Behind a gray wall, a large sun rises, turning the sky a warm orange color. Meanwhile, ripened apricots have fallen from their branches, and fluctuate inexplicably in the sunlight. All this is just a funny pun to liken the sun to apricots, a star with a fruit. Using stencils molds, Lebanese illustrator Hanane Kai puts into drawing the Arabic tongue twister “apricot on a sunny day,” where the word “apricot” (مشمش, read: mshmosh) becomes “sunny” (مشمس, read: mshmes) when three little dots crown the word. Kai adorned the illustration with repetitions of these dots, some of them with a little green stem attached — like an apricot picked straight from a tree.
In Tongue Twisters, Kai interprets a series of tongue twisters written by prolific children’s book author Fatima Sharafeddine. Published by Kalimat Publishing Group based in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, the book is the recipient of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair’s 2016 Ragazzi Award New Horizons, one of the leading professional fairs for children’s books in the world, now at its 56th edition, which includes 1,200 exhibitors from 98 countries and over 20,000 visitors, the website states.
A witty composition of lively geometrical shapes that turn the Arabic alphabet into a story-like puzzle, Tongue Twisters was awarded for its “original attempt to give visual form to tongue twisters and the difficulty of pronouncing certain words very fast,” resulting in “an amusing jumble of the patterns,” said the jury in an official statement.
The fourth book she has worked on, Kai for the first time has used a stencil technique to create 24 hand-made illustrations. The molds were first developed on the computer and then printed on acetate paper using a laser machine. The resulting cutouts were used to stencil the illustrations on white paper, with each color applied individually with a pad. The illustration would be revealed only after the last color was applied.
Some tongue twisters proved to be challenging, especially when they had little reference to the real world. The tongue twister “Aadnan and Aanan in Aden,” or “two men in the Yemeni port city,” was particularly arduous, Kai explained in a phone interview. She studied the geography of the town, said to be one of the oldest city since the beginning of civilization. Inspired by this idea and by the Medieval images she found on the internet, Kai drew a labyrinth of towers, balconies, and gates, leading to a yellow ship sailing west from the fort.
Creating puzzling visuals, she drew from the Arabic calligraphic tradition where letters and words can also become whimsical silhouettes: Since part of the Arab culture had condemned representative art, Arab artists specialized in using calligraphy to create pictures from letters.
“I imagined the letters tangled together, but I also didn’t want the illustration to be just an abstract composition,” she wrote on her website. Rather, she employed Arabic letters in a modular way: each illustration hides a hint to the tongue twister, without revealing its obvious trick. “It’s a puzzle and needs to require some effort to figure out,” she winks. That’s exactly the case for Kai’s favorite illustration, the Arabic tongue twister “Rudi turns and gets dizzy,” which must be turned around by the reader to be understood. As Rudi gets dizzy while turning around, we see multiple faces rotating in the space. Sometimes, he is painted in orange, sometimes in turquoise (Kai’s favorite color). Most illustrations in Tongue Twisters use a primary color palette, using a limited range of hues.
However, Kai’s first influences as an illustrator were not Arab. Rather, it was Charles Perrault’s illustrations and Marcel Marlier’s children’s book series Martine that nurtured Kai’s sense of fantasy (who received an early French education in Lebanon). As a teenager she fell in love with the Belgian comic journals by Tome and Janry, featuring the character of Le Petit Spirou.
But if French illustrations had an easy means of influencing a Lebanese illustrator’s aesthetic, the same cannot be said of Arab illustrated children’s books and magazines from the Middle East leaving a mark on the realm of contemporary Western illustration.
The jury in Bologna praised Tongue Twisters for its original approach and universal theme; but, in fact, universality is not always mirrored by the children’s books published today. “There is not enough diversity,” said in an email Wally De Doncker, president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), and also a juror in Bologna.
Yet, the demand “for thoughtful children’s books that celebrate a multicultural society has never been greater,” De Doncker added. In the US and Europe, where children’s books remain overwhelmingly white, those books are usually far less diverse than the groups of children reading them, he also added.
In the US, advocacy groups, such as We Need Diverse Books, a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers founded in 2014, has addressed the issue, demanding “essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people,” especially in a country that is increasingly racially diverse. This deficiency has been perceived and addressed by some involved in the publishing industry as well. Zareen Jaffery, editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and a Muslim who grew up in Connecticut, recently launched Salaam Reads, a new children’s imprint featuring Muslim characters and traditions.
With books like Tongue Twisters it’s also worth considering how diversity can be represented and communicated in visual ways — from dunes, to native fruits, to local garb, the book is a vibrant portrait of the Middle Eastern landscape. And while Tongue Twisters was written primarily for an audience in the UAE and Middle East (the nature of the book makes it nearly impossible to translate), the Bologna Fair’s recognition of a book like this one could be considered a small step to close the gap.