Marwa Al Aqroubi and Taghreed Aref Najjar speak at a session on ‘What Children Want to Read’ during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. Image Credit: Atiq ur Rehman/Gulf News

Dubai: There is a serious lack of quality Arabic literature for children, which needs to be addressed quickly, renowned children’s authors said during an interactive session at the 10th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Wednesday.

Speaking during a session titled “What Children Want to Read,” Emirati children’s author Marwa Al Aqroubi said that most of the Arabic children’s books available in the market are translated from other languages.

“There is not enough original content in Arabic to inspire young readers to read in Arabic. Though some young writers are coming up and efforts are being made at different levels to generate more original content that could attract young readers, but the fact is most of the works that are currently available in the market are translated, which should not be the case. We have to produce more local content that the children could relate to, in terms of characters and culture,” said Al Arqoubi, who is one of the handful of Emirati Children’s writers, with several successful titles, including Ahmad Al Helo (Ahmad The Adorable), a story about a boy on journey to rediscover the culture and heritage of the UAE.

President of the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) and also a member of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), Al Arqoubi is the brain behind several campaigns to cultivate the reading habit among children, including Read Dream Centre and Kan Yama Kan, an initiative to provide quality storybooks to underprivileged children worldwide.

“As authors, parents, teachers and publishers we should try to understand what children want to read, we can’t impose on them what we like. We have to study their psychology and produce content based on their tastes and tendencies based on different age group,” added Al Arqoubi, who is a key influencer behind the prestigious Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, which aims to put Arabic children’s books on the international stage.

However, co-panellist at the session, Jordanian publisher and author Taghreed Aref Najjar, argued that depending entirely on the desires and tastes of children could be dangerous.

“We need to strike a balance between what they want to read and what we think they should read. I don’t say we should impose our ideas on them, but we should make them choose from a wide range of ideas and subjects. If you let them choose without any guidance they will mostly go for adventure and fantasy and also at very young age they are not in a position to decide for themselves,” said Najjar, who is pioneer in modern children’s literature in Jordan and the founder of Al Salwa Publishing House.

Author of more than 50 books for children and young adults, Najjar is celebrated for her young adult novels and various schools in the region have adopted them as part of their curriculum.

Speaking from a publisher’s perspective, Najjar added that Arabic children’s literature is not getting enough support, as very little space is given to Arabic books in book shops, particularly in the UAE, Jordan and Lebanon, where English language is prominent.

She also said that the advent of digital gadgets like tabs have not helped the cause reading among children.

Agreeing with Najjar, Al Arqoubi said that all stakeholders have a role to play in making children love literature.

“As parents we have to take children to libraries regularly and make them choose what they want to read, just like we take them to malls, this way children will understand the importance of reading and develop a love for books. If children prefer to read on tabs or e-books that’s fine but I believe reading on tab could distract children and they might switch to other apps quickly,” said Al Arqoubi.

She also urged schools to organise more story reading classes for students.

“I have personally seen that children enjoy their classes more when you read stories to them. I think this something we should do more. In many countries this is part of the curriculum where many subjects are taught through stories and results have shown that children learn better,” added Al Arqoubi

Addressing parents, both the authors asked: “What would you prefer? Your child going to bed holding a book or a tab?”

It’s a question all parents need to ask themselves.