Cartoonist Walid Taher has just celebrated the release of his artwork for children Vokalimat. This is a board game designed to teach Arabic words “the fun way” for children in bilingual contexts. The game came out in October by Daradam, a French publishing house dedicated to creating educational games and toys highlighting the cultural heritage of the Arab world.
Vokalimat is the most recent collaboration between Taher and European publishers who cater essentially for children’s books.
Other collaborations, during the past two years, included the publication of short-story books for children with extracts from the poetry of Salah Jahine, Sayed Hegab and others. Taher was in charge of the drawings.
“It has been a fascinating experience because I was helping to take the beautiful words of these poets to children of the world in different languages; and it really shows that beautiful ideas can easily cross borders – especially when we talk about children,” Taher said.
For Taher, who has been in the business of drawing for children for some 25 years, this experience has been “particularly rewarding.”
As a child in Egypt’s 1970s, Taher consumed much of the translations of foreign children’s stories and cartoons. “This was the majority of whatever was there to read or watch – with some few exceptions of course that were produced and tailored for Egyptian children but that were not necessarily as promoted or as beautifully presented,” he said.
It was therefore “a delightful exercise” to work on getting children at the northern end of the Mediterranean to consume the artwork of Egyptian poets and an Egyptian cartoonist. “We can give as much as we have been taking and maybe much more; we do have a lot to give,” he said.
Taher’s work that has come out in French, English and German might have in part been dedicated to children of Arab backgrounds or of mixed Arab-European cultures. But it was not just that at all because his work with the French publishing business of Le port a jauni (Dar Al-Minaa Al-Asfar, or The Yellow Port), including the poems of Jahine and Hegab and other short stories that he himself wrote and drew, like La maison pleine (The Full House, or Al-Beit Al-Kamel), delving into the diverse ideas of what makes a perfect or imperfect house for children, had attracted attention “way beyond the bilingual context.”
“Children are attracted to interesting ideas – ideas that challenge their minds and gets along with their endless creativity; this is an attraction that is basically universal,” Taher argued.
However, as a cartoonist in Egypt, where he had worked with several publishing houses for years and produced well-received and awarded books, Taher felt “maybe a bit more constraint in formulating the ideas into drawings and colours.”
Often enough, especially in the early years of his work, Taher was almost discouraged to go along with his wish to experiment. He had to explain why he needed to be “different” and to offer “something that is challenging and maybe even daring” to attract the attention of children.
“I guess today there is a better understanding of what it really takes to produce an attractive and engaging children’s books; there is this realisation that the book that comes out in Cairo is in competition with endless material that children can access with a touch of a button on their computers or smart phones,” Taher said. Clearly, he added, the information technology is forcing the business of children’s books “to keep on innovating.”
Since the mid-1990s and certainly with the advent of the new millennium, Taher argues, there was a launch of a new line of thinking in the children’s books in Egypt that went way beyond the fairy tales. “There has always been attempts, always, to engage the children’s intellects – but by that point in time those attempts took over the scene of children’s books,” he argued.
Taher likes to credit Al-Shorouk publishing house for a dedicated effort in reaching out to children in an intelligent and stimulating fashion.
It was his collaboration with Al-Shorouk that started in the late 1990s and lasted for over 15 years that provided the bookstores with the fun education books like The Beautiful Letters (Al-Horouf Al-Gamila), that introduces children to the alphabet, and The First Time (Awal Marra) series, which reflects on a child’s first time to go to school, to have a sibling, to wear medical glasses and so on. And it was also then that children got to see the series of Animals’ Dreams (Ahlam Al-Hayawanat) whereby a crocodile dreams of having a toothbrush to help the bird that cleans its teeth and a turtle dreams of getting on board a plane to see the world from above.
In 2010 Taher and Al-Shorouk's The Black Spot (Al-Noqta Al-Soda) received the prominent children’s book award of Etisalat. “This book for example is essentially about the story of resolve, friendship and faith; but the way it was done was really stimulating for a child’s mind as it shows a child trying to break down a deep and big rounded black body and the many attempts he had to go through before finding a way that got him started and earned the support of other children who were sceptical about his attempts,” Taher said.
For Taher, this award was a clear message that he should never hesitate to innovate, “never really because the way I drew the illustrations of this book were atypical of what would otherwise be considered attractive drawings for children.”
“What children care about is not necessarily what we think to be the beautiful drawing; I would argue that they would rather pay attention to a stimulating drawing, and this was what made a silent book (a story in drawing without text) like The Morons (Al-Aghbiyaa) an interesting book for children,” Taher argued.
For this cartoonist, the defining line between his drawings for children, which are the best part of his work, and other drawings is “certainly about creating something that is stimulating and attractive.”
“But I am convinced that there are some drawings that could be both for children as for adults; I think we are moving into a new space where the segmentation is getting a bit loose – not fully, but significantly loose,” he said.