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Shawqi Bin Hassan
Many Algerian publishers and authors specialising in children’s literature agree that its presence is still lacking in the country’s cultural scene due to poor production and little academic and media interest. They say it is also marginalised by official organisations and institutions, while attributing the decline to the huge shortage of the genre’s creative skills.
Author Salima Melizi, who has been writing for children since the 1980s, believes that creativity in children’s literature is ‘absent’, since many publishing houses take global stories and republish them in local editions. She stressed the need to have an official body that gives special attention to children’s literature describing it is ‘fundamental’ for creating a progressive society.
Melizi, who founded Al Riyad magazine in 1986, said most Algerian children’s book publishers “are not professional and operate purely for commercial purposes”. She says that this is reflected by their disinterest in the creative, aesthetic, educational, linguistic and scientific aspects that distinguish children’s literature. “Writing for children is a talent, and a passion.”
Prominent publishers such as the Green Library also recognise the poor quality of children’s literature in Algeria and have called repeatedly for the cultural, educational and commercial sectors to instil a culture of reading in children as an investment into the future of the country.
However, other publishers see children’s literature more positively, such as ‘Our Children’, whose owner Firas Al Jahmani believes the publishing of children’s books maintains a high quality despite facing some difficulties, mainly due to a shortage in demand of specialised books and general apathy from publishing houses. He disagreed that the commercial benefits generated from children’s literature were weak because of the high cost of production and relatively small profit margins compared to other books.
Critic, novelist and academic Ahmed Sari believes that native literature for young people in Algeria is not just ‘inconsequential’ but ‘invisible’ to the public. He attributes this to the constant flow of translations from international books which are rewritten within a local context, saying that it is ‘adolescent literature’ which is absent rather than children’s books.
He expressed his regret over the ‘mediocrity’ that characterises the genre, believing that writers and publishers find it easier to adopt and adapt international writing.
Novelist Rachid Boudjedra says writing for children has been an obsession of his for many years although it has its own challenges, peculiarities and techniques. However, he adds: “Although it is not as hard for me, due to my cultural, scientific and philosophical backgrounds, this kind of literature is missing in the entire Arab world, not just in Algeria.”
Many booksellers and owners of bookstores in the Algerian capital of Algiers consider writing for children as a responsibility before a business, although there is little encouragement from parents to acquire these publications for their children, instead providing them with modern technology such iPads and smartphones. They argue that the price of children’s books is too high and resort to technology which is rich in content and constantly developing.
Despite varying views over the reality of children’s literature in Algeria, most agree it has a poor presence in society due of the overwhelming dominance of the internet.
Children’s literature in Algeria dates back to the 1930s during French colonialism, and was influenced by a combination of Western and Arab cultures. After independence in 1962, there was a growing interest in children’s books which gained greater importance under the socialist system in the new Algeria adopted by former President Ahmed Ben Bella and later by Houari Boumedienne. During this era, there was greater emphasis on children’s theatre and poetry as well as short stories. An elite group of authors also emerged and devoted part of their creative writing to children, such as Mohammed Al Khadar Al Salehi, Yahya Masoudi and Salima Melizi.
Also in the 1960s, some daily and weekly newspapers designated supplements to children’s literature, resulting in publications such as Mamkidsh Magazine (1969). The 1970s continued the trend through the Qunaifid newspaper (1972) and Smile Magazine (1977), followed by My Paper (1981) and Al Riyad Magazine (1986), among others.
At that time, children’s literature became fundamental in highlighting Algerian Arabic culture in terms of education and folklore as well as providing important social and historical content. Algerian children’s literature also drew on oriental and French culture to enhance its global relevance.
In the 1990s, Algeria was hit by terrorism which dramatically hindered literature in general and children’s literature in particular. In spite of this, some government initiatives were launched to reverse the situation, including a competition on children’s literature organised by the Ministry of Communication and Culture in 1996.
Since the beginning of the third millennium, Algeria has begun to pay more attention to literature and children’s books. Among the major contributors are Abdul Hamid Saqai and Jamila Zniber, but despite this relative improvement, the production of these books is still poor in terms of quality and quantity, due in part to the lack of support from official cultural entities.