Sunday, 23 April 2017

Omitting the F Word: Parental Censorship of Picture Books

This post was originally published on Picture Book Den, a blog about picture books by picture book authors and illustrators.

I sometimes describe writing a picture book as like writing a script, because picture books are often read aloud to a child by an adult. I want the reader to give a good performance, so I think it’s essential that a picture book text reads well aloud. However a good script is only the beginning of a good performance; a good picture-book performer will add a great deal themselves, creating character voices and sound effects and adjusting the timing and delivery of lines to make them funnier, more suspenseful or more dramatic.

It wasn’t until I read a Slate article entitled I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed! that it occurred to me that a performer might actually TAKE something from the script as well. And, as an author/script-writer, I am troubled by this.

The article’s author, YiLing Chen-Josephson, runs The Picture Book Club, a subscription service through which she handpicks books for young children (and their parents). I’m guessing that one of the books she does NOT recommend to her subscribers is Maurice Sendak’s miniature picture book classic Pierre, which she describes reading to her own son in the article.

If you’re not familiar with Pierre then – SPOILER ALERT! – let me tell you that it’s a cautionary tale about a small boy, Pierre, who professes not to care about anything whatsoever. When a polite, but hungry, lion calls at Pierre’s home and asks Pierre if he may eat him, Pierre says, “I don’t care!” So the lion takes the boy at his word and swallows him whole. Fortunately Pierre’s parents are able to extract their son before any lasting harm is done and  – having experienced the trauma of being eaten alive – Pierre now cares about what happens to him. To quote Sendak’s final line “The moral of Pierre is: CARE!”

Maurice Sendak’s Pierre is a cautionary tale of a small boy who is hugely indifferent to everything.

Since “parental censorship” is in the title of this post, you've probably guessed that Chen-Josephson took it upon herself to censor Sendak’s classic. Having read the plot outline above, you might assume that she cut out or re-edited the scene where the small boy is EATEN ALIVE by the hungry lion. But, no, the object of Chen-Josephson's disapproval was Pierre’s absolute indifference. Here’s how she puts it in her own words:
You’ve read enough to recognize what’s at stake here: The child in this book doesn’t care. Are you ready to introduce your own darling boy to the phrase “I don’t care” and, with it, to ennui, to disaffection, to insubordination?
So now, whenever Chen-Josephson reads the book to her son, she rescripts Pierre’s dialogue so that instead of saying, “I don’t care!” he says “I … care!”.

It seems to me that Chen-Josephson has entirely failed to grasp the point of a cautionary tale, which is to show how negative characteristics can have unfortunate consequences for their owners. By turning Pierre into a caring child, the message her son is likely to draw from the story is that bad things can happen to nice children, rather than the message Sendak intended, which was that bad things can happen to children who are dismissive and indifferent.

After explaining how she improved on Sendak’s storytelling, Chen-Josephson goes on to relate how several of her friends censor the picture books they read to their children. She gives three examples of how parents respond when they come across the F word in picture books. NO! Not that F word – I mean "FAT"!
One father I heard from avoided the word fat at all costs, turning even The Very Hungry Caterpillar from a “big fat” insect to a “great big” one. Another parent said she left the word alone when it was used to describe an animal but would replace it when it was used about a person. Another specifically sought out books where fat was used descriptively and without judgment since she didn’t want her child to think that the word should carry negative connotations.
Apparently some parents baulk at Eric Carle's use of F word in The Very Hungry Caterpillar

I suspect that all three parents described above would censor my use of the F word in my picture book story The Santa Trap.

One of Poly Bernatene’s illustrations of brattish Bradley in The Santa Trap.

Über-brat Bradley reveals his plan to trap Santa with the words, “I’m going to catch the fat fool and take every present he’s got.” It’s quite clear that the word “fat” is intended to have a negative connotation in this context. However CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING! Like PierreThe Santa Trap is a cautionary tale. The story makes it clear that Bradley is an irredeemably awful child whose monstrous behaviour leads to his eventual downfall, while Santa, the object of Bradley’s abuse, is the unflappably benign and ultimately triumphant hero of the tale. I think that most children that hear this story will recognise that using the word "fat" to insult someone should be bracketed with the other unacceptable behaviours that Bradley engages in such as stealing tigers from the local zoo. And if a child does not recognise this, then the adult reading the story can use Bradley's example as an opportunity to discuss why this is an unacceptable way to behave.

