What do today's children read?
Though reading venues for children exist throughout Egypt, there are still worries about how assiduously they use them, says Abeya El-Bakry
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From left:Saif, Omar and Nada joining other children at Misr public library the activity
In our memories children reading books tend to be quiet and shy, sitting in secluded corners or in their own dream worlds, and when they speak we hear pure and innocent utterances that often shatter adult cynicism. Today, however, this idyllic picture may not represent reality and may have more to do with adult nostalgia than with children's actual reading practices.
Today's children deftly handle their mobile phones, switching between Facebook chat, online games and sharing jokes and photographs with online friends even if they appear absent-minded to their closely watching parents. All this raises questions about the content of children's reading matter, as well as about the way in which they access it.
Traditionally, public libraries have been the reading spaces that children visit most, for reasons that include reading, to improve their grasp of languages, or even to attend computer courses. Some children choose to read popular fiction, fairy tales or comics in the Arabic or English languages, and this reading, even if not always serious in content or in aim, at least serves the need to maintain reading as an activity among children.
Libraries tend to want to motivate children to read and to develop reading as an activity. In many public libraries, children are able to wander about between custom-sized tables, from which they can pick and choose books that interest them and then sit and peruse them alone or with friends.
However, at Misr Public Library in Giza, some children agreed that reading is not a very popular activity among their friends, and that today's children go to libraries for various reasons, not all of them related to reading.
Seif Youssef, who is eight years old, enjoys reading, and he can spell out many of the words in a gigantic book about dinosaurs, though he is still learning their meaning. He is looking for a book about chemistry and about how to make robots. Thirteen-year-old Iman Ramadan said that she reads English books in order to improve her language skills, and she is reading Nancy Usborne's The Illustrated Book of Fairy Tales with Mariam, her 12-year-old sister.
According to Gawada, the present Arabic curriculum lacks creativity and coherence. Little use is made of pedagogical, linguistic and literary research, and to address what he feels are weaknesses in the curriculum Gawada encourages children to read light reading material, such as 100 Jokes, which allows them to enjoy reading.
As far as Arabic titles are concerned, children questioned said that they enjoyed Dar Al-Maaref's Green Library Series, a bestselling series for children since the 1970s and probably even earlier. The stories are tales for young readers written in clear Arabic with the vowels added in order to facilitate children's reading. Most children agreed that they also loved Mickey magazine, published by Nahdet Masr Publishing.
Such books and magazines have long been popular among children, but today new titles are emerging that are changing young people's reading in Egypt. There is a consensus that reading as a cultural activity is on the decline, and as a result there have been attempts to place reading at the forefront of cultural activities for both children and adults.
She mentions bestselling Egyptian and Arab authors who write in Arabic for very young readers up to adolescence. Among them is Tareq Abdel-Bary, author of The King of Things, one of the first full-length novels in Arabic for adolescents. The novel was published in 2006, and it has since been reprinted three times.
There is also Farhana and Viso, two series written in Arabic for young children by Rania Hussein Amin and Walid Taher, respectively. Animal stories for children like Taghrid Aref El-Naggar's The Rabbit's Small Home and My Favourite Animal and Noha Tabara Mahmoud's The Lazy Giraffe and The Wolf Who Frightened the Moon can also be recommended, in addition to Abeer Taher's Who Am I? Forest Animals.
Some of these stories are inspired by daily incidents and children's personal likes, Saad says, for example Nabiha Meheidly's Shopping List and Rania Zabib Daher's I only Like Pink.
Ahmed Bahgat's Animals in the Holy Quran and Abdel-Tawab Youssef's The Childhood of the Prophet Mohamed are popular religious titles that have gone through several editions. Topical issues have also been tackled in print by authors writing for children, for example in Abdel-Tawab Youssef's No to Beating and Rania Hussein Amin's The Disappearance of the River Nile.
Educators and parents sometimes believe that today's children do not read, but very often children themselves prove them wrong. What should be considered instead of the number of books children read is their quality and the way children's reading materials promote reading as a lifelong pursuit.
In the meantime, anxious parents can console themselves with the thought that when children turn over the pages of a book technically they are reading. Perhaps it is even time for us to pull up our sleeves and share our thoughts and interest in reading with them. In this way, children may be encouraged to share their thoughts with us, and, if they find us willing to listen, they may be encouraged further on the path towards lifelong reading.