Children’s literature: a new chapter

With their dark and dystopian visions of the future, writers such as Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth are breathing new life into the genre of children’s literature and capturing the imaginations of millions. Their popularity reflects a remarkable resurgence in the market for books for young people around the world. 

Recent years have seen an explosion in literature for children and young people. Hugely popular series such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent, are both evidence of a revival in a form that for many years was thought of as a niche genre.

“We have seen a significant development in children’s literature all over the world,” explains Ahmad Redza bin Ahmad Khairuddin, President of the International Board on Books for Young People. “It’s a healthy trend that is increasing the number of readers. Many countries are involved in the promotion of reading at school, encouraging children to read and write, and engaging publishers, illustrators and writers to create colourful, multicultural books in their local language to meet market demand.”

Fantasy trilogy

The indisputable new occupant of the fantasy throne, once the reserve of JK Rowling, is Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games books. The trilogy – a dark vision of the future, in which children wage life-or-death battles against one another in a twisted reality show – has spent more than 180 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It has been translated into 50 languages and has sold in more than 55 territories. “It’s difficult to put children in violent situations – characters will die,” says Collins. “You have to remember who you’re trying to reach.”

Like The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent is set in a fictional dystopia, this time one in which a girl must prove her worth in a hostile Chicago divided into factions. Other stars of children’s literature include Rick Riordan with his Percy Jackson books, which feature a high-school teenager who finds out that he is the son of the Greek god Poseidon, and RJ Palacio, whose Wonder is about a boy with a facial deformity. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, told from the perspective of an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy, has also hit a nerve with young readers, as has Adam Gidwitz, with his retellings of classic Brothers Grimm fairytales. The resurgence in books for children is not restricted to fiction either: picture books are also becoming popular again. “Beautiful, lavishly illustrated picture books, and picture books with a hip/retro feel that capture the creators’ nostalgia and memories, are making a comeback,” says Kira Lynn, Publisher at Kane Miller Books.

Arabic books

In the Middle East, local literature written for children in Arabic is flourishing. One of the most successful and entertaining stories of the moment has emerged from the pen of Maitha Al Khayat. In Tareeqati Al Khassa: My Own Special Way, the writer found an amusing way of encouraging her sister to wear the hijab, as the little girl was reluctant to cover her hair like the other women in her family. Her book, awarded a best children’s book prize by the Riyadh-based International Forum on Children’s Education and Development, is a fun collection of stories about the different, fashionable ways to wear the hijab, where the indecisive protagonist chooses her own “special way” of dressing. “When I became a mother, I could not find good-quality Arabic books,” says the author. “They were not attractive and they focused on preaching to children rather than entertaining them. So I decided to write about us, our beliefs and our traditions, in a non-preaching, exciting way.”

Other Emiratis are following her lead. Another of the Gulf’s most-admired children’s literature authors is Noura Al Noman, whose sci-fi novel Ajwan is about a girl who breathes water. Manga comic books in Arabic are also making an appearance on children’s bedside tables. Qais Sedki’s Gold Ring comic book has attracted a great deal of international attention since it won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2010.

Linda Davies, considered to be the next JK Rowling, is a major success in this part of the world. In her Djinn books, the writer plays with the magic of Middle Eastern culture to create thrilling adventures that grab children’s attention. “Djinn are magical creatures written about in the Qur’an,” she says. “Djinn can be good or evil. They can shape-shift and assume human, animal or inanimate form.” It will not be long before we see Davies’ djinn at cinemas, as she has recently inked a Hollywood deal to bring the extraordinary magic of her books to the big screen.

UAE investment

The children’s literature scene in the UAE is experiencing something of a boom, with prizes such as the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature celebrating its fourth year at the Sharjah International Book Fair. The award is an opportunity for authors, illustrators and publishers from any country to nourish libraries in the Arab world with their stories, drawings and imaginations. It is also one of the most lucrative Arab literature awards in the Middle East, with a prize of Dh1m (US$270,000). “I believe that children’s literature is the most significant tool available for preserving national identity, tradition, culture and heritage, and is the ultimate resource to bridge the gap between cultures and civilisations,” says Her Excellency Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, President of the UAE Board on Books for Young People, which organises the award.

The UAE is also investing heavily in nurturing a culture of reading among its school population. The Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition, run as part of the 2012 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, has encouraged young Emiratis to submit creative writing.

This modern-day renaissance in children’s literature, which encourages young people to read and write while learning more about their own cultures and those of other nations, has to be a cause for celebration the world over.