The children at the Arabic-speaking Ofek preschool in Jaffa spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a mouse named Samsoum, the character in a picture book all the kids have read at home with help from their parents.
In class, the kids did a range of Samsoum-related projects inspired by the book “Samsoum the Mouse” by Jahil Khazaal, about a field mouse who relaxes while the other field mice gather food for the winter, but who later warms the hearts of the worker mice with his colorful stories.
The children discussed the different emotions portrayed in the book. They also learned that every creature has a role to play in the community — and that food for the soul can be as important as food for the stomach. In the process, the children fell in love with the book.
Throughout Israel, 45,000 Arab children in government preschools read “Samsoum the Mouse” as part of a reading-readiness program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library). The program began in January and is modeled after Sifriyat Pijama, which for the past five years has distributed children’s books in Hebrew to hundreds of thousands of Jewish preschoolers. Sifriyat Pijama is a sister program to the popular PJ Library Jewish family engagement program in North America, both founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts.
Lantern Library, created by the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and San Diego-based Price Philanthropies Foundation, provided four books that the children took home and treasured. During the 2014-15 school year, the plan is to provide eight books to children in all government kindergartens and pre-kindergartens — 80,000 children in all.
“As people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, we feel it’s very important to help improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies Foundation, explaining his family foundation’s long-term involvement in the Arab community and the decision to be a partner in Lantern Library.
Culturally appropriate and with a strong storyline conducive to discussions on values and emotions, the books encourage parents and children to lay the groundwork for reading. As with books in the Hebrew-speaking effort, the Arabic books are chosen by a selection committee composed of experts in child development, children’s literature and preschool education.
On the occasion of a visit by the Price family to Ofek, Keefah Masri Bassel, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds, said the program has transformed her classroom.
“The first time I held one of the books, I began to dream that every child would have a shelf in their room reserved for their books,” Bassel said.
A week later, the teacher invited the parents to the school, where she taught them how to create a library corner at home. The parents helped the children transform T-shirts into book bags and create “This Library Belongs to …” signs.
When the children went outside for breakfast, a speech-language expert discussed with the parents ways to cope with the differences between spoken and written Arabic, and how to best engage the children — for example, allowing them to retell the story in their own words. Together, they explored the parents’ guide at the back of the book.
Galina Vromen, executive director of the Grinspoon Foundation in Israel, said the Arabic-language program presented the organizers with some unique challenges. One of them is the dearth of quality Arabic children’s books that are accessible to the Israeli market.
Vromen said the program “is largely dependent on what’s produced here in Israel, Jordan and Egypt” and noted that, due to political unrest, the annual Egyptian book fair, once the largest Arabic fair in the world, has been discontinued. Turmoil also has affected children’s book production in other nations, including Syria and Iraq.
Because of the Arab boycott of all things Israeli, some Arab publishers have refused to sell reprint rights to Israeli publishers, who repackage the books, with a parents’ guide, for the program. That’s one reason the program has an interest in supporting the local Arab-Israeli publishing industry, which clearly benefits from a sale of 45,000 copies, whether the book is an original or reprinted.
“We want strong readers, so we need locally made books,” Vromen said, adding that “there’s tremendous excitement” about the program in the Arab sector from publishers, teachers and parents.
These same teachers and parents say the literacy program is particularly important for Arab children because it introduces them to formal written Arabic, which is different from spoken Arabic, at an early age.
“Our goal is to encourage reading readiness with exposure to classical Arabic,” said Vicky Glazer, the supervisor of Jaffa preschools.
Fatma Abu Ahmed Kassem, national supervisor of preschools for the Arab sector, said the program’s emphasis on interaction with adults “is critical to learning. Reading books offers an opportunity for quality adult interaction with children at home and in the classroom.”
The program, Kassem said, “promotes and enhances a culture of expression and discussion, and raises the awareness of language and enriches language use. Exposing children to a variety of literary works of Arab literature and culture as well as world literature encourages children to become curious and enthusiastic readers.”