I think the same principle can be applied to most stories that contain the sort of parental-anxiety-inducing content that parents like Chen-Josephson might wish to censor. And I’d argue that the parent-child picture book reading experience is an ideal setting for a child to encounter such content. Sooner or later, a child will encounter an uncaring character or hear the word “fat” being used inappropriately, on a TV screen or in the real world. Surely it’s better for them to come across these things in a picture book, with a parent on hand to discuss and explain them with, than on their own?

So, if you’re reading a picture book to a child and you’re tempted to censor something, why not try using it as an opportunity for discussion instead? You're probably be doing your child a favour and I'm sure the author would thank you for it too!


Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why the last few days have left me feeling ashamed to be a member of the UK book community

Human Rights Campaigner and Martin Ennals Laureate Ahmed Mansoor was arrested by the UAE government on Sunday.

After last month’s blog about the unethical sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature I was not intending to return to the topic this year. But after the events of the last few days, culminating in the arrest on Sunday of prominent UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, I feel obliged to do so.

February’s blog was written in support of the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates’ festival campaign. Rather than encourage authors to boycott the festival, as last year’s Think Twice Campaign (which I co-organised) had done, the ICFUAE campaign encouraged UK authors attending this year’s festival to use their appearance as an opportunity to speak out in favour of human rights, free speech and democracy in the UAE.

The ICFUAE wrote an open letter to UK authors attending the festival and tweeted authors to draw their attention to it.

The ICFUAE published an open letter addressed to the UK authors appearing at the festival pointing out that, while UK citizens are accustomed to speaking freely and criticising their government, UAE citizens are routinely persecuted by the festival’s sponsors for exercising these same rights. The letter encouraged authors to highlight the need for greater human rights and freedom of expression in the UAE when tweeting, blogging or posting about the festival on social media. The ICFUAE tweeted authors directly to draw their attention to the letter and English PEN and The Society of Authors also shared the letter widely on Twitter.

Disappointingly, the ICFUAE tell me that they are not aware of any UK authors who highlighted their concerns for human rights in their festival coverage. The author coverage that I have seen has generally presented a glamorous, rose-tinted view of the UAE, emphasising the opportunities for cultural exchange that the festival offers. I don't doubt the positive effects of this exchange, or that the festival does good work in other areas, but I don’t accept that this good work justifies authors ignoring the overwhelming number of human rights violations carried out by the festival's sponsors.

One of the authors who blogged about this year’s festival is children’s author Philip Reeve. I’m a big fan of Reeve’s books, so I was particularly disappointed to read the following paragraph on his blog referring to last year’s Think Twice Campaign.

Emirates Airline –
an institutionally homophobic company,
owned by an oppressive government that
presides over a modern-day slave state
… but they sponsor a lovely
literature festival.
I entirely reject Reeve’s suggestion that the Think Twice Campaign did not have any significant positive effect. The aim of many boycotts is to raise public awareness of an overlooked issue and, by doing so, encourage change. I don't think that it's "absurd" to suggest that the Artists Against Apartheid group who pledged not to perform at Sun City in South Africa, helped to focus the world’s attention on South African apartheid and that this attention helped to encourage the South African government to abolish the apartheid system. The principal aim of the Think Twice Campaign was to raise awareness of the plethora of human rights violations carried out by the festival’s sponsors. Reeve may have been aware that Emirates Airline are an institutionally homophobic company, owned by an oppressive government that presides over a modern-day slave state, but the feedback received by the Think Twice Campaign made it clear that many people were not.

The UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor has said that “the root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.” I’d like to think that, as far as the UK is concerned, the problem is not so much a lack of care as a lack of awareness. The small gang of wealthy autocratic rulers that form the UAE government has become very proficient at projecting the image of a liberal, progressive country to an overseas audience. They employ a two-pronged strategy, investing copious amounts of sponsorship money in high-profile international sporting and cultural institutions that present the UAE in a favourable light, while persecuting, imprisoning and torturing UAE residents who dare to present a less-than glowing view of the country. The cases of Australian illustrator Jodi Magi and US aviation consultant Shez Cassim show that even foreign citizens can fall victim to the UAE’s sociopathic obsession with whitewashing its image.

