Memories of a GLLI Intern: Must-Read Children’s & YA Books from the Middle East and North Africa (Part 3) – by Nneka Mogbo

For children’s translated literature, I attempted targeting Arabic as an original language, which significantly limited the pool of children’s writers. This was disheartening for me. In my previous post, I discussed the Royal Diaries series, a historic fiction depiction of diaries from the point of views of real-life princesses. My love for Princess Nzingha of Angola offered an alternative narrative of womanhood and femininity. For youth readers, this makes it harder to increase reading culture and literacy rates in certain countries.

The lack of Arab children’s books has not gone unnoticed. Presses like the first publishing house in the United Arab Emirates, Kalimat Publishing and Distribution, are committed to publishing more picture books, baby books, concept books and fables.

Fatima Sharafeddine’s works are well-represented on this children’s list. She self-translates her works into English, and she is dedicated to children and young adult literature. Sharafeddine was born in Lebanon but grew up in Sierra Leone until the age of six, later attending the Lebanese American University and studying Early Childhood Education. Eventually, she moved to the United States where she received her master’s degree in Modern Arabic Literature, another master’s degree in Educational Theory and Practice, and taught at Rice University before moving to Belgium with her husband and children.

  • Mimi’s Hair written by Fatima Sharafeddine and illustrated by Rasha Mounib alHakim (translated from Arabic by Fatima Sharafeddine)

Mimi hates her curly hair and wishes she had straight, silky hair – just like princesses in stories and mermaids in the sea. Her friend Fatima has the sort of hair Mimi wants! If only she could get a hair straightener but her mum says no.

But what happens when Mimi dreams her hair is straight?

  • Mimi and Her Busy Mum written by Fatima Sharafeddine and illustrated by Rasha Mounib alHakim (translated from Arabic by Fatima Sharafeddine)

Mimi’s mom is a very busy pediatrician who doesn’t get to spend enough time with Mimi. Whenever she does, she feels tired and Mimi gets upset. Mimi then demands she leaves her job to have all the energy for her all day and therefore, her mother decides to take the day off and make it a special fun day for Mimi. Part of this day is to visit mom’s clinic for Mimi to understand and see where mom works. Mimi feels proud of her mom and wishes to become like her when she grows up. Mimi and her Busy Mom is a story about a common feeling children have towards their parents and how a parent could deal with it delicately. The story also suggests exposing the child to the parent’s work place in order not to feel alienated and distant from their world.

  • The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine (translated from Arabic by Fatima Sharafeddine)

Faten is a mere 15 when she first makes the long trip from her mountain village to Beirut, where her father has arranged for her to work as a maid to help the family make ends meet. For two years, she does nothing but work, keeping none of the money she earns and getting only a few hours per week to herself. Dissatisfied with this life, Faten longs to go to university to become a nurse. Eventually, she makes contact with Marwan, a handsome neighbor who helps her to arrange to take the exams she’ll need to get into college. But when she sneaks away to take the first of the tests, she is caught and fired from her job. Chastened, Faten returns to her village, where she must try to secure her father’s understanding, or at least forgiveness, and make her way back to Beirut to pursue her dream. Sharafeddine tells the story in a deliberate, third-person, present-tense voice, creating a narrative with an old-fashioned, rather formal feel and a clear preference for women’s self-determination and independence.

  • Mimi and the Piano written by Fatima Sharafeddine and illustrated by Rasha Mounib alHakim (translated from Arabic by Fatima Sharafeddine)

Mimi’s learning the piano – which is exciting! But it’s really hard, much more difficult than she thought it would be and she really wants to give up. Can her mum and teacher convince her to carry on?

Will Mimi learn the piano in time for the school concert?

  • Mimi in Paris by Fatima Sharafeddine (translated from Arabic by Fatima Sharafeddine)

When Mimi and her family visit Paris they have a lovely time. They explore famous places and eat delicious food. But when Mimi goes to feed the pigeons she gets lost!
How will Mimi find her family in a city full of strangers?

Zeina Abirached was born in Beirut in the middle of the civil war. She studied graphic arts in Lebanon, but moved to Paris in 2004, where she attended the National School of Decorative Arts. Her graphic novels recount her experiences during the civil war, when she was a child.

  • I Remember Beirut written and illustrated by Zeina Abirached (translated from French by Edward Gauvin)

Born in 1981, Abirached grew up surrounded by the realities of war: Her family’s home was close to the demarcation line between East and West Beirut. In her earlier graphic memoir, A Game for Swallows (2012), she focused on a single evening when she and her brother anxiously awaited their parents’ return. In this follow-up, Abirached takes inspiration from French experimental writer and filmmaker Georges Perec and forgoes a traditional narrative structure in favor of a catalog of childhood memories, almost all beginning with “I remember.” Her memories juxtapose mundane details, such as the “tchic” sound that cassette tapes made when shaken and the three layers that made up old KitKat wrappers, with haunting reminders of wartime, such as her brother’s shrapnel collection and the bullet holes in the family car. The black-and-white illustrations and inventive layouts ably convey the contrasts of the text. Abirached does not use tones or shading, but her ornate patterns soften the stark contrasts created by her bold lines and her frequent use of black to fill negative space. Taken together, her many memories create a distinct sense of time, place and emotion.

