Arabic-language children’s publishers have a new book prize: the Etisalat Award for Arab Children’s literature, which promises one million dirham ($270,000) to the best Arab children’s book of the year.
“The prize will hopefully bring about some healthy competition between the current publishing houses,” said Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, founder of the prize. Sheikha Bodour is the daughter of the ruler of the emirate of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, where the award will be presented for the first time during the annual Sharjah World Book Fair this November.
The prize money will be split between the publisher and author and/or illustrator.
“My intention is for us to see eye-catching, well produced, interesting books for children in our bookshops,” continued Sheikha Bodour. “Unfortunately most bookshops in the Arab world contain drab, boring books that don't capture a child's imagination or interest. At the end of the day publishing is a business and money is a motivating factor, and will hopefully spur the publisher's interest to put more time and effort into the books they produce.”
Sheikha Bodour’s dim view of Arabic children’s publishing inspired her to found her own publishing house—Kalimat—in 2007. The same year she also established the Arab Children’s Book Publishers Forum, a trade organization based in Sharjah, which now has 60 members and will have a significant showing at next week’s BookExpo America.
She attributed the poor publishing practices in Arab publishing to the lack of a “reading culture” in Arabic-speaking countries. “Parents don't read bedtime stories to their children and there is a tendency for parents to rely on schools to give their children their first reading experience,” she explained. “This in turn affects book sales. Parents don’t have the habit of buying books [for] their children. So publishers have become relatively laid-back, and produced mediocre books that require very little investment.”
The opportunity is wide open for a publisher to capitalize on this need for both high quality books, but also ones written specifically for Middle Eastern and North African children. “There is a large trend in the Arab world to translate books from other cultures into Arabic,” Sheikha Bodour said. “This is a great way for a child to learn about a different culture. However, there also needs to be some homegrown books that are written and illustrated by Arabs who will be able to interpret the world the way an Arab child sees it. I set up my own publishing house precisely because of this reason. I wanted my books to portray Arab-looking children, with dark eyes and dark hair. I wanted Arab children to read Kalimat books and think that this book is about someone familiar.”