This two-pronged strategy has been particularly conspicuous in the two weeks since the close of this year’s festival. As returning UK authors posted blogs about their glamorous adventures in Dubai, the UAE government has been quietly tightening its stranglehold on freedom of expression within the country.

On 15 March, just five days after the close of the festival, a UAE court sentenced Jordanian journalist and poet Tayseer al-Najjar to three years in prison and a $136,000 fine for the crime of “insulting the state’s symbols” in his Facebook posts. Tayseer had been held without access to a lawyer for more than a year before being brought to trial.

Three days later, on 18 March, as human rights campaigners were preparing to celebrate the release of Osama al-Najjar after a three year prison sentence, the UAE government announced that Osama would remain behind bars. Osama had been imprisoned for tweeting his concerns about the ill-treatment of his father, Hussain Ali al-Najjar al-Hammadi, one of many prisoners of conscience convicted in what Amnesty International describe as a “grossly unfair mass trial” of 94 government critics in 2013.

Last Sunday, 19 March, UAE authorities launched a midnight raid on human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor, carrying out a lengthy room by room search of his home, including his children’s bedroom, and arresting Ahmed.  His family has yet to be informed of his whereabouts.

Amnesty International have described Ahmed as "the last free human rights activist in the UAE". His arrest was the latest development in a sustained state-sponsored persecution campaign that has seen him fired from his job and his bank account robbed of $140,000. He has received numerous death threats, been beaten repeatedly and the UAE authorities have gone to extraordinary lengths in their attempts to hack his phone.

After imprisoning Ahmed for eight months in 2011 for the crime of “insulting officials”, the UAE government confiscated his passport, forcing him to remain in the country. Despite everything he has been through, Ahmed has continued to speak out against human rights violations within the UAE and in 2015 a jury of ten global human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, awarded him the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in recognition of his courageous work.

Amnesty International have said that they are “appalled and dismayed” by Ahmed’s arrest and expressed “fears that he may be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment while in custody.”

The UK book community has a history of standing up for others. In recent years, fundraising campaigns for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan and the Syrian conflict have made me feel proud to be a member of that community. But, in the last few days, the way that so many UK authors and illustrators have turned a blind eye to human rights violations in the UAE has made me feel ashamed to be a part of that community.

I would have thought that authors and illustrators would be one group of people that would recognise freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. Freedom of expression is being brutally suppressed RIGHT NOW in the UAE. Tayseer al-Najjar, Osama al-Najjar and Ahmed Mansoor are not characters in a book – they are real people with real families, enduring real suffering for daring to speak out against a tyrannical government.

Whatever you think of the Emirates Festival, if you are an author or an illustrator and you genuinely care about freedom of expression and human rights in the UAE, please use whatever channels you can to speak out and demand the release of Ahmed Mansoor and the other prisoners of conscience being unjustly held by the UAE government.

Go on! Please make me feel proud again.

Whether you are an author, an illustrator or anyone else, here are a few ways you might make your voice heard.

You can quickly email the UAE government to call for Ahmed's release using this Amnesty International page. It will only take a minute (literally 60 seconds) of your time:

You can call for Ahmed's release on social media using the hashtag #FreeAhmed.

You can tweet the UAE's Vice President and Prime Minister  Sheik Mohammed on @HHShkMohd

You can write to the UK's UAE Embassy at:
His Excellency Mr Abdulrahman Ghanem Almutaiwee
Embassy of the United Arab Emirates
30 Princes Gate
Tweet them on @UAEEMbasssyUK
contact them through their Facebook page
email them on
or phone them on 0207 5811281

You can write to your local MP.
If you don't know who your MP is, you can find out their name and contact details at
You can download a Word document containing a template email to send to your MP here:
The ICFUAE have also provided a template letter here:

Representatives of global human rights organisations explain Ahmed's critical role in defending human rights in the UAE in the video below.

