Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1439, (18 - 24 April 2019)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1439, (18 - 24 April 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The future of children’s books

This year’s Alexandria International Book Fair included a discussion of the present and future of children’s publishing in the Arab world, revealing some disturbing as well as encouraging trends, writes Yacoub Al-Sharoni


‘Only 4.4 per cent of books in families that read are read by children. 85.2 per cent of children believe that the “subject” of the book is the most important factor when choosing what to read, followed by 23 per cent who choose by author’

Among the many events at this year’s Alexandria International Book Fair, which took place at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from 25 March to 7 April, was a seminar on the present and future of children’s publishing in the Arab world on 30 March that revealed some discouraging trends while also presenting some encouraging ones that opened up discussion for the future.

It revealed figures about publication and reading habits in the Arab world that underlined the importance of encouraging children to read so that audiences for written material will increase in future generations. Only some 1,000 to 2,000 copies of a new title published in Arabic are usually produced, and only some 6.16 million newspapers are sold in the Arab world for a population of some 360 million people, or one for every 22 people. Only four per cent of people buy newspapers on a daily basis.

photo: Nader Habib

As far as reading is concerned, speakers at the seminar said that 88 per cent of Egyptian families do not read books (except school books), and 76 per cent of families do not read newspapers or magazines. Some 2.2 million Egyptian families have at least one member who reads, however, and 1.5 million families have a small library at home. Seventy-nine per cent of readers choose religious books, 33.4 per cent scientific books, 29.3 per cent literature, and 11 per cent political books.

However, only 4.4 per cent of books in families that read are read by children. 85.2 per cent of children believe that the “subject” of the book is the most important factor when choosing what to read, followed by 23 per cent who choose by author.

According to comments made at the seminar, there are various reasons behind the decline in reading. Some 72 per cent of Egyptian families believe the reason is the rise of illiteracy, followed by a lack of time and other priorities. Approximately 56 per cent believe it is a result of lower incomes, followed by a lack of encouragement by families. Forty-one per cent believe it is because books are too expensive. Among children a main reason is too much homework.

Books also tend to be available for sale only in major cities, and Arab populations tends to spend more time on the Internet and social media than they do in reading. School curricula do not encourage linking studying with reading and the use of libraries. Publishers face problems due to copyright violations, lack of distributors, problems in creating regional networks, few physical bookshops, and few public libraries.

Some 46 per cent of children believe that reading is declining in the Arab world because families do not encourage reading, 40 per cent believe it is due to too many television channels, while 26 per cent say it is due to too much homework.

Among the solutions proposed by those answering the seminar survey, 57 per cent of Egyptian children aged between six and 15 want more libraries, the key to encouraging children to read more. 45 per cent want more encouragement from the media. Meanwhile, 76 per cent of Egyptian families where at least one person is a reader read to their children. About 82 per cent of children believe parents are the most influential figures in encouraging them to read, followed by the availability of books, and reading time at school.

Some 61 per cent of young people who read say borrowing books is their main source of them, followed by 44 per cent who buy books. There is apparently no research on the effect of changing the format and content of books for children and young adults in the Arab world to make children more interested in reading.

photo: AFP

GLOBAL VARIABLES: Speakers at the seminar said that much of the Arab situation can be understood by reference to international variables.

The growth in visual media has made children more accustomed to watching rather than to listening to descriptions, and therefore they need books to include pictures and drawings to keep them engaged. They are not willing to “read a description” of something if they can see it with their own eyes.

There has been a revolution in graphic books where there is an image with every paragraph, not only for the youngest readers, but also for children aged eight to 12 and 13 to 18. Images play an important role in encouraging children around the world to read and like books, and this has been confirmed by many experts, including UK author Prue Goodwin in her Understanding Children’s Books (2008).

Classics such as the works of Shakespeare and other writers are now being published in popular graphic formats. Many international publishers are more and more interested in publishing such books for young people, since images attract the latter as much as text, just as they are attracted to images on screens.

Japanese “manga” comic books have been translated into many languages and are popular among young people in many countries. The Egyptian International Publishing Company-Longman has started to publish such graphic books translated into Arabic, including a version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

 “Graphic novels provide readers of all ages with many things to discover. These books play a role in encouraging reading and liking books among teenage readers. Although graphic novels at first targeted young children, most of the books published today target older readers, even though they may appeal to younger readers. These novels could revolve around any literary topic,” Goodwin comments.

The key to understanding this is to focus on the flexibility of graphic novels, which can tell stories in a simple way. However, this same flexibility also means that narratives can be used to tell complex stories or explain intricate ideas. The main idea here is that graphic books are a means or a tool rather than a genre because they can be used both to convey simple stories to the young and more advanced ones to older readers.

