Children want books that talk to them

Four writers discuss the challenges and responsibilities of nurturing a love for stories and reading among the nation's youth.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – March 17, 2011: Maitha Al Khayat, Ute Krause, Dr. Latifa Al Najjar, and Qais Sedki, UAE and German children's book authors, left to right, lead a panel discussion on books in the UAE at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair at ADNEC.  ( Andrew Henderson / The National )

ABU DHABI // Local authors should be encouraged to write fiction that reflects UAE culture, because children need to read books that reinforce their values, novelists said this week.

"A child must feel like he or she owns the story," said Qais Sedki, an Emirati author. "Although they did not write it themselves, they should relate to the characters, the principles and values. The stories should reflect his or her culture."

The topic was addressed at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair by a panel organised by the Goethe Institute - Gulf Region to explore the creative processes involved in producing children's literature.

Panelists pointed out that the majority of books available in local libraries are translated from other languages and cultures.

In addition, the writers said authors should interact more often with children in order to know how to write for them,.

Maitha al Khayat, an Emirati author, said her stories came to her when she communicated and played with her children.

"It is OK for parents to be silly sometimes," Mrs al Khayat said. "Parents would send their children away when there were adults in the house. Authors should involve themselves in children's activities. An author can get a lot of ideas from children if he or she does so ... by playing football with them for example."

She said that her story I Like My Father's Long Beard, which was published in English in 2009 and in Arabic last year, was inspired by a conversation with her children when they told her they missed their father while he was travelling because "his beard was long and beautiful" and because it "smells good".

Mr Sedki said his friends had mocked him because he imitated a donkey's voice as he read stories to children at the Sharjah Book Fair.

"Someone in the audience posted a video on YouTube showing me mimicking the sound of a donkey, but it is fine; I did not even try to take it off," he said. "The story was about donkeys, and I would do anything to make a child laugh. They did laugh."

He said a major setback to producing entertaining books, which often contain colour drawings, was cost. Nurturing a culture of reading would help solve such an issue, he said, because there would be a bigger audience for books.

"The main challenge is financial," he said. "Producing such books are extremely expensive. I would consider it a wonderful achievement if an author could publish a book with 5,000 copies. In the West, people line up in queues when a certain book is published. People buy books there."

Ute Krause, a German author who was on the panel with the Emirati writers and also ran a workshop at the book fair, said part of the reason why children refrained from reading books was because the titles often focused on teaching lessons, rather than on entertainment.

She noticed the trend as she listened to the experiences of the workshop's participants, which included 10 Emirati writers.

"I discovered that quite a few stories always have a moral," Mrs Krause said. "In Germany, we discovered that children don't read them. Children have a very fine nose for moral. We can tell the same story without the moral, without throwing it in their faces. That's the key issue."

The panelists said children should be encouraged to read by example.

Latifa Najjar, a children's author who moderated the discussion, commented that one of her students said, "when my teacher reads, I will read".

Nora Khouri, an Emirati mother who participated in the workshop, said she tried to encourage her children to read, but there was a "shortage of libraries and factors that attract children to reading".

"Unfortunately, I can't find a library that I could take my children to. And we know libraries which ban children from entering," she said.