UPDATE 29 March (19 days after the close of 2017 Emirates Festival)
After being forcibly disappeared, held in secret detention for months and subjected to beatings and deliberate sleep deprivation, a UAE court has sentenced prominent economist, academic and human rights defender Dr Nasser bin Ghaith to ten years in prison. His "crime" was to criticise the UAE government on Twitter. His official conviction was for “posting false information” about UAE leaders and their policies and “posting false information in order to harm the reputation and stature of the State and one of its institutions”.
Amnesty have said that "by imposing this ludicrous sentence in response to his peaceful tweets, the authorities have left no room for doubt: those who dare to speak their minds freely in the UAE today risk grave punishment".

Monday, 20 March 2017

Ruby Flew Too! • Readers' Emails

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve received more emails and letters about Ruby Flew Too! (titled Ruby in Her Own Time in the US) than any other book that I've written.

It's clear from these messages that Ruby's story has had a profound effect on the lives of many families and been a comfort and inspiration to readers of all ages during challenging times. It seems to have struck a particularly strong chord with families of premature babies.

Here are a few excerpts from some of the emails that families have sent me since the book, which is beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Harry,  was first published in 2004. All excerpts are shown with the writer's permission

"I first discovered your book when another parent mailed it to me while my daughter was fighting for her life in a NICU in Portland, Oregon. Her daughter was also born in the same hospital and was a survivor of the same birth defect, CDH that was the reason why we were there.
There is something you come to learn with a child in the NICU. It is always on THEIR time schedule. In their own time. You can never push them. They will do things when THEY are ready. All those things are the same things that your book speaks to. I read this book to her while she was attached to ventilators and while she was being weaned down from the nasal canula, and as she was learning to eat.
49 days after her birth, my daughter came home. In her own time.
I just wanted you to know how the story has touched me, and many other parents."
Liz, Oregon, US

"Our daughter, Brooke, was born pre-maturely and spent six months in the NICU with pretty serious health concerns. She couldn't breathe or eat on her own and we were told that she wouldn't live to see her first birthday. Brooke needed a trach tube and ventilator to help her breathe and was vent dependent for almost two years. We slowly weaned Brooke off the vent and she started to do things the doctors said she wouldn't. Brooke did see her first birthday and is now a happy four year old girl. While we were in the hospital, we read Ruby In Her Own Time to Brooke almost every day. We always told Brooke that she would do things in her own time, just like Ruby. It is such a beautiful story and she still enjoys reading it today."
Heather Illinois, US

"I reread your book whenever I am anxious about our little Ruby. As with most preemies she is behind in all her milestones and there have been many a time when I have battled with my own frustrations at how far ahead her peers always seem to be. When I find myself asking "will she ever crawl?" "will she ever walk?" or "will she ever talk?" I always revert to mother duck's words of profound wisdom - "She will. In her own time." Thank God for mother duck!
I wonder if you ever thought, when you were writing your book, what a profound effect it would have on a family somewhere on the other side of the world. You must have been guided by an angel. Thank you."
Tess, Cape Town, South Africa

"I'm not sure who gave us Ruby In Her Own Time, but I must say this is my favorite children's book. The book was given to us when my oldest daughter, who turns 13 this Tuesday, was a baby. The funny thing is I think we referenced it more as she got older than when we read it to her as a child. Although she was an excellent student since the time she started school, in most other aspects of life she was Ruby. Whether it was playing sports, going on rides, trying new things, Casey was always cautious and not always willing. The only difference to the book was as the father I was the one saying, "in her own time". As she becomes a teenager this week, I've look back at how she blossomed over the years. The girl who did not walk until 16 months can run like the wind. The timid kid who stayed away from the ball in sports became an excellent athlete. The painfully shy girl, has opened herself up to new adventures and a curiosity about the world. When my wife would get slightly frustrated with her holding back on things I would always say, "she will, in her own time". To which my wife would reply something like she really is Ruby. … Thank you for this wonderful piece of work which I hope my children will pass down to their own someday."
Kevin, New York, US

