Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Etisalat Award and Emerging Arabic Children's Literature

As part of this week's assignments for INFO 268 History of Youth Literature, we have been tasked with going on a virtual visit to an international children's literature exhibit, collection, etc. We were provided with a list of options organized by country and region, and I was immediately drawn to exploring information related to the Middle East.

Living and working as an educator in the East County region of San Diego, I have been aware of the growing community of refugee immigrants from the Middle East, and I have realized how sorely uninformed I am about this region's history and culture, other than war-related narratives told from an American perspective. As a result, I have been making efforts in recent years to learn more in terms of the history of the region, and I was excited to get this chance to look at children's literature since I have never done so before.

The award that I chose to explore is the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature. which was established recently in 2009, thanks to an "initiative of Her Highness Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al-Qasimi, President of the United Arab Emirates Board on Books for Young People and Founder / CEO of Kalimat publishing house" [source]. The award is managed by the UAE's Board on Books for Young People, which is part of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), and has quickly filled a void in recognizing and promoting growth in Arabic children's literature.

Since its launch, the award has added more categories and expanded to include young adult fiction. Currently, the total monetary amount awarded annually is 1,000,000 AED, which is about equivalent about $270,000 USD. This amount is divided among winners of different categories, including:
  • Best Text: 100,000 AED
  • Best Illustration: 100,000 AED
  • Best Production: 100,000 AED
  • Best Children's Book of the Year: 100,000 AED to author, 100,000 AED to illustrator, and 100,000 to publisher
  • Best Young Adult Book of the Year.100,000 AED to author, 100,000 AED to publisher
The remaining 200,000 AED is allocated for Warsha, the Etisalat Award Workshops for Children's Books. The Warsha initiative features programs in illustration, writing, and publishing to encourage continued growth in Arabic children's books.

As I explored the Etisalat Award website and did more related searching online, it became apparent to me that the Warsha program is truly important since children's book publishing in the Middle East is still just emerging. For instance, a Video Gallery clip (see below) that I found interesting features Ahmed Al Amri, Director of the Shrajah International Book Fair, which a large literary exhibition fair hosted annually in the Arab region. He explains how the Etisalat Award has "add[ed] a new dimension to the fair by encouraging the development of better quality children's literature and showcasing it on a global platform."

As he mentions, showcasing works is just one element, and the other is encouraging development. This is where Warsha seems to be making a valuable impact, as can be seen in a 2015 documentary (see below) of participants who were provided with the opportunity to attend the Bologna Children's Book Fair

Abdulla Al Sharhan, an illustrator from the Emirates, explains how attending the fair was "a turning point in my life," because gaining access to look "at different illustrations from different countries highly expanded our horizons." He suggests that this will enable him to "make a quantum leap in my coming work." Hanan Kai, illustrator from Lebanon, similarly expresses that "the most beautiful thing about Warsha is that our aim is not just to see the things of high standards, but to move these standards to the Arab world to have stories not only like the stories we see here but more beautiful."

Fortunately, it appears that the Etisalat Award is already making an impact. As reported within the past month, the award's eighth year has reaped the biggest participation yet, with 151 submissions coming from 13 Arab countries. It will indeed be exciting to see who the winners are when they are announced at the Sharjah International Book Fair on November 2nd!

In the meantime, though, I have attempted to find more information about last year's winners and my findings are telling. The 2015 top award (and also Best Production winner) went to The Judge's Mule by Shafeek Mehdi. While I recognize that some of my difficulty in finding information about the book may be due to differences in translation, I found it disappointing that I was unable to locate the book to purchase via any traditional American online booksellers when searching by title, author, and ISBN. Searching American Google by ISBN, I was only returned 9 search results total!

Searching for other award winners proved to be just as challenging. When searching for the 2015 Best Young Adult book of the Year, Getting Out of the Bubble by Taiba Abdullah, an American Google search by ISBN only returned 6 results, although it was interesting that one link was to Goodreads.

All of the Goodreads reviews are written in Arabic, and out of curiosity, I checked out the user profiles of reviewers to determine where they live. Their profiles all note that they live in Arab nations, although I suppose this should not be surprising since it seems to be difficult to purchase even these few award-winning titles in the United States.

Only after a bit of searching did I manage to find 2015 Best Illustration winner, Noor Runs Away by Abeer Ali Al Kalbani, for sale on Amazon through a third-party seller and Me and My Granny by Ibtihaj Al Harthi for sale on Barnes & Noble's website under the title Mah and Me.

In terms of library collections, when searching (by ISBN) using WorldCat, which "connects you to the collections...of more than 10,000 libraries worldwide," I found the following meagre results:
  • The Judge's Mule was not available at any library;
  • Getting Out of the Bubble only showed as being available at 3 libraries, two in Denmark and one in Australia;
  • Me and My Granny was only available at 2 libraries, one in Scotland and one in Sweden; and
  • Noor Runs Away was only at 1 library, although finally one in the United States: the UCLA library.

As a Teacher Librarian working in a region with a number of Arabic-speaking students, I am glad to learn about the Etisalat Award since it may be helpful when it comes to identifying quality children's literature in a language that I do not personally know. I had no idea that this is in fact such a unique period of creative growth for authors and illustrators in Arab nations, and I look forward to seeing an increase in high quality Arabic children's books being created and made readily available for young readers around the world. It will be exciting to follow what continues to emerge!

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