English
She does, however, continue to write in English, as many are more comfortable reading that language. "Arab children are now equally fluent in English, and it is definitely enriching to read spiritual content in both languages," she says.
Ahmed Al Shoaibi, an Emirati children's author and pioneer of culturally relevant children's literature, also chooses to write his stories in English, for the same reasons.
Through his home-grown publishing house, Al Rawy Publishing, he is encouraging authors to cater more to Arab and Muslim children. He welcomes the addition of more books like Arsalan's into the UAE's mainstream.
“It is important for children to read books with characters they can identify with and see themselves through,” he says. “This helps them with their self confidence and, more importantly, it helps them set their internal compass for many values such as standards of beauty, what is culturally and socially acceptable.”
Al Shoaibi says these characters have the ability to inspire, allowing children to believe that they, or children who look like them, can be the heroes in their own life stories.
“It is a very self-empowering message which I am sure children will appreciate and learn from,” he says. This is the case with Arsalan’s writing, as illustrated when the father asks the son: “All the super powers Allah gave you, How will use them? What will you do?”
"The everyday superhero element is very strong in the book," says Arsalan, and she hopes this will inspire children and parents alike.