"Hassan sits in the classroom next to Shady. The teacher draws a flower on the blackboard. Shady looks at the blackboard and starts to draw a flower. Hassan, for his part, looks at the notebook of Shady and starts to draw a flower."
This is the first paragraph of the story Hassan Sees Everything, from a collection of books offered by Diwan Bookstore in Heliopolis for three- to six-year-olds.
The book, with its simple text by Fatema Al-Maadoul and the pleasant illustrations of Walid Taher, tells the story of schoolboy who finds his eyesight is getting weak. He must go, as the story unfolds, to the optometrist and then the optician to get glasses to see comfortably.
Hassan Sees Everything is published by Dar Al-Shorouk as part of a series called "First time to…" – which includes stories of a first trip to the doctor or an introduction to the swimming pool amongst other first experiences of children below the age of six.
The first time series is one of many that try through colourful drawings and simple sentences to introduce children to the world around them. I am a Fish and I am a Flower, both available at the Dokki bookstore of Al-Balsam, are part of the "I am…" series which introduces children to the creatures around them.
Egypt’s selection of children’s books offers a wide variety for families to choose from for their young children’s earliest stories. Some doctors even suggest that pregnant women read to their unborn babies.
Both Al-Diwan and Al-Shorouk bookstores designate a third of their shops’ spaces to children’s materials, includes anything from stories to colouring and activities books, puzzles and DVDs. Al-Balsam’s entire collection is children's books.
"When we were growing up in the 1960s the choices of children's books in Egypt were rather limited. They were mostly the translated versions of the Cinderella and Snow White. Now there is a big variety for different ages and for children with different interests," said Amira.
Aboul-Magd, head of the children's publishing department at Al-Shorouk. Publishing House. Her selections, both fiction and non-, are mostly designed for Egyptian children with very few translated items.
Aboul-Magd is particularly proud of the local titles her company carries, which she said are designed specifically to engage Egyptian girls and boys, whether they live in rural or urban areas. The colourful and attractive pages of Hennah Bent Elnouba (Hennah, A Girl from Nubia) is one example she gave.
"It’s a matter of identity," said Balsam Saad, the publisher of Al-Balsam. "Kids should not be growing up disassociated from the culture of their societies," she added while recalling that the beautiful and witty children books that Dar Al-Shorouk printed for the prominent Arab intellectual Abdel-Whab Elmessiri. The stories were creations for his own children while the Elmessiris were living in the US. He wanted his son and daughter to have some reference to their own culture.
Mahmoud, the bookseller at the GEBO’s (General Egyptian Book Organization) downtown bookstore also likes to refer customers to a series of books that cover the nation's governorates.
"The copies we have were printed under the Reading For All project, [sponsored for 20 years by Suzanne Mubarak] so they are very inexpensive and parents like to buy a few for their children to
get to know about Egypt," he said.
According to Mahmoud this kind of book is not just about offering children a summer reading but it is also about making it easier to digest schoolbooks on topics like geography during the academic year.
For Aboul-Maged, the summer reading material is not just about entertainment, but also about stimulating a child’s interest.
"We talk a lot about improving the quality of education and I think that part of this improvement, an essential part I would say, is for the books available for school children to be inspiring, interesting and informative in an intelligent way," Aboul-Maged said. She insisted that a balance between textbooks and pleasure reading is essential to develop children’s ability to value learning.
For both Aboul-Maged and Saad, the publisher of Al-Balsam, it’s crucial that every public school have a decent library with wide range of titles. "It is discriminatory I think for children whose parents can afford sending them to private schools to have access to school libraries when the majority who attend public schools are denied this right. Especially when more often than not those with more economic means are more likely to have access to buy free time reading and activities material," said Aboul-Maged.
For the summer holidays – with special programming for Ramadan – Al-Diwan, Al-Shorouk and Al-Balssam will provide story-telling sessions for parents who want to get their children interested in reading.
The stories are mostly in Arabic – because the owners of the three bookstores are committed to the cause of helping children, especially those who attend foreign schools, to properly learn the Arabic language. However, at times these reading sessions are also available in English, French and German. The stores offer children’s books in all these languages.