Veteran Egyptian writer knows how to tell a children’s story
CAIRO- Egyptian writer Yacoub el-Sharouni has a special bond with children’s literature that has lasted nearly 70 years. During those years of writing, he has kept up with the spirit of the times, monitoring the intellectual and psychological changes in his readership so he does not become isolated from their world.
Sharouni, born in 1931, has not ceased to pace with technological changes. He created virtual worlds in which robots and spaceships get out of the control of what he called the “General Authority of the Planet Earth.”
Sharouni is a prolific writer with approximately 400 works to his credit. His career is proof that good literature always finds interested readers, provided the writer is not afraid of trying new things and remains open to international experiences in this era of the global village.
He said he adapts his writing style to suit the tastes of today’s rushed readers. Sharouni relies on large characters and concise content and enhances his stories with brightly coloured attractive illustrations that are in line with technological developments. Additionally, he uses digital media to tell his stories because that offers audiovisual tools that attract children.
His book “Ships of Forbidden Things,” for example, tells of children who steal their father’s spaceship and go on an interplanetary expedition. The fantasy world and events of the story fit well with the close relationship that new generations have with technology.
Sharouni pointed out that most members of the same family, including children, own mobile phones and use social media so it is imperative to create a connection between children and books at an early age. This is why he pays attention to the covers of his books to make sure they contain connections with modern technology.
He added that it is possible to create an emotional connection between children and books by working on the shapes of books for children. Books can, for example, take the shape of familiar possessions such as a toy car, for instance, or make them appeal to several of the child’s senses at the same time.
A simple technique, such as placing small pictures next to the words, works very well. In books based on questions and answers, book designers might consider placing the answers behind pop-up windows or behind pages that slide to reveal them.
Sharouni was the first in the Arab world to use musical books. He said he got the idea at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy. He placed buttons on the side of his adventure books that activated sounds relating to the characters and events of the stories.
Sharouni is constantly innovating in his stories. In “A Miracle in the Desert,” he anticipated a water shortage crisis and offered a scientific approach to it.
The story takes place at Al-Jara oasis, near the Egyptian-Libyan border. The residents there face the consequences of the blockage of a groundwater well. They had to manage their home water reserves, which were sufficient for only three days. In the end, the problem was solved with the help of the children.
“A Miracle in the Desert” was ranked among the most important Arab works in children’s literature. It was reprinted 17 times and won the Sheikh Zayed Prize for Children’s Literature in the Arab world in 2014. The book’s popularity among young readers has not diminished.
Sharouni often addresses issues that concern society in general, such as the role of women in development or the problem of slums around major cities. He has also written about war victories, people with disabilities and street children.
He said he regrets there is no integrated system for translating Arabic books to other languages so they can serve as intercultural communication bridges.
Sharouni’s ability to write books in genres that appeal to children everywhere enabled him to win several international awards. He was honoured by the Italian Ministry of Education for “Treasure of the Island of Mermaids” and by Germany’s Goethe Institute for “The Wonderful Journey.” In 2016, he won the prize of Best Writer of Children’s Books and his name was added to the Honour List of the Swiss International Board on Books for Young People.
Sharouni said children’s literature in the Arab world faces many challenges that hinder its development, including alarmingly high levels of illiteracy among Arabic-speaking children, Arab families’ neglect of reading for their children, lack of publishing houses specialising in children’s literature and rising book prices.
The secret of Sharouni’s longevity as a writer of children’s literature lies in the fact that he focuses on issues and problems related to the future. In “The Treasure of the Island of the Mermaids” he criticised authoritarian education and revealed its effects on children’s creative abilities. He was the first in the Arab world to raise this issue.
Sharouni said children’s literature stimulates thought and is a tool for changing reality by presenting works that combine the worlds of imagination and reality while highlighting creativity as the major tool for progress and success. He said humans, not money, should be considered humanity’s real treasure.
Sharouni’s works are equally attractive to children and adults because they deal with issues that concern families. He relies on dialogue mixed with narration to prevent monotony and he uses a polyphonic narration style so everybody has a voice and something to say in his stories.
It was perhaps this unique feature of Sharouni’s works that encouraged the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to seek his help in its Reading for All project during the 1990s. He was in charge of training and implementation of a national campaign to encourage reading under the slogan “A library everywhere” and to promote computer literacy and foreign-language learning.
Sharouni said the minds of children welcome knowledge and learning, and that desire can be exploited to instil in them the values of tolerance and acceptance of the other through literature and educational curricula.