Getting children to a positive place through the pages of a book

The initiative is helping counter depression and ill health through fiction novels and comic books

Picture a hospital – are you seeing a place of grim truths, where fluorescent lit corridors lead you to stark white rooms?


A reading initiative is changing that. Now, in several hospitals across the UAE, you can walk down one of those corridors and hear laughter; turn into one of those rooms and find an explosion of colour, with children letting their imagination run wild.


It’s all thanks to Wanna Read? – a non-profit organisation created in 2013, by Shaikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan. The initiative builds libraries in paediatric wards of hospitals, and encourages healing through reading.

Shaikha Shamma told Gulf News: “Our three main goals are to promote literacy amongst young patients, encourage parental engagement and inspire greater community service. Hospitalised children are the most vulnerable in our society, and there can be a stigma attached to ill health, as well as an understandable fear and anxiety when a family discovers their child is unwell. I believe that through community engagement, parents benefit from a little respite time which can help them cope with what they’re going through.”

A study published by the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health found that there was a significant statistical relationship between the duration of illness and severity of depression in children who have been hospitalised. About 63 per cent of children they surveyed had varying degrees of depression.

In a study of children in Canada’s paediatric intensive care units (PICU), doctors found negative psychological outcomes in 25 per cent of children in the first year since they were discharged. Researchers found that those with chronic conditions, like cancer or diabetes, were at a higher risk for mood disorders when compared with children who suffer from acute conditions, like asthma attacks or limb fractures.

Wanna Read? is helping children cope better, by making their hospital stay a more comfortable and even enriching experience.

The idea for the initiative struck Shaikha Shamma during a reading session of her own children’s book, The Lost Princess, in the library of The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, US. The event inspired her to bring the concept to the UAE.

Since then, Wanna Read? has been responsible for distributing over 5,000 books to 13 reading rooms across hospitals in the country. For children who may not be able to leave their hospital beds, organisers provide book trolleys, allowing the books to come to them instead.

Gabrielle O’Kane is an Australian national who is head volunteer, and has been working with Wanna Read? for over a year.

She said patients’ and parents’ response to the initiative has been phenomenal.

“Especially because it is the Year of Reading in the UAE, parents know we are encouraging the habit and are happy for us to do so. I volunteer at Shaikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi and find that many parents like to be there when we read books out to their children, because they get to learn new words and pick up a new language as well.”

While children aged three and upwards are their target audience, O’Kane said they do not have a stringent cut-off age. Some patients may be much older in age, but mental disabilities can cause them to be several years younger intellectually, and Wanna Read? caters to them, too.

The books provide an escape from the harsh realities of life in a hospital, and O’Kane said this is apparent in the way children react when they realise it’s time to read.

“As soon as you open the door to their ward, and they discover it’s not a doctor or nurse coming in to bother them, they are in a positive place.”

But young readers can be picky customers.

O’Kane said: “Girls are easier to deal with – they aren’t fussy about which books they’d like to read. They like reading aloud and showing off their skills. I tend to focus on the boys a little more. There’s no point giving them books they don’t want to read. So we offer them more comic-style books – they like that. The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan and Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney are also popular choices.”

Shaikha Shamma said: “Books supplied cover a wide variety of topics and languages, which include English, Arabic and French. We make an effort to source books that are based in hospital settings to familiarise the children with the space that they very often relate to pain.”

Currently, the initiative has 15 reading rooms in hospitals across five emirates, including Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi and Latifa Hospital in Dubai. They have plans to open in Tawam Hospital, Al Ain as well.

At the moment, Wanna Read? is accepting volunteers in Abu Dhabi and those interested in participating can visit their website: wannaread.ae.

Shaikha Shamma said: “Individuals can participate by contacting our office and attending our orientation sessions, which are the first steps to becoming a volunteer. We run an active volunteer programme at Shaikh Khalifa Medical City and the programme will soon be implemented in four other hospitals. Volunteers can also offer support at events, on social media, in room set-up and with general administration when we are opening a new room.”

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