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The Application of Childrens Literature in the United Arab Emirates

Elisabeth Clapp
EDU 604
Dr. Therese Ajtum-Roberts

The Application of Childrens Literature in the United Arab Emirates
Childrens literature is an effective tool to teach literacy in a cultural responsive, dual-
language curriculum, in the United Arab Emirates public schools. Educators are turning to chil-
drens literature as a bridge between cultures, with the Emirati people living among a constant
dynamic demographic change. Through the use of multicultural childrens literature, Emirati stu-
dents are introduced to diverse populations and gain understanding from different perspectives.
Childrens literature also allows the Emirati children to understand and embrace their cultural
identity. The introduction of Arabic childrens literature provides an opportunity for Emirati
children to see themselves in the stories, which enhances the motivation to read and learn. One
problem with this approach is Arabic childrens literature is not fully utilized in the UAE, and
popular childrens titles are mis-categorized. Compiling a separate genre of Childrens literature,
written about Arabic children would address this void.
Literature as a bridge between cultures
The United Arab Emirates represents a diverse population. Emirati nationals are only
13% of the population (UN, 2014). The remaining 87% are expatriates from Asia, the United
States, New Zealand, Australia, Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East (UN, 2014).
The public schools however are not as diversified as the UAE, and the student population con-
sists only of Emirati nationals and expatriates meeting specific criteria. The number of expatriate
students cannot increase the size of the class beyond thirty students or create a need for addi-
tional textbooks. In addition, expatriate students cannot exceed 20% of student enrollment, and
the candidate must obtain an average of 90% on math, Arabic and English enrollment exams
(ADEC, 2014).
Unlike the population of the UAE, the public schools are exclusive and lack variety of
ethnicities, races and cultural groups. The lack of diversity is also present in childrens literature
found in the public schools. The children's literature available is not conducive to the multicul-
tural society occurring all around the Emirati children and inhibits their understanding of differ-
ent cultures and other members of the UAE society. Gopalakrishnan defines multicultural chil-
drens literature as literature about various populations and includes different
perspectives (2011, p. 29). Multicultural literature is a catalyst opening up an understanding of
the world around them that they can comprehend and relate to. The Emirati children see the man
from Pakistan wash their fathers car. The woman from the Phillipines cut their mothers hair.
The childs dentist might be from India, and the administrators and teachers at their school are
from all over the world. "Multicultural literature is a viable medium for teaching about cultures
beyond the students own culture" (Steiner, Nash, and Chase, 2008). According to Steiner et al.,
(2008), when children read about different people's cultures, race and ethnicity are not viewed as
an obstacle. Rather, ethnicity becomes a part of the other person's identity and, as a result, the
child is given the opportunity to cultivate respect and acceptance towards other people.
Noll (2003) states that literature has the power to help children construct knowledge, to
provide new perspectives on problems and issues they face, and to shape attitudes" (p. 182).
When literature is void of various cultures, or the author misrepresents information, there is the
potential to misconstrue their perspective and negatively influence them. Writers and illustrators
must strive to authentically and accurately represent the cultures they write about and depict in
images. Those who see only themselves or who [are] exposed to errors and misrepresentations
are miseducated into a false sense of superiority, and the harm is doubly done (Noll, 2003, p.
182). The challenge, as in other parts of the world, is to bring awareness of multicultural litera-
ture and the benefits of it, to educators (Colby and Lyon, 2004, p. 24).
Literature contributes to Emirati cultural identity
With educators in the UAE public schools becoming more aware of multicultural chil-
drens literature and facilitating the expansion of it, Emirati children are becoming less aware of
their cultural identity. According to Hopkyns (2014), majority of the population in the UAE is
expatriates, and the prevalence of the English language is overwhelming, having spread from
business and education to informal and leisure activities. Even though, Arabic is the national
language, immersion in a dual-language curriculum for Emirati children begins in kindergarten
and encourages them to read, write and speak English more fluently than Arabic (Hopkyns,
2014). The UAE is a young country, and the region is developing at a record pace. There is
concern the Emirati children will lose their cultural identity. Arabic childrens literature can ad-
dress this concern and allow Emirati children to embrace their rich cultural heritage (de Pom-
mereau, 2004).
As stated by Boyd, children look to story for self (Landt, 2006, p. 694). A child not
finding themselves or their culture in the literature they are reading can create feelings of inade-
quacy and disconnect (Steiner et al., 2008). Children need to receive affirmation of themselves
and their culture through literature (Colby and Lyon, 2004, p. 24). Western trained educators in
the UAE must be explicitly prepared to teach the Emirati children. Learning materials selected
must include Arabic childrens literature written in both English and Arabic, and are not contrary
to the culture or religious beliefs of the UAE (Diallo, 2014). If culturally responsive childrens
literature is an integral part of the public school curriculum, it is thought teachers would have
less difficulty motivating students to read and learn.
Arabic Childrens literature
Emirati children enjoy reading books that allow them to see themselves in the story.
Books containing familiar Arabic words set in the Middle East engage Emirati children. Arabic
childrens literature motivates children to read more in both Arabic and English and improve
considerably (Sowa and Lacina, 2011). According to Cai, students find difficulty engaging in
multicultural literature that does not reflect identifiable experiences in their culture (2003, p.
280). There is debate over what constitues authentic multicultural literature. Landt states that
the books cultural authenticity is determined by the authors culture (2006, p. 696). If the author
is writing outside of their culture then, the book is not considered authentic. There is a growing
need for Arabic childrens literature authored by individuals of middle eastern culture.
According to Landt, Cultural authenticity - the accuracy of the language, customs, val-
ues, and history of the culture - can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine if one is not fa-
miliar with the culture depicted (2006, p. 695). The demand for authentic Arabic childrens liter-
ature, by Landts definition, cannot always be met because there is a shortage of middle eastern
authors by comparison to western (Anati, 2012). Charise suggests taking non-Muslim literature
and making it compatible with the Islamic culture (2007). The problem again is the qualifica-
tions of the individual representing the literature. Sponge Bob counting books are representative
of a Thriller in childrens literature, and childrens versions of the Quran are categorized as
General Fiction in the largest bookstore in Abu Dhabi. Authentic Arabic childrens literature
is necessary for the continued success of emergent readers in the UAE. Individuals that are qual-
ified to make that determination are also necessary. Charles Dickens wrote in his 1853 essay
Frauds on Fairies:
It is a matter of grave importance that Fairy tales should be respected....
Whosoever alters them to suit his own opinions, whatever they are, is guilty, to
our thinking, of an act of presumption, and appropriates to himself what does not
belong to him (Dickens, 1853)
Authentic multicultural childrens literature can dissolve stereotypes and encourage an
appreciation of different cultures (Fox and Short, 2003, p. 183). The UAE is one of the most
culturally diverse countries in the world, with a literacy rate of 90% according to the Abu Dhabi
Education Council (2014). A critical approach to childrens literature in the UAE is imperative.
With the demographics of the country always influx with the comings and goings of the expatri-
ate population, the Emirati children need to be educated and embrace cultural differences in the
population, as well as similarities. Through authentic Arabic childrens literature, the Emirati
children will better comprehend what those similarities are as they develop and understand their
cultural identity and place in the world.

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