"You see, children's books are every bit as important and moving as the greatest novel ever written. For your beautifully illustrated book (and do thank Ms. Rebecca Harry for her gentle artwork) showed us in that moment that one day, our daughter would be okay. In the darkest hours when we worried if she'd ever eat food or gain weight, if she'd ever look like normal children or if she'd always have to rely on a feeding tube, we'd repeat "in her own time". Our daughter loved to see that she was special in her own way, and that it was okay to be herself. Well I'm happy to tell you that today, two and a half years after having her feeding tube put in, with a lot of therapy, medicine, and love, Ruby had her feeding tube taken out for good at the hospital. Just like the duckling in your book, she's brave and blossoming and true to herself. We read Ruby in Her Own Time tonight, turning page after well worn page, some of them with edges she chewed on when she ate nothing else, some splattered with her tube formula, some barely clinging to the staples. You told us she could soar, that she would one day fly higher than we ever dreamed. And that day has come. It's honestly a wonderful gift you gave us, a stranger nearly a world away, completely by happenstance. But your words and your lovely tale will forever be treasured by our family, our Ruby, who has indeed done it in her own time. Thank you so much."
Kat and Randy, North Carolina, US

All three of the Ruby books are now available in new Hatchling Books editions.

Click here to go to the Hatchling books web site

Monday, 13 March 2017

How to Draw Ruby, with illustrator Rebecca Harry

To mark the publication of the new editions of our Ruby the Duckling books, illustrator Rebecca Harry has taken over my blog to show you How to Draw Ruby. And it looks like she's found a little helper …

You can follow Ruby's adventures in these Hatchling Books paperbacks.

You can find out more about Rebecca Harry and her books at her website,
follow her on Facebook at @rebeccaharryillustrator or on Twitter at @BekHarry1.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Ruby Flies Again! – RUBY THE DUCKLING new editions

All three of the Ruby books are now available in new Hatchling Books editions

The children’s book business is exactly that – a business – and if sales begin to tail off for a book, a publisher will often decide to take it out of print. Any stock that remains in the warehouse is sold off at a heavily discounted price for sale in bargain bookshops and the book disappears from bookseller’s databases. As I write this, a little under half of my books are out of print. Every now and again a publisher may decide to delight an author by putting an out-of-print book back into print. However this a relatively rare occurrence and – generally speaking – when a publisher tells me that they are taking one of my books out of print I’ve learnt to take it in my stride and focus on getting new books published.

“Generally speaking” that’s what I do – but some books are harder to let fall by the wayside than others. Over the last few years all three of the Ruby the Duckling books, written by me and illustrated by Rebecca Harry, have gone out of print. Both Rebeca and I were especially sorry to see these books go, so we decided to make an effort to put all three books back into print again.

One of the reasons I was personally keen to do this is that I’ve received more emails and letters about the first Ruby book, Ruby Flew Too! (titled Ruby in Her Own Time in the US) than any of my other books. Readers from all over the world have written to me to tell me how Ruby’s tale has touched their lives and given them comfort in what have often been extremely trying circumstances.

A spread from the new edition of Ruby Flew Too! Ruby’s story has touched the lives of readers all over the world.

Having done a bit of research and read a few articles like this one, Rebecca and I decided to re-publish the books as print-on-demand editions using Amazon’s Createspace service.

Although Rebecca and I owned the rights to the book’s text and illustrations, the typography and title lettering design of the original editions belonged to the original publisher, so we had to re-typeset the spreads (using open licence fonts) and create new title lettering for the covers. The typesetting of the new editions is similar to the originals as the text placement has to fit into the gaps in Rebecca’s original illustrations, but we took the opportunity to make a few changes here and there. Some of the spreads have been cropped slightly wider to show a little more of Rebecca’s artwork and we’ve added in a book plate page at the front and an “About the Author and Illustrator” page at the back. As such, the new editions could be seen as being the “Director’s Cut” versions of the books.

A spread from the new edition of Go For It, Ruby! The text has been re-typset and some of the spreads have been cropped slightly wider to show a little more of Rebecca’s artwork.

We did the first book on its own as a trial run and agreed that if either of us weren’t happy with the printed proof copy we would not make it, or any of the other books available. So when the proofs eventually arrived through the post, we were both relieved and impressed by the quality of the printing and binding.

We were impressed by the print quality of the new print-on-demand editions.

All three books are now available under the specially-created imprint of Hatchling Books. Rebecca has designed this lovely new logo …

… and we’ve set up a web site at where you can find out about the books and download these free Ruby activity sheets. There's a colouring sheet, a board game, a spot the difference and a maze.

The whole exercise has been a bit of an experiment for Rebecca and myself. We’re hoping that books will continue to sell without a mainstream publisher to promote them, but only time will tell! We’d love to think that by making them available in this way, Ruby’s story will continue to entertain, inspire and comfort new readers.

