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Why writing for children is no child's play.

Summary: Middle Eastern women writers penning children's fiction on weaving social realities of the region in their fantasies

Rania Zaghir

Fiction is not innocent. even when it is meant for children. Earlier this week, Emirates Literature Foundation joined hands with Ministry of Tolerance to launch picture books for children that are themed on tolerance. It is one of the many steps the Arab world is taking to make its social and cultural realities accessible to its young. But the fine art of entering a child's world is, in fact, no child's play. Three Middle Eastern writers of children's and young adult fiction serve up some useful tips, while describing their process.

1. Use imagination to make reality more bearable

In her own words, Rania Zaghir says her journey has been like a ride on a "mental Ferris wheel". Outside of metaphors, it translates into facing rejections and self-doubt while also tasting success and victory. What has kept her going through this tumultuous ride? Writing. "I'm always asking myself: what will happen if I can't engage my readers in 10 seconds? Gone! Like a bottle of bubbly on New Year's Eve. For that, I put everything I have in a book. That is, I don't save anything for the next one. A journey of a thousand pages will always start with a single drop of ink. Does the journey ever end?" says Rania, a Lebanese writer and publisher of children's books.

For someone who did her masters in educational psychology from the American University of Beirut, it is not a Herculean task to inhabit children's worlds. And yet, Rania takes real world elements and conveys them to the young through humour. In 2007, she also founded her own publishing house, Al Khayyat Al Saghir, to further that goal through picture books that focus on engaging literary material that seeks to develop an Arab child's artistic and social awareness. "My work has been tailored to help young Arab readers build a new understanding of their own childhood by focusing on their own inner worlds, and by providing a simplified explanation for these worlds that allow them to have a better notion of the vast changes occurring all around them," says the author of Haltabees Haltabees, while pointing out that a common mistake most children's authors tend to make is to take adult themes and reduce them in order to make the narratives accessible to children. "This is a wrong way to go about it. You start with what a child can understand and feel, and the social and political messages will take care of themselves. Children know instinctively when they're being talked down to, probably more so than adults. Also, they respond to humour and the unexpected much more directly."

Rania maintains that one of the ways of effectively engaging with children is to acquaint them with a variety of human cultures in a conscious and careful manner. "I want children to be able to immerse themselves in foreign cultures via all kinds of media, such as books, phone applications, TV programmes and movies without being shocked, overwhelmed, and otherwise submissively or negatively affected. Hence, my ultimate role is in helping children build a personal cultural background, one in which they can operate selectively when receiving data. I like to introduce more indigenous and imaginative storybooks, which enhance the child's self-confidence and develop his/her personality. In addition, my stories make children feel free, untied, receptive, and able to make good decisions, thereby giving them the capability of addressing life problems." Rania's contention is not wrong. The whole point of reading - whether it be for adults or children - is not exactly to be sermonised to, but to explore worlds that are unfamiliar. "It's no different from writing for adults; if you have a great story, the rest will follow. I use imagination to make reality more bearable and I use reality to make fantasy believable."

She is also least surprised about a majority of women writers in the Middle East turning to writing children's fiction. As primary care-givers, she says, they have a first-hand knowledge of children's concerns. But if you think children's fiction is a female domain, Rania is happy to correct you. "Don't forget that in the West at least, there have been some terrific male children's authors such as Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl."

2. Create a protagonist who thinks like a child

The Syria of Maria Dadouch's childhood is nowhere near the image of the country we may have conjured up on the basis of news reports today. She remembers growing up in a park wobbling in the muddy streams to collect toads, swinging on monkey bars and laying on the grass while trying to figure out the shape of stars. Today, the Syrian writer may be known for penning young adult fiction that may not have political overtones, but she admits her fiction is laced with social realities. "In The Planet of Absurdities, a novel that won the Katara Prize, I talked about a young girl who came to live with her aunt and uncle after she lost her parents in the Syrian war. The novel deep dives into the emotional, psychological and other challenges she faces. I Want Golden Eyes, a sci-fi novel that won the Shoman Prize, talked about an oppressed majority that was exploited by the genetically enhanced privileged minority. I also tackled addiction epidemic in my novel White Asphalt."

