Wednesday January 16, 2019 By: Kismat Mokhtar
While cultures and traditions of immigrants in the west are easier to preserve, their heritage languages become more challenging for the new generations to learn, even when spoken at home; Arab Americans are no exception. Despite their immersion in the culture, the efforts by Arab American parents to teach Arabic to their children are often wasted. The influence of school, friends and life outside the house is stronger. As children grow older, they become recipients of the language. They would understand it when spoken to, but would respond in English. “When my parents raised my siblings and I in the States, they put effort into teaching us Arabic. We attended Sunday school and spoke – limited – Arabic at home. But, something that was completely missing was Arabic children’s books,” says Dina Elabd, founder of Arabic Book A Month (ABAM); which as the name suggests, is a monthly Arabic books subscription package. Books are sent to subscribers to introduce and teach children the Arabic language.
Arabic schools are not available or easily accessible in all communities in the US. With the availability of the internet and satellite dishes, it became easier for today’s children to improve their linguistic skills. But with the lack of proper educational material, learning to read and write Arabic is still a challenge to many, especially with the limited access to Arabic children’s books in the US. Alabd witnessed firsthand the challenges her parents encountered to find her and her siblings Arabic books when they were growing up. “I loved reading, but the only books I read were Dr. Seus, Harry Potter, and many more irresistible English stories, which led me to have an incredibly strong base in English. My Arabic, until today, does not compete,” she explained.
As a children’s author and critic, Elabd has been working with children’s books for years. With her experience in this field, her friends and family living in non-Arabic-speaking countries have always asked her to recommend good books for their kids, and where to buy them. “I would recommend books, but I always felt that unless those books came straight to their front door, they wouldn’t buy them.” And that’s how the idea of ABAM was born, “to precisely respond to this problem,” Elabd added.
In October 2018, she launched her project. With a minimum monthly fee, children receive a monthly package of Arabic books, “delivered to their doorstep.” The books target 3 age groups; 0-3, 4-7 and 8-12 years old. ABAM team carefully evaluate and select the book appropriate for the children’s age and level. The program offers several plans for the parents to choose from. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to buying books for underprivileged children worldwide.
To help parents choose the books, Elabd provides book reviews. She also sheds light on the “good” books available, and how to select a good book. “Choosing good children’s books can be tricky. Not many parents have the time to read and evaluate the books their children read, but they all want to make sure their children read good books.”
Elabd focuses mainly on promoting Arabic books. She believes that people don’t read Arabic books because they “cannot find fun and exciting ones,” which means that people will eventually lose mastery of the Arabic language and culture. “I’ve seen the popularity of English books especially amongst Arabic speakers. Personally, I am one of those people who grew up with a lack of Arabic children’s books and an abundance of English ones. I have had to work especially hard now that I’m older to strengthen my Arabic.”
Within 3 months since its launch, ABAM has gained wide popularity. Elabd is pleased to see more parents investing in their children’s Arabic education. Currently, the project is primarily operating in the US, to help Arabic speaking parents who live in non-Arabic speaking countries find books for their children. Elabd hopes to bring this project to Egypt soon.
Dina Elabd is a children’s author and critic. For over ten years, she has worked in children’s book publishing, presented at conferences, and contributed to the production of over 35 books and magazines. Dina has also completed a Masters of Education at the University of Cambridge specializing in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature. In 2017, Dina led a one-million-dollar project with Room to Read, to publish 20 quality Arabic children’s books in Jordan, which were printed into 600,000 copies and distributed for free to underprivileged and refugee children.
Dina has published three children’s books, with her fourth coming out soon. Her titles include Melouq; The Lion that Dressed as a Sheep; The Magic Palm; and Mila, The Beautiful Cat.
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