How the Sharjah Book Fair could change your life

Books and stories matter. Reading is also how you become a writer

Picture this: you’re perched on the end of a bed, a small child eagerly hanging on your words as you read out loud from a gripping storybook. Now you’re on a beach, the waves lapping at your toes, losing yourself in the latest holiday blockbuster book. You’re lying down, under the weather with a cold, and you’re resting by escaping into the unknown world of a detective novel or historical fiction.

For many of us, our most emotional memorable moments are often wrapped around a book. They evoke a feeling, establish memories and transport us to different world. But they are more than that. There are few things about which we say “it changed my life”, but a book can certainly be one of them. And then we most likely go on to praise the book. "You should read it. It will change your life".

Books matter. Stories matter. We don’t respond to numbers, data or imperatives. It is stories that change the world and who we are.

Next week, Sharjah International Book Fair kicks off with the theme “there’s always a right book”. And a book fair is of course the perfect place to find one. But sometimes that book is in your head, or that of someone you know.

I’m someone who accidentally became an author. I was distraught at how there weren’t any books telling stories about Muslim women like me, humorous, human, flawed, but just as deserving to have a story told about themselves as anyone else. I decided to do it myself. I am now more than a decade into being a writer and five books on. My first book Love in a Headscarf brought me to the fair in Sharjah in 2010, where I saw firsthand the power of telling a good story, and how stories transcend cultures, change attitudes and bring people together. I learnt that if you have a story that should be told, you should find a way to tell it. Be courageous. Stop talking about it and start writing it. How else will a book happen?

Yet so many people tell me that they have an idea for a book. What are you waiting for, I ask. Write, write, and write. The most important thing is to find your voice. Who are you as a writer and what do you want to say? Like any craft, writing comes with practice. But to get to a book you also need to spot which story needs to be told and make a commercial case to a publisher to tell it.

If we’re joining this journey as adults, I say that it is never too late. But where we have the chance, we need to plant the seeds for reading in children. Because children who read become more literate adults and can have better chances of becoming writers. And those writers go on to to tell stories and create books that nourish us.

I remember hiding in my room as a child, devouring books. It is a microcosm into which you can escape as a child, when you’re not old enough to go out on your own. Instead you go in. Your imagination has to work hard to build new worlds but the rewards are manifold. Watching TV and movies is fun, but can be passive and lazy work for the imagination, in comparison.

So many people tell me that they have an idea for a book. What are you waiting for, I ask. Write, write, and write

Reading must be a daily habit. And that is particularly true for children. Studies show they should be aiming for 20-30 minutes every day. And if you’re not persuaded by the fact that reading a book is just great down time from the stresses of school and modern life, then here’s the hard sell. A 2018 study published by the Australian National University looked at data from 160,000 adults from 31 countries. It concluded that a sizeable home library gives teen school-leavers skills that are equivalent to university graduates who didn’t read.

And if you’re wondering how many books you need to build that sizeable library at home, the answer is, it depends what reading level you’re hoping kids will reach. So 80 books in adolescent home libraries raised reading levels to the average, and as the number of books increased so did the reading level, maxing out at 350 books.

Here’s another reason to get into children’s books: they are so well put together – sharp, insightful and well presented. They take complex ideas and explain them in simple clear meaningful ways. Between you and me, I’ve started reading a lot of middle grade non-fiction: brilliant exposition with none of the waffle of adult books.

There is nothing that quite matches the feeling of holding a book and lusciously turning the pages one by one. One of the most exciting and paradoxical feelings is wanting a book to end but also never end, so you can live in its world forever. Read one, write one, share one. You choose. Me? I’m doing all three. You can too.

Published: October 29th 2021, 9:00 AM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National