Alik Arzoumanian’s story begins in Lebanon, where she grew up making books for her siblings using simple markers. “We didn’t have many Armenian books back then,” she recalled in her vibrant kindergarten classroom one afternoon. And though it has been quite a while since her childhood days in Beirut, in other ways, it seems not much has changed. Today, Arzoumanian is the author and illustrator of dozens of picture books for young children—some she translates into Armenian, others she illustrates. This summer, she added one more to her repertory.
Pobig Dodig, like many of Arzoumanian’s other books, was an inspired work. It’s a charming story about the daily life of a baby boy who wears round, blue glasses. It was based on her two nephews, who both contributed to their aunt’s work in different ways at different times. The idea came to Arzoumanian back in 2005 when her oldest nephew was just a year old and initiated word play with his mother: “Mama! Pateeg, patoog!” (Those two words make up a page in Arzoumanian’s book.) It wasn’t until her fifth nephew was born with an eye condition in 2017 that Arzoumanian decided to have the baby wear blue glasses. Pobig Dodig was finally published soon after.
As an author and illustrator, Arzoumanian is using her talents to help teach children to read in her native language, Armenian. When she was a little girl, Arzoumanian’s aunt would often travel to the United States for leisure and then return home with books to translate into Armenian for her and her siblings. Her all-time favorite book is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which she has since translated into Armenian. “That’s how I got introduced to all the big American authors. I’m grateful for that,” she said wistfully. “I don’t feel too far [away] from my childhood. I’m still a kid. When I think about our house, I think about those books, those books I grew up with.”
Arzoumanian wrote her first book, Sananeen Anabaduh (Sanan’s Desert) when she was just 16 years-old. It was published a year later in 1991. Now almost two decades later, Sananeen Anabaduh is proudly displayed and cherished on a bookshelf for her kindergartners to enjoy at St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Armenian children all over are growing up with Arzoumanian’s books, including my own. One night, I introduced my son —also, quite coincidentally, named Alik—to Pobig Dodig. (Alik means ‘ocean wave’ in Armenian. I learned of its gender neutral origins while Googling during labor, believe it or not.) Alik, who will turn three in January, has always been fond of books, since reading has been an important part of our bedtime routine from the start.
He giggled as I read, especially when I increased my pitch for those adorable two-syllable words. Fortunately, his language skills are quite advanced for his age, so I made the book more exciting by elaborating on the content and ensuring that he recognized the letters and words. After a while, he also started mimicking the child’s pose that was depicted; then he reached for his vardeeg collection (still toilet training) from his bureau when he saw the smaller pictures on the book’s back cover.
The text in Pobig Dodig is intentionally large, which Arzoumanian says is important for children, in order to become familiar with the unique collection of symbols that make up the letters of the Armenian alphabet (which bear little resemblance to the alphabets of any Western or European languages). Arzoumanian says she consciously avoids adding bilingual or phonetic elements because, “If you give them a bilingual book and they know English, they will read the English. If you give them phonetics, they will read the English.”
Her goal is for Armenian children to see Armenian, read Armenian, and speak Armenian—mitigating prevalent fears among parents at a time when the Western Armenian language is endangered. During our conversation, Arzoumanian remembered a workshop, where she learned that a language is dying if authors, filmmakers, and artists cease to create in that language. Above all else, this is what motivates her.
A creative and imaginative force, Arzoumanian has so many ideas about what’s next for her. But for the busy kindergarten teacher and mom of two, it’s about finding the time. For now, she is illustrating her next original picture book, Gosheegneruh [Shoes]. It’s a special tribute to her friend’s late mother. Her friend once shared a story about how her mom had bought her shoes that she didn’t like. So she tried to get rid of them by scratching them and making them look old in hopes of getting a brand new pair. Instead, her friend was served a lesson in being content and grateful when her mother bought the same pair of shoes for her…same style, same color.