World Kid Lit Month: Why so few Arabic children's books have been translated into English

September is World Kid Lit Month, celebrating a month of children's literature in translation

World Kid Lit Month encourages children to read more translated works every September. 
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Translations of Arabic folk tales, epics, and popular stories have long been a part of the English canon.

Many of them – from One Thousand and One Nights to Tales of Goha – have been enjoyed by young readers. Inea Bushnaq's acclaimed Arab Folktales came out in English in 1986, long before the surge in translations.

But when the boom in translated Arabic literature began in 2002, literature for young people was largely left out. In part, it's because children's literature was undervalued in Arabic. Picture books moralised. Comics were scorned. And authors who were popular with teen readers, such as Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, weren't taken seriously. Literary translation from Arabic focused on books for adults.

Arabic children's books appeared in other languages, just not English

Some children's literature did make the leap from Arabic in the early 20th century. Fatima Sharafeddine's moving Fi Madinati Harb (In My City, There's War) was translated into Catalan, Castilian, Portuguese, Dutch, French and Korean – but not English. Titles by Walid Taher appeared in German and French – but not English.

There were a few books translated into English earlier this century. Emily Nasrallah's award-winning Yawmiyat Hirr (A Cat's Distarary, 1997) was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies as What Happened to Zeeko in 2001. But like most other English translations of Arabic literature for young people, it was published in Egypt and didn't travel much beyond Cairo.

Emily Nasrallah’s award-winning 'Yawmiyat Hirr' ('A Cat’s Diary', 1997) was translated by Denys Johnson-Davies as 'What Happened to Zeeko' in 2001. Courtesy Naufal

In 2006, Mohieddine Ellabbad's The Illustrator's Notebook was translated by Sarah Quinn, and it came out in a bilingual edition from Canada's Groundwood Books. Seven years later, Groundwood Books took a chance on Sharafeddine's Faten, translated by the author as The Servant.

This trendsetting book was one of the first of a new wave of Young Adult novels and the surprise winner of a Beirut Book Fair prize in 2010. Emirati writer Maitha Al Khayat's My Own Special Way, illustrated by Maya Fidawi, also appeared in 2010. This vibrant picture book was translated by Sharafeddine and "retold" by Vivian French. In 2013, it became the first Arabic children's book to be shortlisted for a major prize in English translation.

Fatima Sharafeddine Fate's 'The Servant' is one of only a few translated Arabic children's books.  Groundwood Books 

Why 2019 could be the year of Arabic children's literature

Sharafeddine's prolific and sensitive writing and Fidawi's joyous illustrations helped spark the new interest in Arabic children's books. Sharafeddine now has more than a dozen books in English translation, from the Mimi picture books to her co-authored middle grade novel Ghady & Rawan to her YA novel The Servant. Fidawi, meanwhile, is the illustrator behind many popular picture books translated into English, Spanish, Turkish and French.

Co-founder Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is on a mission to promote children's translated literature. Courtesy Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Now, the boom in translated Arabic children's literature seems to have begun. After years when there were perhaps one or two Arabic children's books published in translation, if any, at least six are expected in 2019.

These books are from a diverse array of accomplished authors and illustrators: Gulnar Hajo, Abir Ali, Taghreed Najjar, Sharafeddine, Samar Mahfouz Barraj, Ahlam Bsharat, Fidawi and Hassan Manasra.

What is World Kid Lit Month?

Translations have always been a part of children's literature. Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are an example. Pippi Longstocking, Asterix and The Little Prince are among the world's most popular children's fiction characters. But most translated titles have come from a few countries in western Europe.

Emirati writer Maitha al-Khayat penned 'My Own Special Way', illustrated by Maya Fidawi, was translated by Vivian French. Courtesy Hachette Children's

In the past few years, publishers have turned with new interest to diverse children's literature in translation. In 2016, book activists launched World Kid Literature Month to celebrate and promote literature for young readers in translation – particularly from beyond Europe.

"I think the attitude of publishers towards children's literature in translation is changing," says Arabic translator Sawad Hussain. "Having said that, the 'big five' publishers need to do more to include translated kid lit on their lists and also make themselves more open to receiving submissions."

Hussain says she's excited to see Arabic children's literature in translation. "But even more heartening is Arab authors who usually write for adults are taking kid lit seriously and citing it as part of their oeuvre. Also, there have been more workshops in the Arab world for writing kid lit, which is always great to hear."

World Kid Lit Month co-founder Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp translates works from Arabic, Russian, and German. Courtesy the author

One hitch in the relationship between Arabic and English children’s literatures is that they have different publishing conventions. Picture books in English are a standard 32 pages, and most publishers look to stay under 600 words. Arabic picture books, on the other hand, often run more than a thousand words and have no standard number of pages. Young Adult conventions are also different.

Two books recognised by the Etisalat Prize in Arabic – Sonia Nimr's Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands and Ahlam Bsharat's Trees for Absentees – are forthcoming as adult titles, because they don't fit the mould of YA in English.

Beyond September: How to make sure your child's reading list is diverse

Organisers of World Kid Lit Month have noticed a steady increase in translated literature for young people, particularly from languages that have been little translated to English.

Co-founder Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp – who translates from Arabic, Russian, and German – is planning a vibrant month full of literary discussions between teachers, translators, librarians and children in the UK. Among the activities she recommends: making a map of the books children are reading during World Kid Lit Month; pairing cooking activities with reading; and creating opportunities for children to review the books they've read.

Hussain, meanwhile, underlined how important it is to have a variety of literature for young people from all around the world. "Growing up, I used to devour Beverly Cleary's books, the Encyclopedia Brown series, Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley High," she says. "But I never saw myself as a brown girl in them. I never understood the impact of that until much later in life."