One of my favourite spreads from the new edition of This Way, Ruby!

The books are available for £6.99, $9.99 Or €8.99 each through Amazon’s UK, US and European stores. US buyers can also purchase them at a 15% discount through the Hatchling Books eStore.

Click here to go to the Hatchling books web site

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

PRINCE RIBBIT – a perfectly-timed picture book for the post-truth era?

The cover of Peachtree's US edition.
Prince Ribbit, my latest picture book with illustrator Poly Bernatene has just been published in the US by Peachtree Publishers and has already picked up some good reviews.

It’s the story of a cunning frog who tricks his way into a royal household by convincing two fairytale-obsessed princesses that he's really an enchanted prince who can give them the happily-ever-after they have always dreamed of. Fortunately the two princesses have a non-fiction-loving younger sister, Martha, who sees through the frog’s fakery and sets out to debunk it. The characters use books to back up their arguments, and both sides dismiss each other’s evidence with the refrain, “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true!”.

Some US reviewers have commented that the book’s theme of fact versus fiction – and how to tell the difference between the two is especially relevant at a time when “fake news” is having an increasing influence on public opinion.

While one book is sufficient proof for big sister Arabella, Martha delves deeper in search of the truth.

The January 2017 edition of the School
Library Journal stressed the need for
young readers to think critically.
The lead article in January’s edition of the School Library Journal stressed the need for educators to teach their students to think critically about information they receive, whether it comes from a book, a newspaper or a website. Reviewer Elizabeth Bird makes a similar point at the beginning of her detailed dissection of Prince Ribbit in the same edition.

“Children in the 21st century have to be taught to use their brains when they read. High school curriculum spend a fair amount of time drilling this idea home, but considering how young kids are when they search for information online these days, wouldn’t it behoove them to be taught to think things through from the start? Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: “Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.” Its timing could not be better.”

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Prince Ribbit’s fact versus fiction theme was inspired by some of the “popular science” books I was reading when I wrote the story in 2013. The laws of libel do not apply to science, so it’s worth bearing in mind that the authors of such books are free to misrepresent scientific evidence in order to appeal to a wider market. This was clearly the case with some of the books I was reading, which gave contradictory accounts of the same evidence. They could not all be right, so how could I find out which books' accounts were closest to the truth?

"Enter Prince Ribbit, a book that drills home a very simple message: 'Just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s true.'
Its timing could not be better."

Elizabeth Bird
School Library Journal
The answer was to delve deeper into the evidence and examine it critically using the methods advocated by campaigns like Ask For Evidence. After doing so I had a clear idea of which books I could rely on and which books I could not.

Although the Ask for Evidence campaign has its roots in the scientific community, the critical thinking approach it promotes is equally applicable to other areas including politics, where policy makers often allow ideology – or just old-fashioned prejudice – to trump the evidence. Fortunately there are organisations that encourage evidence based policy making, such as the Education Endowment Foundationwhich does a great job of objectively evaluating evidence relating to education policy. The next time you hear a politician claiming that 'smart school uniforms lead to academic success' or that 'performance related pay will raise teaching standards,' a quick look at the EEF's easy to use ’toolkit” will allow you to assess the current evidence (or lack of it) for such claims.

When I wrote Prince Ribbit four years ago, I had no idea that the story might have a topical relevance by the time it was published. And I did not have a message in mind when I was writing it – I was simply trying to write an entertaining tale. But I’m delighted that it’s seen as promoting critical thinking. With this in mind, I’ll leave the last word to Elizabeth Laird's SLJ review.

“Read carefully. Read critically. Read everything and then form your own opinion from the facts, as best as you can gather them. Or, if you just prefer, read this cute book because it has princesses and talking frogs in it. As far as I can tell, that’s a win-win situation.”

Princess Martha remains unconvinced by the frog's fakery.

Find out more about Prince Ribbit on my web site

Buy at amazon US Buy this book at amazon UK

Monday, 6 February 2017

If you’re appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, please consider raising awareness of the human rights abuses carried out by the festival’s sponsors

Animated Infographic GIF (Suitable for sharing on Twitter. CLICK HERE to open a full sized version in a new window)

This time last year Zoe Toft and I were busy running the Think Twice Campaign, which highlighted ethical concerns about the sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. The festival's main sponsors are Emirates Airline and the Dubai Government (who are the airline’s owners). The festival’s patron, Sheik Mohammed, is both the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One of the aims of the campaign was to highlight the many human rights violations taking place under the Sheik’s regime.

