Categorized | For the love of books

An Emirati children’s book author talks about the importance of supporting literacy

Posted on 30 January 2012 by Alice

By Alice Johnson

Published in The National, 30 January, 2012

The Sharjah-born writer Nadia Saleem Al Kalbani decided from the beginning of her career that her children’s book characters would display human emotions. Existing children’s books place too much emphasis on “direct advice and educational direction”, she said.

“I love honesty in writing and I love humane writing,” she said.

Her book A Sweet Word features a young man who expresses his joys and fears by writing them down on small pieces of paper that he hides inside his pocket. According to Al Kalbani, these words become the man’s “road map, which leads him to live his life in harmony with his neighbours – the inhabitants of the Earth”.

Illustrations in her book are kept very simple for her young readership.

“I wanted to give children something different, something noble but entertaining and effective – and at the same time something that is humane,” she said. “My characters are not ideal and they are not angels; they make mistakes and get frustrated at times.”

Al Kalbani was one of two Emirati writers longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for children’s literature, although she was not on the shortlist when it was announced last week. She said the nomination alone made her feel successful and that she’s grateful for the opportunity to showcase her work to a wider audience.

“Writers should not write aiming to win a prize – the prize will come to honour and encourage [writers]. The prize or nomination is a confirmation to tell you, ‘Yes, I read your book. Thank you, I enjoyed it’.”

A Sweet Word - book cover

Al Kalbani’s book – her first – was published in March 2011 and all copies were distributed by hand to young people, at no cost.

“I don’t consider writing a job – I don’t get paid for my writing and I don’t work for anyone,” the author said, adding that she draws full-time as well. She also organises workshops related to children’s literacy, some of which are supported by government entities.

As a young writer, Al Kalbani used to find inspiration in the phrases others had written on the walls of the old quarters of the UAE. While no one in her family directly encouraged her to write children’s stories, her longlisted work was, according to her, “originally presented to the soul of my father and the heart of my mother.

“When I wrote, they stood by me and read my writing and were happy for me. I believe that our journey through life in the company of our families plays a big role in forming the person we turn out to be,” she said.

Promoting literacy among children is something she feels passionately about. In her opinion, books are too expensive, so a non-profit company that will print, publish, translate and distribute children’s books at nominal prices should be established.

“This company would aim to encourage a love of reading – reading in actual fact is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” she said.

“This project is for human development and it needs authors, painters and translators who don’t aim to make money from children’s books – it’s the right of each young and small palm to have a book,” she said.

Although A Sweet Word is aimed at readers age 12 and above, the work’s strapline is “Thoughts for children … young and old”.

The work, Al Kalbani said, is dedicated to “childhood, wherever it is.

“Childhood could be in the heart of an old man, a passing scene in life or a sweet poem. I would like to imagine that my small book might wake up the child in us.”


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