KitaabWorld, a for-profit online bookseller co-founded by Gauri Manglik of Menlo Park and Sadaf Siddique of Foster City, launched last fall.
Both women are mothers of young kids and longtime friends — their husbands went to kindergarten together — and say they found it difficult to find children's books that they felt reflected the experiences of growing up in the U.S. with a South Asian heritage.
Ms. Manglik comes to the business after spending more than a decade as a corporate lawyer, and Ms. Siddique has a background in multimedia journalism.
On the whole, they say, children's literature should be more diverse, and, when it comes to stories of South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, such books do exist but can be hard to find.
According to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, out of 3,200 children's books published in the U.S. in 2016, only about 21 percent were about people of color and only 12 percent were written and/or illustrated by people who are African American, American Indian/First Nations, Asian Pacific/Asian Pacific American or Latino/Latina. The Cooperative Children's Book Center is a library affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Education and has been tracking such statistics since 1985.
Proponents of diversity in children's literature argue that stories can create "mirrors," or narratives that reflect a child's own experiences back at him or her, and in other cases, "windows," or scenarios that enable a child to peek into the life of someone who is different.
Ms. Manglik and Ms. Siddique have a goal to curate books to help kids from South Asian cultures have positive "mirror" experiences and provide all kids with entertaining stories and "window" moments. "Our mission is really to spread and share the South Asian culture for kids growing up in America in a fun, engaging way," Ms. Siddique said.
Even within their scope of South Asian literature, they point out, there's a rich range of nations, cultures and religions to draw stories from. Countries represented in their collections include 20 languages across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, and religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and Sikhism.
Many of those languages share the same word for book, which is "kitaab" — the bookseller's apt namesake.
One story collection of Sufi folktales presents stories similar to Aesop's Fables, and some come with different moral takeaways. For instance, instead of the protagonist jumping into battle with a scary dragon, as might be expected in a Western fairy tale, one of the Sufi fables has the protagonist talk to the dragon to try to understand why it's behaving so cruelly, Ms. Siddique said.
An important part of the books sold at KitaabWorld, Ms. Manglik said, is the concept of "casual diversity." That means that diverse books should not just talk about Muslim or Hindu holidays, she said, but depict children of color, and of South Asian heritage, going about daily life.
Tracking down the books themselves has required sourcing texts from all over the world, they said, and in at least one case, has saved a book from premature retirement. They keep most of the books in Ms. Manglik's garage for now, but are looking into leasing warehouse space.
In addition to sourcing and selling books, Ms. Manglik and Ms. Siddique have been working to get their books into the hands of classroom educators.
Right now, they're planning to work with parents, teachers, museums and other institutions to distribute the stories they've curated as widely as possible.
"The point is to just get (the books) out there. We don't care how," Ms. Siddique said.
One way they've done that is through a campaign they launched on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that is called "Countering Islamophobia through Stories." The pair curated four book lists, such as "Muslim Kids as Heroes," that tell stories about Muslim protagonists, and then gave discounts on the books, thereby trimming their profit margins, they said. They also interviewed authors and posted online stories and essays that people submitted about their experiences with Islamophobia.
The pair hosts story time sessions with local schools such as the Peninsula School and GeoKids, a preschool near the U.S. Geological Survey offices in Menlo Park. They've hosted activities with the Palo Alto Arts Center, and with the Menlo Park nonprofit Art in Action.
At the Peninsula School in Menlo Park, Masa Tasovac, a teacher of 7- to 9-year-olds and who co-chairs the school's diversity committee, said that students found the lesson engaging. The lesson told a story about refugees, and was done in a "sensitive, age-appropriate" way, she said. Afterward, students were asked to do an art project about what they learned, and words like "freedom, "liberty" and "equity" popped up in their projects.
So far, Ms. Manglik said, some teachers in other states who have bought books from KitaabWorld have reported positive responses from students. One teacher, she said, told about a second-grade girl who was very excited about one of the books. "I've never seen a book with a girl in a hijab," she reportedly told her teacher.
"These small things make a difference in the lives of kids," said Ms. Manglik. As an example, she said, she went into her 7-year-old son's classroom at Oak Knoll School to talk about Diwali, a Hindu holiday.
After her presentation, she said, "I could see my son had a sense of pride in his own culture," she said. He felt like the class "expert" on the holiday, she said.
In addition to local outreach, the booksellers are looking for other ways to encourage diversity and inclusion in children's literature. During April, they are celebrating Autism Awareness Month by curating a list of South Asian picture books for kids with autism, and publishing an online guide to help parents pick picture books for kids with autism.
On June 3-4, they plan to participate in the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.
KitaabWorld co-founders Gauri Manglik of Menlo Park and Sadaf Siddique of San Mateo list here their most popular titles:
• Board Book: "It's Ramadan, Curious George" by A.H. Rey and Ms. Hena Khan. $7.99.
• Picture Book: "A Taste of Freedom: Gandhi and the Great Salt March" by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. $17.99.
• Chapter Book: "Many Windows: Six Kids, Five Faiths, One Community" by Rukhsana Khan, Elisa Carbone and Uma Krishnaswami.
• Chapter Book: "Vikram and the Vampire" by Natasha Sharma. $9.95.
• Middle Grade: "Tiger Boy" by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan. $16.99.
• Comic Book: "Ms. Marvel Vol. 1" by Marvel Comics. $35.00.
• Young Adult: "Dear Mrs. Naidu" by Mathangi Subramanian. $11.99.
• Adult: "The Adventures of Amir Hamza" by Abdullah Bilgrami and Ghalib Lakhnavi, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. $18.00.
Go to kitaabworld.com for more information.
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