Zoe and I knew that the campaign would be contentious. Many authors and illustrators we admired and respected had appeared at the festival in the past or were due to appear in 2016. And the festival has a reputation for being exceptionally well-organised by a friendly and hospitable team. We were uncomfortable with putting ourselves at odds with these respectable groups, but our concern was that their respectability was being used to whitewash the reputations of extremely unethical sponsors. Actor Mark Rylance expressed a similar concern last year when he announced that he would not work for the Royal Shakespeare Company while they were sponsored by BP. We were not attacking the people appearing at or running the festival any more than Rylance was attacking the people appearing at or running the RSC. Our target was the festival’s sponsors.

We recognised that not everyone that shared our concerns would want to boycott the festival and at the top of Think Twice's FAQ page we suggested that authors and illustrators who still wished to appear at the festival might use their appearance to raise awareness of some of the issues highlighted by the campaign. Writer and philosopher AC Grayling and children’s author Chris Haughton did exactly that by meeting with UAE human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor during their stay in Dubai. Grayling addressed the UAE’s poor record on free expression during his public talks and Haughton blogged about his meeting with Mansoor on his return.

This year the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE) are encouraging UK authors and illustrators appearing at next month’s festival to follow A C Grayling and Chris Haughton’s example and "speak out clearly in favour of human rights, free speech and democracy in the UAE".

Although Zoe and I have now wound up the Think Twice Campaign, we would also like to encourage the festival's authors and illustrators to consider speaking out on behalf of the following three groups whose human rights are being systematically abused by the festival’s sponsors.


1: The migrant workers enduring conditions “very close to slavery”

“It's pretty depressing seeing how many western companies and tourists, all kinds of people, flock there and still describe it and see it as this paradise in the Middle East, ignoring what's right in front of their nose.”
Investigative Journalist
Ben Anderson
When Donald Trump sang the praises of Dubai Airport in last year’s presidential debates, he neglected to mention the inhumane labour practices that enabled the Dubai Government to build such grandiose structures so quickly and for so little money. Dubai has been described as “a place where the worst of western capitalism and the worst of Gulf Arab racism meet in a horrible vortex.” The 2016 HBO VICE documentary “Trump in Dubai” exposes the plight of the migrant ‘underclass’ that make up more than 80% of the emirate’s workforce and build many of Dubai’s landmark developments including the new Trump International Golf Club. Investigative journalist Ben Anderson describes the conditions endured by millions of Dubai’s migrant workers as “very close to slavery” and has this to say about western attitudes towards the city in the video below: “It's pretty depressing seeing how many western companies and tourists, all kinds of people, flock there and still describe it and see it as this paradise in the Middle East, ignoring what is right in front of their nose.”

Anderson's documentary focuses on the construction industry, but he mentions that similar labour abuses apply to migrants working as cleaners, cooks and housemaids in Dubai. In the Human Rights Watch video below Women’s Rights Researcher Rothna Begum explains how the UAE government “facilitates and fosters the abuse and exploitation of domestic workers” who are explicitly excluded from the country's labour laws.

As you enjoy the hospitality of Dubai’s impressive airports, hotels, conference centres and schools, please be aware that many of these buildings are built, maintained and serviced by people who are treated as an “underclass” by the festival’s sponsors and do what you can to draw attention to their plight.

2: The LGBT people criminalised in, or barred from entering, Dubai

When it was announced that Jennifer Anniston was to become the new face of Emirates Airline in 2015, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) urged the actor to think twice about associating herself with the airline in view of their “serious concerns about the way the Gulf carriers treat and manage their flight crews, particularly women and gay men.”

Emirates Airline’s reputation for discriminating against gay employees (and, on some occasions, gay passengers) is unsurprising given the anti-gay stance of the government that owns it. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Dubai and punishable by harsh, discriminatory laws which promote homophobia.

