How to greet your family, when to form orderly lines, and who should be allowed to speak first – small skills such as these that many parents spend hours telling their children, together with their essential rationale, have long been part of parenting, even if some children find them hard to learn.
In order to help parents to instruct their children in such skills, last month writer Miriam Rizkalla celebrated her latest series of children’s books entitled Kolak Zouk (How Nice of You) that helps children aged seven and upwards appreciate the importance of such skills. The series addresses dos and don’ts in an attractive way that helps to engage children in different situations, contrasting alternative modes of behaviour and explaining their impact on others.
This approach has up to now been rare in Egyptian children’s literature, and it skilfully teaches both parents and children to discuss and not to argue about such topics. The feedback from parents and children has been very positive.
“I have been working on children’s books since 2001,” Rizkalla told Al-Ahram Weekly. “My work has included pitching annuals for children, as well as translating, design and proofing, all the way up to publication. I have also translated 30 books from French into Arabic.”
Rizkalla added that she particularly liked the approach of one French writer that she has translated into Arabic in a series called the “Young Philosopher.” “This series for children aged until eight years old discusses some basic philosophical questions without imposing answers. What it does is to ask multiple questions and asks the child to pick one. I think it is a smart way to address children in general,” she said.
“I can give these to people in need”
The idea of engaging children in conversation particularly caught her attention. And Kolak Zouk adopts the same line of thought with minimal guidance. “I depict situations that a child sees every day, be it eating together, finding that a friend at school is absent, being in a line at the cinema, and so on. It asks the child how he would react, asking him to choose from a menu of options,” she told the Weekly.
The books also include illustrations that emphasise a gender balance.
In one daily life situation, for example, the individuals shown have just finished lunch, and the drawing shows a boy helping his mother clear the table, without stating that this is what he is doing in the written text. The idea is that parents can then discuss the illustrations with their children, finding meanings in them that apply to their own lives.
Much the same thing goes for the written text, however. For example, in one book in the series, entitled the “Birthday Book,” “I take the child on a journey of arranging a birthday party – how and when to invite friends, giving them enough time, and whether to invite them to arrive in fancy dress. When the friends arrive, how should you receive them and how should you introduce them to each other, the book asks,” Rizkalla said.
Very few books about etiquette address Egyptian society, still less Egyptian children. “I focus on daily social skills that a child should know how to use, whatever that child’s background or social class,” she added. “Most parents would agree that some forms of behaviour are always inappropriate, and the books explain why. I believe that some parents do not have enough patience with their children, and it is a common mistake to give orders and not explain the bases of behaviour.”
“My books help to explain why some forms of behaviour are better than others,” Rizkalla said. Through these new books, you can educate your child through conversation, which is something that will help any child engage with what is being said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.