One for the books: Sharjah Children's Reading Festival

The recent Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF) was a multi-pronged effort to encourage reading and creative writing in children, in a place where parents often tell their kids to concentrate on studies and not get ‘distracted’ by reading and writing

Asli hai, asli hai, it’s a real dinosaur!” squeals a wide-eyed little boy, trying in vain to tug his older sister away from one of six animatronic models that are on hire from London’s Natural History Museum. The mechanical T-Rex silences him with a roar before getting back to the business of sinking its razor sharp teeth into its fallen prey, a hapless Triceratops.

Well, I am back. Children are all wide-eyed at one of the models on display at the Festival
YOU THINK I AM EXTINCT? Well, I am back. Children are all wide-eyed at one of the models on display at the Festival

Palm wrapped firmly around her brother’s hand, the girl sees me smiling and draws closer. “I know you,” she says, “Anjana ma’am, right? I’ve read your books. Can I ask you something? I’ve been writing for years now but it’s very hard to get published and I was wondering what you think of online publishing.” She is 14.

OPENING WINDOWS OF THE MIND: Children walk through the aisles of books
OPENING WINDOWS OF THE MIND: Children walk through the aisles of books

Writing for years? I suspect the look on my face at the discovery is much like the expression her eight-year-old brother wears as he gawks at the hatching eggs in the Oviraptor display. The girl continues to impress with details about a book she’s working on, and a host of intelligent questions about indie publishing and royalties as we make our way through the exposition. We go past a woman handing out child cancer awareness pamphlets (with signs to look for which, aside from lumps included symptoms like fatigue, persistent pain, fever or nausea, this was quite an eye-opener) and a stall on ecological awareness, to her father who’s attending a workshop on the area labelled Chef’s Street. But her enthusiasm extinguishes quickly as we turn towards Cookery Corner and she whispers, “Please don’t tell my father any of this. My parents feel that my love for reading and writing distracts me from my studies.”

Sara Tyson, Canadian illustrator and graphic designer conducting an art workshop at the SCRF. Incidentally, Tyson served on the Festival jury last year
THIS TYSON PACKS AN ARTY PUNCH: Sara Tyson, Canadian illustrator and graphic designer conducting an art workshop at the SCRF. Incidentally, Tyson served on the Festival jury last year

The girl’s story was one I would hear from many of the enthusiastic boys and girls at the schools I would visit in Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman and Ras al Khaimah. Disturbing as that was, it was interesting to note that with a large population from literate South India, there was at least no gender discrimination; girls and boys were both encouraged to concentrate on Math and Science. It should also be pointed out that educators (one I met at Sharjah’s St Gregorios Orthodox Church, M Pothen, has authored a book titled, ‘Where monsoon never ends’, a poignant tale of love and forgiveness set on the backdrop of the Naxal movement in Kerala) had come up with some very impressive schemes to encourage reading and creative writing.

HAVE YOU DONE YOUR GOOD READ FOR THE DAY? Anjana Vaswani (centre) talking to a student at a special assembly at Al Ameer English School, Ajman
HAVE YOU DONE YOUR GOOD READ FOR THE DAY? Anjana Vaswani (centre) talking to a student at a special assembly at Al Ameer English School, Ajman 

But, it seems possible that the line-up of the 11-day festival which had over 120 publishers showcasing their books, may have been based on a consideration of parents’ attitudes. Reflecting on his thoughts about the experience, award-winning Australian author Tohby Riddle (his new book titled The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar presents the fundamentals of English grammar as visual information based on the idea that pictures are remembered better than words) writes, “I found the Sharjah Children's Reading Festival (SCRF) to be an intriguing and comprehensive event: part publisher fair, part academic symposium, part literature festival, and part educational expo. It appeared to be an event for both adults and children, and authors and publishers.”

The emphasis that parents lay on Math and Science may well be the reason why Science sessions were slotted among art workshops, book readings and creative writing workshops -- Dr Tibor Hegedus, a Hungarian astrophysicist, for instance, was among many scientists invited here to make science fun. If so, it’s a laudable strategy: Give parents sufficient reasons to bring their children and with a little luck parents may just leave with a new perspective on reading too.

Riddle, who had five events at the festival, which were a panel session on children’s literature criticism, a session with school children and three visits to schools in Ajman, Dubai and Sharjah, also felt, “In Sharjah at least, it seems that there is a sincere determination to develop children’s literature of their own, and to match the quality of children’s publishing elsewhere. The Festival is playing a large role in nourishing the literary culture needed to produce these outcomes. Much of the Arab-language literature on exhibition was of a non-fiction, educational nature, so there seemed to be much scope for developing and increasing the amount of literary content. Going by an exhibition of illustrations at the expo, which included at least one UAE artist, the signs are really promising that this can be done well.”

As we celebrate that, one can’t help but wonder how many children here in India are also discouraged from appreciating art and literature. Without a government similarly driven to do what it takes to develop a love for these, the scenario is a little depressing.

