Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, has sent more than 7 million translated volumes into schools in the Middle East and North Africa. It's part of a new project called, My Arabic Library.
"Our mission in Scholastic is to bring good books to more children in more places and help them develop the love of reading ," says Carol Sakoian, Vice President of Scholastic International. Youngsters in six countries now have a wider variety of books in their classrooms thanks to the program, which is funded through the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative.
Each participating classroom receives a library of 200 books. Sakoian says books were selected with an international readership in mind. "We wanted to bring books of international information like science and stories that convey universal values," she says.
Arab educators were involved in choosing the titles and making changes to some of the books to adapt to cultural differences. "They had to be approved book by book, page by page, illustration by illustration by four Middle Eastern Ministries of Education," Sakoian says. "Arab educators were a little careful, they were worried that this was somehow propaganda from America. It was not."
One of main challenges, Sakoian says, was selecting books that would not offend. "There are culturally sensitive issues," she says. "We knew which books to eliminate from the start."
Other books had to be adapted to make them more acceptable in Arab society. "One of the more common things that we needed to pay attention to was clothing," Sakoian says. "In many of our books, the women had bare sleeves, so we put long sleeves on drawings or book illustrations." They also put longer dresses on some of the female characters in illustrations. "It all still was very artistically well done. We just made the clothing a little more conservative."
Fatenah Amawi, Project Manager for My Arabic Library in Amman, Jordan, has participated in the project from its early stages. She praises the quality of the books. "Children just love [them]. They are enjoying reading these books."
Amawi says My Arabic Library brought a whole new spirit to Jordan's public elementary schools. "Students now are dramatizing, analyzing, reviewing and summarizing the stories," she says. "They are drawing pictures. They are doing clay models of volcanoes, [the] solar system, sea creatures and animals. Schools are doing competitions. The Education Ministry is now working on scheduling one hour for reading in the school's daily schedule. Parents are borrowing the books now and reading them to their younger children at home."
That positive feedback from educators like Fatenah Amawi is very encouraging to Carol Sakoian. She says the success of the project has exceeded Scholastic's expectations.
"We are now taking these books to the commercial markets. We are now in 13 or 14 countries in the Middle East," she says. "There are schools all around the world that are writing to us that they would like Arabic books."
Even schools in the United States are asking for the books. "Schools in the state of Michigan have been given federal funds to teach Arabic. They are now saying that they would like to use these books in all their classrooms," she says. "I have several college professors who've called me and want to use these books to help people begin to learn to read Arabic."
Some public libraries have also said they would like to add the books to their collections for both people who are native speakers of Arabic and people who are learning the language.
At My Arabic Library's Website, teachers can download the reading material, along with many tips and tools to help their young students develop independent, critical thinking skills and a love of reading.