“The first book a child reads opens the first door in that child’s brighter future.” So says Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.
In keeping with that sentiment, the UAE is throwing open a door with the national and regional Arab Reading Challenge, a contest that aims to revive a love of the written Arabic word, engage with Arab children and encourage them to discover a literary world of stories, philosophies and a literary heritage that goes back hundreds of years.
Last month, Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, declared this year the “year of reading”. It followed the September launch, by Sheikh Mohammed, of the Arab Reading Challenge, which runs until April. The plan is to turn the competition into an annual event.
“We want the Arab child to love to read, to make reading a hobby, part of their fun routine, not something that is a chore or homework,” says Abdulla Al Nuaimi, the general coordinator of the challenge.
The ambitious goal is to get “a million children” in the region to read 50 Arabic books each, in addition to their normal reading for school.
There will be prizes totalling more than US$3 million (Dh11m) for teachers, pupils and their families – including $1m for the top school. The winning pupil will receive $100,000 to help pay university fees and $50,000 for their family.
In addition, more than $1m has been set aside for school supervisors, prizes for pupils and promotional incentives.
A list of recommended books for various age groups – grade one to high school – was published on the Arab Reading Challenge website when it launched, but was soon removed.
“We saw that parents were just printing them out and sticking to this list, when it was just a recommended list to expand on,” says Al Nuaimi. “So we decided to just keep it open and allow any 50 books for a particular age group, in any genre and style, as long as they are in Arabic.”
The only restrictions are that magazines, newspapers, comics and reference books are not allowed, and the books cannot already be part of the school curriculum. Books properly and “officially” translated from other languages into Arabic, but not online versions, are also allowed.
“This challenge is a chance for everyone in the family to explore what is out there in Arabic literature for children and youths,” says Al Nuaimi. “The parents have to be active and engaged as they look and help the child read and understand the books.
“If a child likes space, find him nice books about space, suitable for his age. It is about nurturing this love for reading and imagination.”
Parents who want a child to take part in the challenge should contact the supervisor at the school, who will register the pupil. Each participant gets up to five passports, each of which can be used to record summaries of 10 books the child has read. The first passport is red, the second is green, then blue, silver and gold.
“Each child will be tested to see if they really read the books and understood them, before they get to move on to the next passport and next 10 books, until he or she finishes all 50,” says Al Nuaimi. “The final stage will be assessed by an independent jury from the challenge centre and the best student will be announced as the winner, as well as the schools and all those involved. Everyone has a role in this, from the parents to the coordinator, to the supervisor, to the school and other students.”
Al Nuaimi encourages parents with questions about the initiative to contact the Arab Reading Challenge directly.
“Through reading and sharing, it is our hope that it will encourage more compassion and understanding of each other and of other cultures,” he says. “The future of the Arab world begins with its children, and so that is why this kind of challenge is very important.”
There are discussions about including university students in future editions of the challenge, but that depends on how the first one goes.
Studies and reports suggest that reading levels are very low in the Arab world. On average, an Arab child reads for six minutes per year, compared with 12,000 minutes in the West, according to a 2012 report by the Arab Thought Foundation.
That may be changing, as the range and quality of available books improves.
“Arabic children’s book publishing in the Arab world has come a long way in the last few years,” says Zeyna Al Jabri, the founder of Buzoor, a company founded six years ago with a mission to promote Arabic books for children by collecting and distributing the best titles in the region.
“I meet Arab authors and work with publishers to get the best of what they publish and make it accessible to the parents, teachers and schools,” says Al Jabri. “The Arab world, and specifically the UAE, suffers from a weak distribution network for Arabic children’s books.
“Parents and teachers complain about the lack of variety in the local market, and booksellers complain about the lack of sufficient demand for Arabic children’s books to justify offering a wider selection.”
As a mother of two – a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son – Al Jabri wanted to find and “promote” books written by Arabs for Arabs, so that “children can fall in love with our language and culture”.
But she is not opposed to reading translations of literary classics.
“While reading translated classics is an important part of growing up, it is also important to foster this sense of love for the different facets of the Arab culture around the Arab world,” says Al Jabri.
From her distribution centre in Dubai, which is packed with thousands of books from across the region, Al Jabri worked with The National in the mammoth task of compiling a list of 50 books for children of different ages to give parents a starting point to get their children involved in the reading challenge.
One of the challenges she faced was to include as much variety and popular appeal as possible, given that there are no best-seller charts in the Arab world to provide a regularly changing list of top books, and to keep the titles fresh in readers’ minds.
“A book gets popular, everyone wants it at the same time, and then after a month or so no one is asking about it,” says Al Jabri. “There are no real trends and no real measures like they have for English books. There is no Arabic children’s book that sells every week.”
Her list features authors from a range of Arab countries, a variety of publishers, covers many themes and topics for young readers of all ages and all the books were originally published in Arabic.
“It is a gift to the parents and the children,” she says. “The list is not exhaustive, but it offers some recommendations that will help Arab children meet new authors and new types of books and treasures they perhaps didn’t even know existed.
“There is something in this list for everyone.”