They can also be used for non-fiction texts including biographies and life-writing, and they allow authors to address a broad spectrum of ages. Many children’s book critics in the West believe graphic novels are now a parallel discipline to story writing, and they emphasise their popularity in the US and European countries. Some believe that graphic novels are a successful way of attracting those who don’t read often, and many teachers have said that they can motivate learning reading.

However, such graphic novels for teenagers are often in black-and-white to cut costs. Prices can be high due to fees for both the illustrator and author and the higher cost of printing images. Nonetheless, they remain popular, and they echo styles of writing used for scriptwriting in cinema.

One of the main differences between graphic novels for children and those available for young people is a greater focus on the written text and better literary texts in the latter. This can also address the common criticism that comics and comic strips for children are substandard reading because they focus on illustrations at the expense of written text. Much of the text today is also written outside the illustration instead of in speech bubbles. This style of book has recently gained in popularity in the Arab world, but interest remains limited.


VIDEO IMPACTS: Cinema and video games have undoubtedly impacted young readers. Video is now a primary medium for children long before they conquer reading because families often turn on the television without thinking how having the TV on all day could impact young children.

Accordingly, children develop a taste for reading narrative work like films, especially those designed for them. When the rhythm and construction of a narrative work or novel is similar to the film format children are accustomed to watching, this can attract them to reading stories. Writers of children’s books should be aware of the impact of watching videos on the new generations, and one consequence is that children are now used to “seeing” things directly rather than reading about them. They are less interested in reading a description of what their eyes are used to seeing without the need for words.

As a result, the authors of children’s books no longer need to spend a long time describing what the eyes can see, and they should leave visual descriptions to illustrators who now play an important role in teenage and young adult books. Children are also used to direct speech, whether in film or on television, and they have more difficulty with indirect speech. There is also the question of the length of a film and its influence on the number of pages in a children’s book, since children’s films often last between 50 and 90 minutes. This may have reduced children’s attention spans and made them incapable of reading longer than the length of a film.

There is a need for more studies on children’s reading in the Arab world. We should not only rely on studies conducted in Europe and the US due to different cultural environments.

A further question raised at the seminar was whether it is enough for children to see a book when it is projected with its illustrations and text onto a screen without the need to read it on paper. Many computer and electronics companies still complain that they have no experience in publishing, especially for children.

Speakers at a seminar at last year’s Bologna International Children’s Book Fair in Italy sought cooperation with the publishers of children’s books around the world to establish new digital media formats for children’s books. This would go beyond putting a book on a CD, and instead would use the “special language” and potential of the digital media, including movement, sound effects, and cartoons. Filming outdoors, interviews with famous people or characters loved by children, and other means could also make the content of digital books more attractive to children.

This would make such publications have a greater impact on children’s emotions, minds, and knowledge, the speakers felt, just as a scriptwriter or film director can have a greater impact when he or she transforms a written book into film. However, to succeed this would require a new generation of experts and artists who have mastered the production of digital children’s books, and it would call upon more than the skills of current children’s books authors, illustrators and producers.

Such books would engage all five senses. Their authors would no longer draw pictures with words but would also allow readers to experience the world of the story through touch, smell, taste and sound. Experience does not reach a reading child through sight alone, but all the senses should be engaged at once in every moment of life. Therefore, such authors should become aware of the importance of transforming the world for young readers through all the senses, not just images seen with the eye.

We used to say that “we draw with words,” but now we say that “we must also hear, touch, taste and smell with words.” While authors focus on human emotions, ideas, reactions and affections, these are relayed not only as responses to outside events or situations, but also to sensory stimuli and experiences as a result of interacting with such events and personalities.

A famous example is the novel Perfume by the German author Patrick Süskind in which smell is the main character. There are also novels written by Latin American authors in which the smells of food are main features of the narrative.

A classic model of narrating the senses can be found in the autobiography of US author Helen Keller entitled The Story of My Life. Keller was able to defeat the double handicap of being blind and deaf and successfully conveyed this in her writings. Readers can experience what she touched, smelled and tasted, and she communicated with others through finger touching and palm spelling because she was unable to hear, see or speak. Her contact with the world began with her sense of cold liquid on her hand from a water pump.

She could not speak before she was two years old, but she was able to express her thoughts through the rest of her senses. She became a famous writer and lecturer, encouraging people to enjoy the nature around them by touching leaves, feeling the fresh morning air on the skin, and enjoying breathing the rich smells of the garden.

