The UAE is a country where dreams come true, where children and adults live in a wonderland, and where nothing is impossible.
Here people tap into their creativity by drawing inspiration from generations of hard workers and achievers, thus adding a touch of stardust to their stories.
Today’s four children’s books are inspired by life in the UAE, and while the author, Dr Reem Al Mutwalli, drew from her surroundings to create the characters, it was the close collaboration with Shaikha Shamma Bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, she says, that helped her achieve her goal.
The Shaikha, Al Mutwalli says, is “a wonderful spirit,” whose professionalism and maturity belie her young age.
“When I first mentioned my project to her, she immediately sent me the right resources from books that are core to such a subject,” Al Mutwalli said. “She has published a children’s book and I drew from her experience to guide me in my path.”
What began with an e-mail correspondence soon grew into a partnership that saw the Shaikha immerse herself into the endeavour. “She reviewed each storyline and edited it, adding key elements and facts. She then went with me to schools and read out the final scripts to children — judging from the children’s reactions not just what they thought of the characters, but also testing the storyline and vocabulary.”
The Shaikha will be reading to children throughout the upcoming Abu Dhabi book fair and visit more schools to read and engage with them. She was also instrumental in co-publishing the series — the books have been brought out by her Royal Publishing House and Universal Publishers.
Dr Al Mutwalli said she had been mulling writing for children for some time now. “Every time I gave a speech on my earlier books, I would be asked if I would have something simpler written for children to introduce them to key aspects of their culture, so I guess it was time,” she said.
The inception of the series of children’s books were rooted in Al Mutwalli’s desire to familiarise children with their culture, anchor them to their national identity, and highlight inspiring elements from today’s world that would motivate all Arab youth and make them proud of their heritage.
A firm believer one must always draw from one’s surroundings, Al Mutwalli looked for characters that would inspire children and adults alike. “As I looked for role models to base my characters on, I was inspired by Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, and his niece Sheema.”
“Hazza” she added, “the young boy in my Reemiyat series, is based on (Faz3), who is Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, with all his traits: courage, love for exploration and adventure, and a hunger for learning.”
Sheema in Reemiyat is based on Sheema, his niece in real life, and she is a clever, inquisitive, responsible and patriotic young girl and an avid reader. The third and youngest of the three characters is based on the lady who was instrumental in making this series a reality — Shaikha Shamma Bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, the granddaughter of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed. She is quiet but productive, kind, motivated, sweet and has a great love for humans as well as animals.
“Misk and Teeb, my nieces, supplied me with the look I needed,” Al Mutwalli said. “Hazza’s appearance was inspired by the very handsome young boy Shaikh Hamdan Bin Saeed Al Nahyan. Two of the pets are based on Shaikh Hamdan’s pets: his camel Emar and his falcon Matrooch.”
The kitten in the series, she said, was based on her Yorkie Queen Zaytoona who accompanies her everywhere, “all decked out in her pearls, peeking out of my handbag”.
Al Mutwalli said the UAE was a great place to launch this book series as it represents a part of the Arab world that we can be proud of. “The UAE embodies all the aspirations and inspirations for a better future while still holding on to history and heritage,” she said.
Ensuring all-round quality meant no aspect could ever be overlooked. Al Mutwalli interviewed around 64 artists and showed them images and storyboards that she wanted before finally choosing an illustrator who captured what she was looking for. Then they began working closely through sketches, photos, drawings and patterns that she wanted to include on each page. “So you will see so much of me and my previous books as you go through the illustrations,” she said.
The attention to detail is visible on every single page of every single book. And it should be, considering that Al Mutwalli worked with four different editors and two children’s book writers to weave the stories of each book. They were presented with a storyboard illustrating each page, idea and action. “I then ran the text by my librarian aunt Adel Al Mutwalli. All this was reviewed thoroughly by Shaikha Shamma Bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan,” she said.
Al Mutwalli felt it was important to begin with the two main topics she was most experienced in, hence the two first books are titled “A Special Visit To Qasr Al Husn” and the second is “Let’s Play Dress Up”. “They are both based on my books ‘Qasr Al Husn, An Architectural Survey’ (1995, 2014), and ‘Sultani, Traditions Renewed’, traditional UAE women’s dress during the reign of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.”
