How to find culturally authentic children’s books

Whenever I go to an Arabic bookstore or conference kiosk and look through the children’s books for language teaching materials, I have to wade through dozens of books just to find one or two that I would want to use in the classroom. The vast majority of what I find are translated versions of some of the least-inspiring and most generic English-language children’s books—think of the books that someone might purchase as a last-minute gift at an airport, not the classics of your childhood.

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When I pick up one of these bland picture books and open to an image of a bobble-headed blond boy running in a flat green field, I immediately discard it and move on to the next. These books may have Arabic text, but I have a hard time considering them truly authentic materials because they are completely devoid of cultural context. With limited time in class, I want to focus on children’s books that introduce students to Arab culture as well as language.

When I’ve found books that I like, I might use them in class in a few different ways. For novice students, you can create a semi-authentic listening exercise by retelling the story at a simplified level appropriate to your students. What makes gives this exercise more depth than the “teacher talk” students hear from their teachers every day is the cultural content embedded in the story and the illustrations. Although we think of children’s books as being the lowest common denominator in terms of reading level, most are actually too difficult (especially in Arabic) for novice students to hand to them as a text. (Examples of culturally authentic reading materials at the novice level are items like menus and clothing advertisements.) To use the books as reading exercises for novice learners, re-write the stories in language your students will understand; you can mix up the sentences that compose the story and ask students to match each to the correct picture in the book.

For intermediate students, the children’s books can be the perfect authentic reading material because this is the level at which students should be developing their ability to narrate a sequence of events and speak in strings of sentences. Challenge students to retell the stories to each other or write their own children’s stories demonstrating their growing knowledge of Arab culture.

Here are a few of the culturally authentic children’s books I’ve found: If you have others, leave a comment and let us know about them!

Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha every year by slaughtering a sheep or other large animal; the holiday commemorates Ibrahim’s obedience to God. But how do children, too young to understand the religious significance, interact with the holiday? In this story, a young girl makes friends with the sheep her family plans to sacrifice and then hides the sheep to keep it from becoming the family’s holiday sacrifice.

There are several versions of this story out there, but I really enjoy the Salwa Publishers’ version for the rich illustrations that make you feel you’ve been invited into an Arab home, from the coffee pot and tiny coffee mugs to the embroideries on the grandmother’s dress.

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This simple yet winning story about a mother who makes a huge fattoush, a kind of salad with cucumber, tomatoes, and crispy pieces of bread, for her neighbors and extended family is mostly easy enough to retell or even read to novice learners during a unit about food or extended family, but a twist at the end can serve to spark a discussion about gender roles among higher-level learners. Beautiful watercolor illustrations make the book feel whimsical and charming.

The blond girl is the story of Osama, a Lebanese boy whose mother has always told him that she hopes he’ll take the hand of a blond, blue-eyed girl in marriage. When he takes his mother’s words too literally, he embarrasses her and causes them both to realize the racism inherent in wishing for a bride who looks a certain way. The story is somewhat heavy-handed and neither the writing nor the illustrations are on the same level as My mother loves fattoush and Who hid the holiday sheep?, but it has a lesson to offer and could add another dimension to a unit on personal descriptions or marriage.

Mariam is a young girl who visits Oman with her family and loves it. The story is simple, but the illustrations are rooted in Omani scenery; it could be retold as a simple story of a trip abroad during a travel unit, while students who are able to read the text will learn about some of Muscat’s tourist sites.

Although this series was originally written in English and translated to Arabic, it still succeeds in shining a spotlight on some of the achievements of figures from classical Arab civilization, using the device of two modern-day children who visit each of the figure and spend a day getting to know them. (Because the books are not originally in Arabic, the two children don’t appear remotely Arab in the rather simplistic drawings.) Although some of the vocabulary describing their scientific achievements may challenge even intermediate-high learners, the stories emphasize the fact that Arabic can be a language of science and discovery. Furthermore, the structure of the series is repetitive and allows students to relax into some familiar headings and sentence structures if they read more than one, and there are a few other books in the series about other historical Arab figures.