  • A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return written and illustrated by Zeina Abirached (translated from French by Edward Gauvin)

When Zeina was born, the civil war in Lebanon had been going on for six years, so it’s just a normal part of life for her and her parents and little brother. The city of Beirut is cut in two by bricks and sandbags, threatened by snipers and shelling. East Beirut is for Christians, and West Beirut is for Muslims. When Zeina’s parents don’t return from a visit to the other half of the city, and the bombing grows ever closer, the neighbors in her apartment house create a world indoors for Zeina and her brother, where they can share cooking lessons and games and gossip. Together they try to make it through a dramatic evening in the one place they hoped they would always be safe at home.

Salima Ikram is a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. She is a field archaeologist and author of several books on Egyptian archaeology. Her interest in Egyptology was sparked after a visit to Egypt at the age of nine.

  • Fun Things to Do with Dead Animals: Egyptology, Ruins, My Life by Salima Ikram (translated from Arabic by Eden Unger Bowditch)

A wry look at life for the embarrassed son of an over-the-top Egyptologist.

Life can be a challenge when your mother gives your friends dead mice in your birthday goody bags and offers to mummify your class pet bunny. Amun Ra (yes, like the Egyptian god) shares the story of his endlessly embarrassing and unconventional life with his Mummy, the famous Egyptologist, Amilas Marquis. He regales his readers with adventures of crossing continents, of narrow escapes with stolen artifacts, of death defying run-ins with scorpions, not to mention the humiliation in the face of his peers, with his mother’s graphic stories of ancient rites and severed body parts. Along the way, he shares his knowledge about ancient Egypt and the modern Middle East, as well as Europe and North America.

Saud Alsanoussi is an award-winning Kuwaiti novelist and journalist. He published his debut novel The Prisoner of Mirrors in 2010 which earned the Leila Othman Prize. Alongside his novels, he writes for various Kuwaitis newspapers and magazines such as Al-Qabas. He uses his text to appeal to humanitarianism and immigration.

  • Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanoussi (translated from Arabic by Johnathan Wright)

Josephine escapes poverty by coming to Kuwait from the Philippines to work as a maid, where she meets Rashid, an idealistic only son with literary aspirations. Josephine, with all the wide-eyed naivete of youth, believes she has found true love. But when she becomes pregnant, and with the rumble of war growing ever louder, Rashid bows to family and social pressure and sends her back home with her baby son, Jos. Brought up struggling with his dual identity, Jos clings to the hope of returning to his father’s country when he is 18. He is ill prepared to plunge headfirst into a world where the fear of tyrants and dictators is nothing compared to the fear of what will people say. And with a Filipino face, a Kuwaiti passport, an Arab surname, and a Christian first name, will his father’s country welcome him? The Bamboo Stalk takes an unflinching look at the lives of foreign workers in Arab countries and confronts the universal problems of identity, race, and religion.

Ahlam Bsharat is a Palestinian author from the small town of Tamoon in the Northern Valley of Palestine. She is determined to write about Palestinian identity, and insists on presenting the image of the Palestinian child beyond heroism.

  • Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat (translated from Arabic by Nancy Roberts)

With irony and poignant teenage idealism, Butterfly draws us into her world of adult hypocrisy, sibling rivalries, girlfriends’ power plays, unrequited love…not to mention the political tension of life under occupation. As she observes her fragile environment with all its conflicts, Butterfly is compelled to question everything around her. Is her father a collaborator for the occupiers? Will Nizar ever give her the sign she’s waiting for? How will her friendship with the activist Mays and the airhead Haya survive the unpredictable storms ahead? And why is ‘honour’ such a dangerous word, anyway?

A well-written and thoughtful attempt to tease out the complex inner life of a Palestinian girl as she interacts with her family and friends within the context of military occupation and economic exploitation. The narrative moves smoothly and the translation catches the psychological nuance of the original beautifully. Highly recommended not just for teenagers and young adults but for readers of all ages for a glimpse of everyday existence in Occupied Palestine.


This concludes my three-part series. I would like to thank Dr. Rostan, Rachel Hildebrandt and GLLI for letting a bright-eyed college student experience the world of literature from a new angle. Most importantly, thank you to the great authors, writers, illustrators and publishers who challenge our minds and connect us with every word.

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