At breakfast one morning I had the opportunity to discuss this with Nicola Morgan, award-winning Scottish author who writes not just edge-of-your-seat thrillers for young adults but also books on teenage brain chemistry (her latest title: The Teenage Guide to Stress).

Here to talk to kids about how their brains develop, Morgan highlighted how important it was for parents to understand the transformative power of reading, its potential to generate empathy in children and its myriad psychological benefits, (numerous studies have shown that reading boosts self-esteem, improves brain connectivity and function) which, do in fact translate into an overall improvement in the academic performance of kids. But until the dinosaurs that roam among us realise this, it’s certainly not a bad idea to use animatronics to steer people to books.

Other crowd-pullers at the festival included performances by child-star Nour, daughter of a celebrated local musician, and a designated ‘Diaries of a Wimpy Kid’ area, where children were entertained with activities like The Wimpy Kid draw-along and quizzes as well as exclusive footage of author Jeff Kinney talking about the books, his involvement in the films and how he draws the characters. The art gallery was a major attraction with people lining up to see Malaysia’s Wen Dee Tan's award-winning illustration of the girl with the red-hot hair, Japan’s Junko Nagano’s intricate etchings, and the intelligent artistic interpretations of Canadian, Sara Tyson.

Explaining that her acrylic paintings can take upwards of 30 hours to complete, Tyson shows us one, the image of a moustached split-face topped with two bowler hats -- that was commissioned by Strategic Finance Magazine for the topic, ‘Small Company CFOs: Strategic Partners or Scorekeepers?’ The article, she says, “was about the new roles that emerge for CFOs operating as strategic partners and trusted collaborators with CEOs and I wanted to illustrate the relationship between the CEO and the CFO as a partnership, two businessmen becoming one.”

Authors, this writer included, were almost completely unanimous in the view that the highlight of the festival was the enthusiastic response we received from the children we met. Visiting from the UK, John Dougherty whose much-loved Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series was initially inspired by the names his kids called each other, says, “Both schools I visited were incredibly welcoming; the staff was lovely and the children were a fantastically receptive audience. In one school, even when there was a power cut and I had to do half the event in the gloom of a hall with no windows, no electric lights and no amplification, the children listened and responded wonderfully.” They would though. Dougherty’s presentation, the festival organisers tell us, is quite a party, complete with songs and lots of laughs.

Though there were a few hiccups - many of us, including the visiting scientists, found ourselves before audiences that were either much younger or older than we were expecting, which made interactions very interesting but meant extemporising, the organisers went out of their way to see that guests were very well looked after. A welcome kit handed to each SCRF guest at the hotel spelled out details of workshops and events, including daily social events such as group trips to the Museum of Islamic Architecture or the Sharjah Biennial (this meant visiting the ‘heritage’ area, a title that amused many of us when we discovered that the oldest structure there is no more than 50 years- old) dinner in the desert and an after-hours tour of the aquarium.

On my last night there, just as we lined up for an impromptu shadow puppet performance Anne from Mexico decided to treat us to in the hotel lobby after dinner, Dougherty joked that it would be hard to get back to doing things for ourselves after all this pampering. At the time of going to press, he emailed to say, “I’ve being doing that very British thing of completely failing at Do It Yourself (DIY) during a public holiday, the toilet has stopped flushing, and I have to work out how to fix it. Very much back to reality!” So it is, for all of us.

The writer received an award for the Best International Children’s Book (for ages 7-13) at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival for a compilation of re-imagined Indian folktales titled, ‘The Talking Handkerchief’ published by Mango Books, the children’s imprint of D C Books.

Anima... whatizzit?

Animatronic: Relating to, or being a puppet or similar figure that is animated by means of electromechanical devices.
Oviraptor: is a genus of small Mongolian dinosaurs. The name is Latin for ‘egg taker’ or ‘egg seizer’.

There was a smorgasbord of writers, publishers, educators and at the festival. Some of these were:

>> Barbara McClintock: The winner of five New York Times Best Books awards, Barbara had several discussions and workshops at schools in Sharjah. "My grandfather's coat," a book she worked on the illustrations for, has just been awarded the 2015 gold medal at the Sydney Taylor Book Awards.

Muneera Al Eidan, a reporter and author from Kuwait was in Sharjah to examine what could be done to develop the literary market in Kuwait.

 Secunderabad-based Chef Puneet Mehta, a finalist in Master Chef India's Season 2, gave everyone a taste of proud Punjabi enthusiasm with the traditional recipes he cooked and served at the Cookery Corner.

 Tulika's Sowmya Rajendran had a jam-packed few days in Sharjah, juggling workshops at different schools.

 UK-based educator and author Rachel Hamilton, best known for her detective series,  had a line-up of talks at various schools.

 Dubai-based but Cordon Bleu-trained Chef Andrew Stephan Mitchell taught kids a bunch of fun, easy-to-make recipes like dry-fruit truffles.

 Egyptian writer and psychologist Dr Abeer Muhammad Anwar received an award. She simplifies the principles of dealing with mental disabilities and uses these in children’s story books to teach kids how to respond to people thus afflicted.

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