Dolls, puzzles and toys
Since she wanted the characters to come to life, Al Mutwalli experimented with different dollmakers and, harnessing the power of the internet, worked with five dollmakers from around the world: USA, Portugal, Holland, Germany and UAE. “At the fair, visitors will be able to view different versions of the dolls. Some are made from clay and fabric, others we are calling ‘Selfies’, and some are rag dolls. The latter can be bought by children when purchasing the books,” she said. “There will also be necklaces, buttons and charms that can be bought for these characters so the children will have a more intimate engagement with them to help identify with them as inspiring role models.”
Knowing full well how smart children today are, Al Mutwalli knew none of the creations could be repetitive. It was either going to be unique or nothing. “Children nowadays are exposed to so much knowhow and cultures that they have developed higher standards and more refined tastes. They are clear cut and very straightforward clients. They will either like you or not!” she said. “So I am hoping to attract their interest by creating a series that will engage them on many levels. Hence we needed to create other elements besides the books to help create a whole following. I pray that it will find success”.
The books will be sold by young volunteers who worked with Al Mutwalli last year during the fair with the sales of her Sadaqah (philanthropy) guide.
“This is a series that I imagine is very much needed all around the Arab world. One cannot have enough books ever!” she said, adding that “this is a bilingual series so it will be of interest to the millions of visitors to this area of the world, especially with the advent of Expo 2020. It is equally important to the millions of Arabs who live around the world and are looking for contemporary storyboards and samples of today’s life drawn from Arab countries & cultures. I feel on many levels this series is a much needed format to help bridge many barriers and cultures.”
Eventually the characters will travel to other Arab countries and become involved with different aspects, landmarks, and storylines from those countries and present them to the world at large.
The third book is based on the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa.
Al Mutwalli feels it is a great modern wonder that all Arab youth should relate to. It is a great example, she said, “of what imagination and science put together can achieve. It is a great gift from the Arab world to the rest of the globe.”
This book was as much a learning experience for Al Mutwalli as it was for the children. “Studying details of this building was so fascinating, she says, I think the book will intrigue the young and adults who will read it to them — it surely did to all of us who worked on it!” she said.
The fourth book, she said, was a result of the Shaikha Shamma Bint Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan’s passion. “I believe it is equally the passion of many of her generation and those that came before her,” Al Mutwalli said. “I remember fondly my Sunday tours with my horse at my boarding school in the English countryside.”
Horses have always played a major role in the Arabs’ traditions and way of life. Tying that notion with all the major world renowned horse races and the fun custom of wearing elaborate hats was the subject of “Hats and Horses”.
Writing the book brought about memories of Vain Hussar, the white stallion owned by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, “another personal learning experience and a walk through memory lane,” she said.
Reading for children
It was the Shaikha who suggested and planned this part of the project. “I am impressed by her knowledge and experience in this area of book publishing as she did guide me through the literature required and the steps needed to reach what I hope to be a successful result,” Al Mutwalli said.
The team at ADEC and ADIBF also have ascertained the importance and significance of such a project and have already booked time slots for Shaikha Shamma to visit more schools to read to more children. Her readings will be accompanied by a puppet show and a full-screen presentation of the book illustrations.
The way children received the book at the last Abu Dhabi book fair was truly overwhelming. Forty-five per cent of the first edition of all four titles were sold.
The (Sheema and Shama) books were sold out completely. The rag dolls that were created to accompany the books were a success as well.
Al Mutwalli also intends to add other books to the series very soon and has in fact started working on the next four titles.
Looking up the books website on http://www.reemiyat.com/ was an quite an experience, with people having registered their admiration through their children’s interaction with the books.
However, at the book fair children and their parents left many comments as they signed the booth walls! Some comments were warm and sentimental while others were complementary and encouraging and many were witty and humorous. “I can’t decide which one to read first!” A young German boy enthusiastically responded when his mother asked him to choose which book to buy. She got him the whole set!
“Shama I am jealous kulhum yihibunich (they all love you)” was a comment written on the board for Shama.
“Matroosh you rock” was another message left for the falcon..
And we can go on and on...
Given the response, Al Mutwalli feels the age of books is not over yet.
“A Chinese proverb goes: ‘A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket, full of charm, imagination, colour, texture, intrigue and adventure!’ Though nowadays with technology we might end up reading on a pad or listening to it using headphones, it is still a book! Who can ever get enough of smelling the roses!” Al Mutwalli said.