"I will not lend my name to festivals associated with regimes that persecute their LGBT citizens. I won't strut my stuff in a country where I would not be allowed to live openly and honestly without fear of arrest, incarceration or torture."
Crime Writer Val McDermid
Voicing her support for the Think Twice campaign, crime writer Val McDermid said that: "I will not lend my name to festivals associated with regimes that persecute their LGBT citizens. I won't strut my stuff in a country where I would not be allowed to live openly and honestly without fear of arrest, incarceration or torture." Others may see things differently and I’m told that gay authors have accepted invitations to appear at the festival. However it seems unlikely that any transgender authors will have been invited, given that transgender people are regularly barred from entering or deported from Dubai and even cross-dressing is a criminal offence within the emirate.

If you care about LGBT rights, please do what you can to encourage the festival’s sponsors to be more accepting and inclusive towards LGBT people.

3: The UAE citizens imprisoned and tortured by the festival’s sponsors for peacefully campaigning for more democracy and human rights in the UAE

Ahmed Mansoor is just one of many UAE human rights and democracy campaigners who have been persecuted for speaking out against Sheik Mohammed’s government. More than 100 peaceful activists and critics of the UAE government have been imprisoned on broad and vague national security-related charges since 2011. Most of them remain in prison today, including Dubai citizen Dr Mohammed al-Roken whose case is highlighted in the Amnesty International video below.

“Despite their good intentions,
the festival’s supporters risk legitimizing the practice of censorship in the country.”
UAE Censorship Victim
Shez Cassim
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature presents itself as promoting the free exchange of ideas. Many people have commented on the bitter irony of such an event being sponsored by a government that is brutally suppressing the free exchange of ideas among its own population. Even foreign nationals can fall foul of Dubai’s draconian censorship laws for the most innocent of reasons; in August last year UK-Australian citizen Scott Richards was arrested for the "crime" of posting a link on his Facebook page to a US charity raising funds for blankets and socks for refugee children. Another victim of the UAE's intolerance towards freedom of expression, Shez Cassim, has warned that “despite their good intentions, the festival’s supporters risk legitimizing the practice of censorship in the country.”

If you have the freedom to speak freely at the festival, please consider speaking out on behalf of those whose voices are being suppressed by the festival’s sponsors.

“The root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.”
UAE Human Rights Campaigner
Ahmed Mansoor
On receiving the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, UAE Human Rights Campaigner Ahmed Mansoor commented that, “the root cause of so much of the violence in the region is despair. Human rights are being violated on a daily basis and nobody in the outside world seems to care.” If you care about human rights in Dubai and the wider UAE, please consider using your appearance at the festival as an opportunity to speak out about them.

If you’re willing to raise awareness of the issues highlighted above, you could mention them in the social media or blog coverage you produce regarding the festival. You might even consider raising some issues during your appearance at the festival itself. And, if you’d like to offer your support to local human rights activists during your visit to Dubai, please contact me on or Zoe on and we can put you in touch with people who can help you to arrange this.

If you’re not comfortable raising awareness of these issues, then please think twice about posting photos or making comments on social media or blogs that could be interpreted as promoting or endorsing either Emirates Airline or the Dubai Government. For example, if you share APFA’s concerns about Emirates Airline’s discrimination towards women and gay men, you could avoid mentioning the airline or including photos of their logo/branding in your tweets/Facebook posts.

Further Information:

International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE's Open Letter to Authors Appearing at the Festival

Human Rights Watch World Report 2017: United Arab Emirates

Human Rights Watch Report – “I Already Bought You” Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United Arab Emirates’

Amnesty International Report 2016/17: United Arab Emirates

Amnesty International  Report- “There is No Freedom Here”: Silencing dissent in the United Arab Emirates

Detained in Dubai - Homosexuality in the UAE

UPDATE: 30 March 2017

Disappointingly, the ICFUAE are not aware of any UK authors who highlighted their concerns for human rights in their coverage of the 2017 Festival. Immediately after the close of the 2017 festival, the UAE government launched a further crackdown on freedom of expression and human rights in the country. As part of this crackdown the UAE's last remaining human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor (quoted above) was arrested. Amnesty International have said that they are “appalled and dismayed” by Ahmed’s arrest and expressed “fears that he may be at risk of torture or other ill-treatment while in custody.”

For more details of the ICFUAE's 2017 Festival campaign and the subsequent UAE crackdown, read this post:

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