 “I used to feel my way [to the garden] along the stiff boxwood hedges, and, guided by the sense of smell, would find the first violets and lilies… What joy it was to lose myself in that garden of flowers, to wander happily from spot to spot, until, coming suddenly upon a beautiful vine, I recognised it by its leaves and blossoms… But the roses — they were loveliest of all [and so] heart-satisfying. They used to hang in long festoons from our porch, filling the whole air with their fragrance, untainted by any earthy smell; and in the early morning, washed in the dew, they felt so soft, so pure.”

“There was nothing I did not touch with my hands, and no movement that I did not feel with my hands,” Keller wrote.


MORE ENGAGED: While computer screens and digital media open up new platforms for interaction and participation by users, children’s books face the challenge of engaging children in dealing with them and striking a balance between books and computer screens.

Children naturally need to interact and participate, which is why they are interested in certain games or toys, and this is a key reason why children enjoy digital books. They give more than what a child obtains through the senses, and they require children to carry out an activity or task or give them questions they must answer. The child interacts with the book and adds to it through action.

The child then needs to do another action to ensure his answers to questions are correct. This helps the child develop the ability to learn on his own, and as a result he will be better able to search for answers to questions in encyclopaedias, dictionaries, or atlases.

Books for young children using “reading with all five senses”, along with stories and pictures, convey information in an impressive variety of styles that suit children who do not always like to read words but have the mental capacity to identify, search, compare and infer through the senses and positive interactions with books.

Such new    technology for children’s books is revolutionary as it stimulates all five senses and gives a child a growing and positive role through participation and interaction with books, something I have identified in my own book Reading with Your Child in the Iqraa series published by the Cairo publisher Dar Al-Maaref.

Video and computer programmes that include a variety of topics, writers, performers and presenters are similar to magazines, and they are unlike books that have one theme and one author. Children’s libraries have long known that young readers are more interested in reading magazines than books because of this enhanced variety. And a key development occurred when children’s books were made more similar to magazine formats by changing the layout to include more attractive and interesting features.

Using cartoon strips in young adult books, in the past limited to magazines or for young children only, can be used to present a complete literary text where the illustrations are not an alternative to the words and phrases. When a child reads the text without looking at the illustrations, he maintains his literary interest.

Newspaper layouts, especially titles in a larger size, photographs, colourful illustrations, one topic in several formats, texts divided by sub-headings, or information in a caption underneath or beside a photograph or illustration, are also techniques that can be used. Newspaper layouts can also create attractive pages so subjects do not seem long, and monotony can be avoided by using a variety of layouts from one page to the next while maintaining the same overall look.

A good example is The Encyclopaedia of Knowledge for Young People published by Al-Ahram in Cairo, which was produced in 250 issues of 16 large pages each. Each issue covered several topics, and each article was written by a different author. It used pictures and coloured illustrations to occupy one third or one half of each page. Other newspaper-like techniques include periodical publications for children, such as the Al-Hilal Books for Boys and Girls series published monthly by Dar Al-Hilal in Cairo. In these, the last section of each book looks like a magazine, with current events, responses to questions sent in by children, and a variety of drawings and competitions.

Books with activities such as crosswords, colouring exercises, and games are also relevant. They create interaction between child and book, and they are common in school books in western countries, encouraging children to read them. Caricatures and cartoons can make books more fun, even in science books for children aged 12 and under. There is A World of Knowledge in Your Hands for elementary school students in Arabic, for example.


DIGITAL INTERACTIONS: The interaction and connectivity available in the digital world to young people mostly away from adult supervision has impacted the language young people speak and write, as well as their methods of learning, their understanding of adults, and adults’ understanding of them.

This has strongly impacted the “themes” of children’s literature and the “means” used to address young readers. Many researchers say that the ability of children and young people to communicate effectively via the Internet and digital media is evidence that they are capable of responsibility and are seeking connectivity, rather than being innocents who need protection.

The Internet has impacted young people and has become a key source of empowerment due to its possibilities for freedom of expression and communicating with a wide community that gains power from coming together without the supervision of adults. Indeed, adults who once may have said that young people are “too young to think and too young to know” are now forced to see and understand — and respect — the growing potential of children and young adults. Adults once felt that the young needed constant protection, but now they find themselves in need of the young’s capabilities.

Such a partnership has manifested itself in different ways, and the potential of youth has started to rise. Authoritarian societies are becoming more democratic, and such fundamental changes will undoubtedly strongly impact the themes of books for children and young adults, showing up in characters and plots as well as in the relations between the generations in many literary works.

Such innovative interactions and connectivity have piqued the interest of children and young adults in contemporary topics such as the divorce of parents, handicapped siblings, the long-term illness of a parent, or parents losing their jobs. These topics used to be taboos in children’s literature, but today the writers of children’s books have found effective ways to write about them.


The author is a pioneer of children literature.

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