Children’s literature in the Arab world doesn’t get the attention it deserves as a subject of academic research, says Yasmine Motawy, a faculty member whose scholarship in this field was recently honoured by the American University in Cairo.
Besides her work as a senior instructor in the university’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition, Motawy has been studying children’s literature for years as a critic, translator, editor, and creative writing trainer.
She has served as a jury member for prominent children’s literature awards, such as the Hans Christian Andersen Award (2016-2018) and the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in the United Arab Emirates.
The American University in Cairo chose her as one of several faculty members to honour during its spring commencement activities, presenting her with its Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Endeavors.
The award recognises the years of research that went into her book “Stillness Between the Waves: Children’s Picture Books and Contemporary Egyptian Society”, which was published last year by Al-Balsam Publishing House in Cairo.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Motawy said the award represents a recognition of the importance of children’s literature as a soft power.
“AUC’s interest in children’s literature, despite the lack of specialisation in it, is wonderful,” she said. “It has an impact on education and general culture.”
Children’s Books as a Cultural Mirror
“There is a big gap between research in children’s literature, and the direct work with children by teachers, parents, publishers, artistic producers and institutional work.”Yasmine Motawy Egyptian scholar and critic.
Motawy’s book “Stillness Between the Waves” analyses a remarkable new wave of picture books for children that have been published over the past two decades. She digs into what these books say about society and its values, and places them within a broader historical and semantic framework.
“A few years before I started my Ph.D. studies, in 2008, children’s literature in the Arab world witnessed a great renaissance,” she said. “That was a result of the coincidence of many social and political factors that I address in my book.”
It was clear that the children’s literature scene in Egypt was at a “turning point” in terms of quantity, quality, support, and interest, she said. This ignited in her the enthusiasm to be part of shaping the future of this field.
Writing the book posed many challenges, Motawy said.
There were studies that categorised and counted children’s books, and encouraging journalistic reviews of this literature. Yet she felt that the scene needed a “critical review that deals with children’s books as an important cultural and educational product—that is written, published and read in an economic, historical, political, and artistic context, which influences contemporary culture and is influenced by it.
“This can enable us to view the scene and talk about it in a broad, new way, opening doors, asking questions, and creating a movement of praiseworthy impact.”
A Gap between Research and Institutional Work
From her vantage point as an academic, author and awards juror, Motawy talks about the reality of children’s literature in the Arab world.
“It is not seen as something with a direct relationship with the rest of the humanities,” she said. “There is a big gap between research in children’s literature, and the direct work with children by teachers, parents, publishers, art producers and institutional work.”
To change that, Motawy wants to contribute to research documenting this defining moment in children’s literature, and placing it in its socio-political context in Egypt and the Arab world.
In order to give more attention to children’s literature in the Arab publishing market, she calls for cooperation with Arab governments in order to “encourage the production of high-quality, intellectual books that can help create an informed reader, able to focus on rich texts that enhance their aesthetic, moral, critical and linguistic sense.”
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Motawy was herself an avid reader of children’s literature in her childhood.
“At a time when all these tempting digital means were away from children’s attention, my father used to read me a story called ‘Maarouf, the Shoemaker’,” she said. “I loved it very much. I still remember some of the story’s sentences and vocabulary to this day.”
- Series Brings Alive Classical Arabic Texts for Young Readers
- Arab Comics: Fit for Academic Exploration
- Why Don’t Arabs Read?
- Getting Books Into the Hands of Arab Readers
- Alia Muhammad Baqer, Savior of Basra Library’s Books, Dies at 69