Jerusalem (JTA) — A program to distribute free books in Arabic to Arab-Israeli preschoolers reached the two-million mark earlier this year.
Maktabat al-Fanoos, Arabic for “Lantern Library,” is operated by the Ministry of Education, in partnership with the Grinspoon Foundation Israel, founder of the Hebrew book program for Jewish Israeli preschoolers, Sifriyat Pijama, and Price Philanthropies, which funds Bidayat early childhood centers. The Grinspoon Foundation also sponsors the PJ Library, which provides Jewish-themed books in English for Jewish-American preschoolers.
Maktabat al-Fanoos was founded in January 2014 and gives out eight books a year to 97,000 Arab-Israeli children ages 3-5 in kindergarten and pre-k classrooms. All children in government preschools get the books for free and children in semi-private schools get the books at cost.
A box arrives in the classroom about once a month by courier – with a copy of the same book for each child and two copies for the classroom library. The teacher reads the book several times, initiates conversations with the children about the books and carries out book-related activities such as art projects or plays, and then each child takes a personal copy home, a gift to the family library. Each book also comes with suggestions in the back for book-related conversation and activity at home.
By the time a child reaches first grade, he or she has a personal library of 24 Maktabat al-Fanoos books. For many children these are the only, or almost only, books in their home.
The books in the program include original works in Arabic as well as translations from foreign works.
“This program is creating important change in Arab society,” according to Fatma Kassem, who is in charge of Arab preschools in Israel’s Ministry of Education. “There is increasing research that shows that exposure to reading from an early age helps later academic success. And reading is also important for emotional development.”