Fans in the Arab world and beyond are lamenting the death of the esteemed Egyptian children’s writer Yacoub El-Sharouni, who died on November 23 at the age of 92.
In a career spanning seven decades, El-Sharouni wrote hundreds of books for Arab children and teenagers, which were translated into many languages and won prestigious awards, including Egypt’s State Appreciation Award in literature in 2020.
Nevin Al-Kilani, Egypt’s minister of culture, mourned El-Sharouni, saying: “Children’s literature in the Arab world has lost one of its most prominent pioneers, a creative writer who enriched the Arab library with hundreds of children’s works, leaving an eternal impact in the conscience of every Egyptian and Arab through his unique writings.”
Ahmed Bahi El-Din, chairman of the Egyptian General Book Authority, said El-Sharouni’s work was abundant, diverse, and influential. “His large number of books influenced the Arab children’s library. He wrote about 400 works for children, most of which were inspired by the Arab and Egyptian heritage, in addition to holding his monthly cultural salon at his home for children’s writers, to discuss works, ideas, or issues of children’s literature.”
“We are talking about a very great history and contribution. [El-Sharouni] stimulated children’s imaginations and encouraged them to read.”Ihab Al-Mallah, an Egyptian critic and writer
The committee planning the Cairo International Book Fair, to be held early next year, has chosen El-Sharouni to publicise the event’s Children’s Book Fair, citing “his influence on generations of readers and writers, and his pioneering role in the field of children’s literature.”
El-Sharouni’s death will be marked by the re-publication of a number of his books, to be chosen in consultation with his family, and the preparation of a commemorative book that will include tributes from authors from Egypt, Arab countries, China, India, and Italy.
Life and Career
El-Sharouni was born on February 10, 1931, in Cairo. He obtained a Bachelor of Laws degree in May 1952. Three years later, he passed a postgraduate diploma in political economy from Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, and obtained a similar diploma in applied economics from the same university in 1958.
El-Sharouni also worked as a visiting professor teaching children’s literature at several Egyptian universities.
In 2019, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals Book Club chose his novel “The Night of Fire” as one of the best Arab novels for raising awareness among children of the fight against poverty.
For the same novel, the International Board on Books for Young People put El-Sharouni on its honour list, a biennial selection of outstanding recently published books.
Ihab El-Mallah, an Egyptian critic and writer, told Al-Fanar Media that El-Sharouni was among only two or three Egyptians whose work had been translated all over the world in the tradition of international storytellers like Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen.
“We are talking about a very great history and contribution,” El-Mallah said. He added that El-Sharouni also “stimulated children’s imaginations and encouraged them to read.”
Besides writing books for children, El-Sharouni also published dozens of studies on criticism of children’s literature, and his works were translated into five languages, including English and French.
In a 2016 celebration of his work, El-Sharouni criticised some contemporary children’s writers for not keeping up with their societies.
“A children’s writer, or any writer in general, must live his era, must live the developments taking place in his era,” he said. “If a writer doesn’t realise the change that is happening in his community, and the issues that the community cares about, he will fall far behind the reader.”
El-Sharouni also criticised the general lack of books of criticism of children’s literature in the Arab world, which he attributed to a pretext among publishers that such books do not sell well. This lack of criticism has a negative effect on writing for young readers, he said.
El-Sharouni is also an advocate for developing young people’s critical thinking skills.
“A children’s writer, or any writer in general, must live his era, must live the developments taking place in his era. If a writer doesn’t realise the change that is happening in his community, and the issues that the community cares about, he will fall far behind the reader.”Yacoub El-Sharouni, in a 2016 celebration of his work
In an interview with an Egyptian television network several years ago, he stressing the importance of raising children to think critically and feel that they are able to express their opinions.
International conventions “affirm the right of every child to express their opinion and to have access to sound information,” he added.
Arab intellectuals and academics have published numerous tributes to El-Sharouni in the past few days.
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Ali bin Tamim, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, quoted the words of
the late Suhair Al-Qalamawi, one of Egypt’s top critics, writers and translators, when El-Sharouni was given the award for best children’s writer in 1981:
“El-Sharouni’s style … has achieved far-reaching heights” and is marked by “ease, simplicity and education,” Al-Qalamawi wrote. “It is a clear-cut style that responds to everything we aspire to in terms of the language to address children.”
Aisha Rammache, a professor of Arabic literature at Algeria’s Badji Mokhtar Annaba University, described El-Sharouni as a beacon of children’s literature and culture in Egypt and the Arab world.
She wrote on Facebook that she had “unforgettable memories” of El-Sharouni and other distinguished Egyptian writers of children’s literature who had assisted her own scholarly journey by welcoming her into their homes, and providing her with references and sources she could not have found anywhere else.