February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

KitaabWorld | Connecting the World to South Asia, One Book at a Time

The word “kitaab” means book in a number of languages and a new website is on a mission to “connect the world to South Asia, one book at a time.” The site, which was founded in the fall of 2016 by Gauri Manglik and Sadaf Siddique, aims to make books and resources related to South Asian culture readily available to parents, teachers, and libraries.

In addition to its commercial arm, the online bookstore hosts information for educators including lesson plans, booklists, and a “meet the author series.” We spoke with Manglik about KitaabWorld’s mission and products.

Tell us about KitaabWorld’s inception.

KitaabWorld stemmed from the need for representation of diverse and inclusive books about South Asian children and mainstream young adult literature with South Asian protagonists. Our mission is to spread awareness about South Asian culture, and provide resources for teachers, librarians, and parents so they can showcase it in a fun and engaging way.

We fulfill our mission in three ways. First, we run an online bookstore through which we facilitate the discovery and distribution of South Asian children’s literature in the United States. There’s a robust publishing industry in South Asia, but many books published there aren’t available through distribution channels here, so we ease discovery and access.

Second, we run an online content platform, spotlighting South Asian authors, publishers, and books. We routinely publish curated booklists, conduct author interviews, and publish guest posts.

Lastly, we collaborate with schools and other institutions to create events for kids to experience and learn about South Asian culture, including storytimes and school visits.

In particular, what countries and traditions are represented on your site?

Our products represent Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and the region of Tibet. The South Asian community comprises of over a billion people, at least 20 languages, and many religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism,and Sikhism.

We offer products that reflect key elements of these cultures such as art, dance, food, folktales, history, religions, mythologies, and traditions, and curate books from around the world which feature traditional, contemporary, and reimagined stories on and about South Asia.

When it comes to books, what do you consider as criteria for inclusion? How is cultural authenticity vetted?

South Asia is such a diverse region and we strive to find books that represent this diversity. We include books that feature South Asia, or where the culture, people, or heritage of South Asia are the primary focus of the story. We also list  books written by South Asian authors that may not have anything to do with that region.

Seeing yourself in books—especially for children in minority communities—is important for their sense of confidence as well as a feeling of inclusion so we actively seek books with South Asian protagonists.We want kids to see themselves reflected in the books they read—empathize with the young child who wants to get on the basketball team, laugh at cheeky pranks, find out about superheroes, learn about their own roots, and celebrate their identity.

All books are reviewed before they are listed on website—for overall story quality and cultural authenticity. Unfortunately, we do come across books that get a lot of things wrong—stereotypical images, incorrect facts or visuals, so vetting is very important.

What age groups do you serve? Do you stock bilingual and/or titles in languages other than English?

Our books range all age groups (0–18), and we have a small curated collection for adults. Yes, we do stock many bilingual titles as well in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, and Urdu and seven other languages. We also provide parents and language teachers with resources to teach children these languages.

What curation do you provide?

For us, curation also means showcasing books in a way that can help teachers use them in the classroom. We publish booklists such as books with powerful girl characters, which we released on International Women’s Day, or Reflecting Diversity with Folktales from a South Asian perspective. Earlier this year, we published a sneak peek of upcoming 2017 releases and recently collaborated with a blogger who provided a detailed review of seven South Asian picture books for kids with autism.

We also create book bundles such as an Introduction to South Asia and Visionaries from South Asia to help elementary, middle, and high school teachers who are looking to introduce South Asia to their students.

While KitaabWorld is a commercial site, you offer so much more, including links to studies and current research.

Yes! We are more than a bookseller. We strive to provide a wide variety of resources related to South Asia. For example, we have a page of  lesson plans. We also conduct storytimes and parent and teacher education workshops to provide a more holistic perspective on South Asia.

Can you say a few words about your “A Kitaab for a Cause: Counter Islamophobia Through Stories” initiative?

Like many people, we did not realize the extent of divisiveness in this country until the recent election. We wondered what we could do as a bookstore to lessen it. We decided we could play a key role in changing perspectives of young children and ensuring they were more open and receptive to people who were unlike them.

One key element missing from the children’s literary landscape was positive representations of Muslims, especially Muslim kids. Since we had actively sourced a number of books with that parameter in mind, we wanted to create multiple access points for people to engage with stories on and about Muslims.

This was the genesis of our Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign, which offers four curated booklists/themes: Muslim Kids as Heroes, Inspiring Muslim Leaders, Celebrating Islam, and Folktales from Islamic Traditions. We worked really hard at the campaign—focusing on the titles we wanted to feature, the authors we wanted to interview, and the stories we wanted to share. We brainstormed with teachers and parents as to the best way to implement it. We offered a discount on all the books, and honor that now on request.

The response has been truly overwhelming—and we are excited to see these books reach so many children all over the country. We are now working with teachers and other community organizers to take the campaign offline through schools and in front of children. We hope that in our own small way, we can work together to plant the seeds of change.

I’m curious, what are some of your best sellers?

There are a number, but here’s a short list!
Brown Like Dosas, Samosas and Sticky Chikki;
Mathematwist: Number Tales From Around the World;
School for Princes: Stories from the Panchatantra
1001 Inventions from the Muslim Civilization
Dear Mrs. Naidu
A Bhil Story
Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why
Drummer Girl
Eye Spy Indian Art
Festivals of India
Sarla in the Sky
I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail
Most Loved Tales from the Panchatantra
My Friend is Muslim

It’s a starter list, but we also offer personalized recommendations across age groups, reading levels, and grade levels. We’ve curated sets of recommended titles for both school librarians and teachers.

Any chance we will see you at upcoming educator/librarian conferences?

We will be presenting on “Counter Islamophobia Through Stories” at the ALA conference in June, 2017! Unfortunately we missed the deadline for submissions for NCSS and NAME conferences, but are on the lookout to apply for other conferences, where this topic could be a right fit. We really think this is the need of the hour, and spreading the word about our campaign will help inform many children all over the United States.

And one last question, what are your own children reading?

I have two boys—a seven-year-old and a three-year-old, so our favorite books are ones that I read to them or have read to them over the years. These include B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures, Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman, Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops, Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes’s Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth, and Amy Maranville’s Padmini Is Powerful.


Curriculum Connections

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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