Dadouch also teaches writing to young Arab women and admits that the works they have come up with strongly reflect the cultures and traditions of the Arab world. How do you acquire a voice that children can relate to? Dadouch says that creative writing students at the University of California, Los Angeles, spend a while trying to master a concept called 'the voice of characters'. "A concept that I did not find a definition for in Arabic (so far), which tells the writer to create a protagonist that talks, dreams, fears, and thinks truly like the category they represent. So, when I write for children, I sweat to create a protagonist who talks and thinks like a child. If not, the target readers would not connect with him/her. It's a mission that is easier said than done. To give you an example of how hard it can be, when I was writing the chapter book series Karma Karamella, where the heroine is a naughty seven-year-old girl, I had to rewrite every sequel more than 20 times to make Karma talk and think like the little girl she was, and still not sure if I got close enough."

Dadouch says that when it comes to children's fiction, women authors are certainly more present both on shelves and as prize winners. The situation, however, is reversed in the literature targeting adults. "I was fortunate to participate and attend many of the awards that happened in the Arab World these past few years and I've made some interesting observations. In most of the awards, they had a similar men/women winners ratio. After screening the winners, I can easily confirm that only a quarter of the winning names were women. But, I'm very proud to say that the quality of some of the work of those women writers was extraordinary and, in my humble opinion, can be considered the best of the best, like Hoda Barakat, Jokha al-Harthi,Radwa Ashour, Shahla Ujayli, and Muna Shimi. That being said, there's a huge interest to join the field by Arab women. I taught a free creative writing course last month, and nearly 12,000 learners subscribed in the first course, most of whom were women. So, in that sense, yes, I think women are more present in the literary landscape in the Middle East."

Dadouch says children's fiction is also liberating in that it does away with conventions in a way adult fiction cannot. "Well, fiction is a magic wand that can turn dreams into plans, happy illusions into realities, and does not ask writers to comply with norms. It's a nice escape and a powerful tool, and I think that is exactly what draws us to this genre."

3. Shed light on issues of conflict

When Fatima Sharafeddine started writing children's fiction way back in 2004, there were fewer books for children in the region, but the silver lining was that the Arab world was becoming aware of this gap. "Writing is the only way I am able to express myself, and since I like to do so in an honest, open and simplified way, I decided to channel my writings to children," she says. "Children are very smart and you can only be successful as a writer if you are genuine in what you offer them."

Fatima, who is based in Beirut, says there is a thin line that separates children's fiction from young adult fiction. When she writes for children and young adults, for instance, she writes about their lives based on her own experiences, values and beliefs. "The difference between age groups of children (1-18) dictates the topic I choose to write about, the characters, and the way I elaborate my story. As writers for children, we need to be aware of the big responsibility in addressing them. We need to be knowledgeable of children's developmental stages at the cognitive, linguistic and emotional levels. When I tackle a sensitive issue such as death, disease or war, I have to handle my story very delicately in order to convey my idea in the most appropriate way at a psychological as well as linguistic level," says Sharafeddine.

When she writes for young adults, on the other hand, Sharafeddine says that she aims to address current issues that the particular age group is facing. "I tend to choose sociological/psychological topics from their daily life in order to help them deal with difficult issues they face as teenagers in our Arab societies. Bullying, distorted self-image, domestic violence, drug abuse, etc. In my young adult novels, I want to fulfil my readers' needs, desires, fears, dreams and interests."

The stories also reflect upon the geopolitical situation of the time. Sharafeddine rationalises that inclusion by emphasising the fact that children undergo the same experiences in societies as everyone else - be it war, immigration, disease or domestic problems. "That is why we need to address such issues in our children's stories, so that our little readers develop a better understanding of what is going on in their world. Ignorance and secrecy result in fear and insecurities; so, it is very important to shed light on issues of conflict in our stories so children can understand and, therefore, deal with them."

Fatima is also concerned about how technology has changed the way children consume fiction. "Unfortunately, in general, parents are not aware of the dangers of putting an iPad or any other form of tablet in the hands of their children (starting from the age of two, in some cases). This fact has resulted, worldwide, in children reading less than the previous generations. However, the paper book still has its charm, and wins the attention of a child once we take the time to share it with him/her." The market is not exactly unaware of their needs either. She says that parents need to encourage children to read by providing them with appropriate books, and by reading themselves. "It is hard to raise a child who loves books when the parents themselves do not read. Children do what you do, not what you say." A point well made!

Anamika Chatterjee

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Author:Anamika Chatterjee
Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Feb 7, 2020
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