Yesterday I attended a panel at the Sharjah Book Fair about Arabic young adult/teen writing, New Books for Emirati Teens – Meet the challenge! The panellists were Tamer Said (manager at Emirati youth publishers Kalimat), Qais Sedki (comic writer), Rhym Gazal (YA writer) and Gabi Hohm (a specialist in reading programs for young people in Germany).
In Australia and globally there has been a huge boom in writing for teens over the past fifteen years (or so?), and there is plenty of smart and sassy YA work available. (Including a new imprint from Hardie Grant that is seeking emerging novellists.)
My sense from the panel yesterday is that this boom hasn’t happened in the Arab world, and the market remains undeveloped.
Publisher Tamer Said spoke of the progress in the last decade of children’s books, and noted the success of that industry, the publication of many enjoyable books for children, and the prominent authors in the field. But teen books have seen no such progress or development.
One of the issues is that Arabic books for teens carry strong moral messages or are intended for information-giving, and thus aren’t very appealing. Said said,
Teens do not search for informaiton, they search for excitment or pleasure. Therefore teens are not really interested in ‘knowledge books’. We are facing many challenges as authors and publishers because we are sticking to the traditional way and not meeting the expectations of teens. This age group reads through phones, tv, Facebook but they are not interested in books. As publishers we have not provided them with the books they want.
Sedki agreed, talking about creating books with identifiable characters, teen issues, and that have a ‘cool factor’:
Children want a story and characters that are bought to lif. They are not searching for information, they want enjoyment and suspense. Teens are only interested in being cool or not cool. If they think reading is daggy they won’t read and will find it embarrassing.
Authors need to be aware of their audience and the characteristics of the age group they write for. Teens live unstable lives, they have many concerns, and has many questions about where they belong. Authors don’t need to address this directly, but when the content tackles teen issues, it brings satisfaction to the reader by conveying emotions and feelings.
On this topic, Saudi writer Rhym Ghazal agreed, noting the importance of developing local characters and books. She spoke about the crisis of growing up reading English books and watching American movies, and how young people need heroes that they can identify with, characters like them, living in their region. She spoke about the first book she loved, a banned title that was smuggled in from Lebanon and passed around her friends because it contained a kiss.
“It was the first Arabic book I read with passion,” she said, noting that publishers and parents shouldn’t forbid or censor anything in books (a problem in the conservative region). Rather, as Sedki pointed out, the issues need to excite and entice readers. “I will always remember and love that experience of reading that book,” she says. (All the women in the audience cheered when she mentioned the title!)
There was talk about respecting the mental and emotional ages of teens, not talking down to them but writing about things they care about. It was noted that teens often understand things about themselves and their peers that the adult writers don’t get, causing a disconnection. Other times the point of view is lectured rather than writing with empathy and honest about the problems teens face. (Books with strong moral tales seem to be big here – not the best reading mate!)
Gabby Hohm spoke about finding ways to connect teens with books, including programs she runs in Germany.
“When they become teens they have different interests and problems so you need to find a way to interest them and emotionally engage them,” she said. She also spoke about reaching them where they hang out. “Bring books and tv together, computers, games and books together, run interesting writing competitions, use celebrities and most of all, find the right books.”
However in the UAE I get the sense that the market isn’t even at a point where it can generate good reading programs and marketing; there simply aren’t the right books being written and certainly not published.
An audience member asked if ebooks could be an answer to the ‘dag factor’ of reading. Interestingly, both Said and Sedki agreed that ebooks might help but that they are an accompaniment to print still, not the solution in itself. But visual design and cover are both very important factors in making something cool – perhaps as important as the content, even.
There was also a lot of discussion about starting teens on the reading path early, and getting parents to read to kids from when they are babies. Good early memories of reading will lead to good reading habits that are likely to continue into the teenage years and adulthood. Sedki in particular spoke passionately about the need to create excitment when reading to children, not doing it in monotone, and there was a discussion about whether there should be book-reading training for parents available.
There was a big audience and discussion at the panel was broad-ranging, indepth and passionate. However, at the end there was a fitting reminder from Sedki about the fact they were speaking among a literary audience, and that a key challenge is creating a critical reading mass. Vitally, writers and publishers need to figure out ways to take the conversation – and the books! – to a wide audience.
In terms of publisher YA, the challenges the UAE face are different to what publishers in the Western world face (especially around sensitive/restricted topics – which are the topics teens might want to read about most!) but I wonder if the UAE are on the verge of a teen writing explosion. I’ll look forward to seeing how the sector develops!