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Somali children's book launh

New Somali-English children’s books are a community effort

Books will be used in schools, libraries and homes

Do you remember the last bedtime story you read to your child? Did the story’s characters look and sound like members of your family? 

More than 500,000 immigrants and their children live in King County; finding stories that fit those parameters, especially for children, can be difficult. 

Book launch event

In Somalia, for example, folktales and bedtime stories are traditionally shared through oral storytelling, rather than being written down. That’s part of the reason Somali American families are among the immigrant groups who struggle to access books in their native language, despite Somali being the second most spoken language in the Seattle Public School system. 

But the Somali Family Safety Task Force is working to change that. The organization released five new bilingual Somali-English books on Friday during a packed book launch event at New Holly Gathering Hall. The energy was high in the room as members of the task force introduced the books and explained the creative community-based writing process that moved them from idea to publication. The new books include common folktales well known by older immigrants from Somalia as well as new stories of Somali people based in Seattle.

Somali Book

Several new titles released by the Somali Family Safety Task Force.

Language equity project

The books are part of the task force’s Language Equity Project. The project launched in 2018 when the task force self-published three board books for preschool-aged children. Created over the course of six weeks that summer, the board books were developed in collaboration with local public libraries, schools, and the local housing authority. 

The 2018 books teach the Somali alphabet, numbers and animals and can be found in the Seattle and King County public libraries, in school libraries and directly through the task force. Two of those earlier published preschool books are available electronically through Seattle Public Libraries website. They were designed with the help of five Somali families living in Seattle. All three books prominently feature artwork done by the children and families involved. 

New books share traditional folktales

In contrast, the new books released this week feature of traditional folktales well known by older immigrants from Somalia as well as new stories of Somali people based in Seattle. They were written collaboratively by a group 14 local Somali community members. 

“Our books empower parents to realize that they are their child’s first teacher,” explains Farhiya Mohamed, Executive Director of Somali Family Safety Task Force who initiated the project. “Some refugees and immigrants can’t speak English or read in their native language. We added audio versions so that every parent can sit and read with their child. We want our children to be proud of their culture and learn to speak their native language.”

Fartun Omar who works with elders in the Seattle Somali community said the event that all the books produced by the task force help to foster intergenerational connection, with elders passing on the stories they know and love from their home country to kids born here who might not be exposed to them on a regular basis. Having the stories written down in both English and Somali allows elders to help their English-speaking children and grandchildren learn the Somali language and, in come cases, allows kids to help elders learn English. They also are a vehicle for teaching children about the history of their elders, resilience and ingenuity.

The book Gabar Gabaree, for example, tells a common story for elder women in Somalia, says Omar.

“When they were in their country, many didn’t have a lot of money but girls wanted dolls. So they would make dolls with whatever they had on hand. It’s part of the culture to create things for yourselves using your own imagination,” she said. “With these books, kids are able to learn about the experiences of elders. They get to know where they come and, from this book, learn a lesson that even if they have little they can make many things using their imagination.”

The books focus on common Somali values like resilience and helping others. In the book Hana & Harun, siblings Hana and Harun have different strengths. Harum knows how to ride a bike, but Hana doesn’t. Hana is good at math, but Harun struggles. By compromising and sharing their strengths with each other, Hana learns to ride and Harum gets better at math

Books from the Somali community for the Somali community 

The task force focuses on the needs and strengths of the community, and this focus shines through all its projects. This was especially the case in the development of the children’s books. The language equity project aims to encourage and empower: 

  • children to be proud of their culture and learn to speak their native language
  • intergenerational discussions within Somali families
  • parents to realize their significant roles as their child’s first teachers
Recognizing an oral tradition through audiobooks

In keeping with Somalia’s oral storytelling tradition, the new books have been made available in audiobook format. The audio versions allow family members who may not read their native language to share traditional Somali stories with the new generation. Project leaders hope the books will prompt dialogue among family members and help parents to be more closely involved in their children’s education. 

Connecting kids to their culture

While their parents work to assimilate into U.S. culture, some American-born children of immigrants only learn to speak English. Numerous studies have attempted to quantify the mental health impacts for immigrants who lose ties to their native cultures. Efforts aimed at cultural preservation and dissemination, such as the task force book project, are occurring around the country. In a similar project, the Minneapolis Public School District #1 sponsored the development of a bilingual collection of Somali folktales and published them online.

Dr. Thad Williams, International Education Administrator for Seattle Public Schools plans to be on hand for Friday’s book launch and said he lauds the Somali Family Safety Taskforce and Farhiya Mohamed for working with Somali families to create the books. 

“What an opportunity it will be for the district and students of SPS to be able to use them,” Williams said.

The importance of multilingual books

Williams says providing multilingual students books in their own language is important for many reasons. Accessing books in their own languages, affirms a student’s identity and recognizes being multilingual and multi-literate as an asset.

Multilingual books also provide students the opportunity to see themselves in the images, authorship, and words of the book, he said. 

Williams added that project’s like the task force book development creates opportunities to make multi-generational connections with family and community members that speak the same language and keeps the language strong in the community. Not to  mention when students learn to read in their own language, it strengthens English literacy skills and helps them to become stronger readers in all languages.

Williams said the plan for how the school district will use the book is not fully set. 

“We anticipate they will be used in some of the after school Somali language programs happening in SPS, the Somali Heritage Language Course, and in partnership with families, schools and libraries,” he said.

For more information about the even or  or to obtain copies of the Somali and Somali-English books, visit the task force web site.



About the Author

Claire Sheridan

Claire Sheridan is a US-based writer and writing group facilitator. She enjoys debating about policy, current events, and critical existential concerns such as the best gluten-free cookie recipe. Connect with her at