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Scholastic makes inroads into Arabic children's book market

Sensing a business and cultural opportunity, Scholastic carefully translates English-language books like "Heidi" and "The Magic School Bus" to be used at schools in several Arab-speaking countries.

July 04, 2010|By Geraldine Baum | Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — — The publisher was on a rare and delicate mission to translate and mass-market books from America for a part of the world that often rails against American values.

Carol Sakoian, a vice president of Scholastic Inc., brought a small group of Arab officials into a conference room to screen a stack of stories. They read and read, about caterpillars, volcanoes, Amelia Earhart, and a big red dog named Clifford.

Who would imagine that Clifford could be considered inflammatory?

To observant Muslims he is, because dogs are considered ritually unclean. Scholastic wanted to be careful not to appear culturally imperialistic, so Clifford was put in the "no" pile.

The education ministers, who came from Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan, drew up a list of 27 "no-nos," according to Sakoian. "No dogs, no pigs, no boys and girls touching, no magic," she said, naming a few.

They liked values and talk of honesty and cooperation among children. Anything that hinted at overly independent children or religion was eliminated. The colorful "I Spy" series was excluded after a tiny dreidel was spotted in a picture.

Scholastic, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, first weeded its list of thousands of titles down to 200 and later 80. They were translated into Arabic, and over the last three years, almost 17 million copies have been shipped from a plant in Missouri to elementary schools across the Middle East and North Africa.

Initially these American imports were greeted with doubt in some quarters. A Jordanian father was so wary of reading materials coming from America that he read every Scholastic book in his son's classroom. It took him a week to get through 40 titles, but eventually he gave his approval.

When similar books were offered in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, educators were also skeptical. After all, Israel's friend, the U.S. government, was involved in underwriting the project. "Why would the United States make all these clearly expensive books available to us for free?" Tharat Zeid, a Palestinian Authority official, said local educators wondered.

After examining the books and learning that other Arab countries were using them, Zeid said the ministers decided, "Why not put politics and suspicions aside and benefit from them?" Two years later, with Scholastic's "My Arabic Library" collections in 103 of 800 public schools, West Bank educators are clamoring for more and for training to show teachers how better to use them.

Chip Rossetti, an Arabic literature translator who writes about publishing in the Middle East, said a movement is growing to encourage a culture of reading for pleasure, which has mostly been a pastime of the elite. Beyond Cairo and Beirut — the publishing capitals — bookstores and well-stocked libraries are rarities in the Arab world, said Rossetti, noting that, though online sales are growing, books remain too pricey for most.

"I can't point to an Arab Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak or Beverly Cleary," he said. "I know there are efforts to change that, but in these countries education tends to be more about rote learning, less about free reading."

The U.S. and other Western governments have funded Arabic translations, particularly of textbooks. But Scholastic's Arabic publishing effort is by far the largest, experts agree.

During an interview near the publisher's global headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Sakoian said that she'd long ago set her sights on selling to the vast Arab market. She first approached a private foundation to underwrite translations but got nowhere. In post- 9/11 America, none was interested in supporting Arab culture, she said. The U.S. State Department eventually paid for translations through a democracy-building initiative and for printing about half the books.

But Scholastic had a long way to go before it started printing. First, it had editing to do even of classics. Because Islam does not acknowledge the celebration of birthdays, "Ladybug's Birthday" was renamed "Ladybug's Anniversary." Ms. Frizzle's students on "The Magic School Bus" were given Arabic-sounding names, skirts were lengthened, body parts were covered and the skin tone and hair of the Swiss orphan girl in "Heidi" was darkened for the Arabic edition. (A tiny church steeple on the cover picture of Heidi's village escaped notice, however. "We just couldn't catch everything," Sakoian said.)

Scholastic scoured the books to eliminate anything that could be interpreted as American propaganda. In a book about shapes, a flag was removed from the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. "This was a publishing project, not a diplomatic project," Sakoian said.

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