For the first time this year, we participated in the Sharjah Book Fair, which hosts nearly 800 publishing houses from around the world. We are regulars at Bologna, Frankfurt, and Beijing, but the Middle East is a new opportunity for us. The plan had been to work with our friends at Combined Book Exhibit and send 30-40 books we felt would be best suited for Arab countries. CBE would handle the rest.
The plan changed—rather dramatically— when we learned that How Many Donkeys?: An Arabic Counting Tale, by Margaret Read MacDonald with Nadia Jameel Taibah, and illustrated by Carol Liddiment, had won the first “Award for the Best English Language Children’s Book exhibited at the SIBF.” The award would be presented by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi at the Fair and included an all-expenses paid trip for company President, John Quattrocchi. So off he went, excited to see the Fair and the country.
One of the key differences that John noted about the Sharjah Fair and the other International fairs is that it was a mix of a consumer show (where parents, teachers, and librarians push shopping carts around the hall making purchases) and a trade show (where publishers introduce new product to vendors and opinion makers). We sent 5 copies each of about 40 books to the show. We exhibited with the Combined Book Exhibit, who then sold the books through a local retailer: Jashanmal Bookstores.
John accepted the award – which included a very heavy trophy (the general response here at the office was something along the lines of “Holy Moley”), a certificate and a cash prize of approximately $2500. The awards ceremony would be very familiar with most people: a banquet of 500 people at round tables of 8-10 people. The ceremony was conducted in Arabic, but there were headphones for translation. His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi was the key note speaker and with a new book of his own available, he also signed a few books after the ceremony.
The Sheikh, as leader of Sharjah, started the Sharjah Fair 29 years ago to promote literacy in his country, as well as the regional publishing industry. In fact, they have a very high literacy rate for the region, especially among women—about 90% for women and 80% for men. The inclusion of the new children’s book award is a continuation of his mission.
Sharjah is one of the United Arab Emirates, so on the trip John also visited locations in both Sharjah and nearby Dubai. Both emirates are very modern, with Dubai being the better known and more Western. I was, of course, very curious about women’s issues and so asked John about how they dressed and seemed to be treated. He said there were many non-Arabs in Dubai, many in very Western dress, including women in short and sleeveless blouses. In Sharjah, however, while Western women are not expected to cover their hair, they did wear long pants or skirts and more modest tops. Even in traditional dress, local women still wore makeup and jewelry and carried themselves with strong self-confidence.
And what was the best part of the trip? “Seeing the culture,” says John. “It was very interesting. The hospitality was wonderful and the people of Sharjah were friendly and modest.” He’s glad he went and that this award provided not only new professional opportunities for Albert Whitman & Company, but a great personal opportunity to visit the UAE for the first time. John will be attending the Abu Dhabi Book Fair in March.