Authors: Anupama Oza, Mangla Oza and Raj Oza
In the past:
When my parents (and co-authors, Mangla and Rajesh) were young parents, they desperately looked for books about India and Indians for my brother (Siddhartha) and me to read. Not finding suitable titles, desperation resulted in their making up bedtime stories featuring two brown kids (Dhanu and Diddhu), relying on a handful of books published in the West with one of them being Marcia Brown’s Caldecott-winning Once a Mouse, and reading the ever-reliable Amar Chitra Katha comic book series which featured a re-telling of Indian history and mythology.Since these oral and written stories were in English, we were introduced to literary India through a language-altering lens.
My parents constructed homemade scrapbooks that introduced the Devanagari script, and Siddhartha and I gamely attended Chinmaya Bala Vihar Hindi language classes. Later, I continued my study of Hindi at the university level. But the admirable bookshelves in our California homes, at our brick-and-mortar bookstores, and throughout our public libraries were sadly empty when it came to encouraging young children to learn and love Hindi.
Fast-forward decades, and into the void arrives hope by way of KitaabWorld, an online bookstore, which has made its way into local libraries and into the hearts of young parents. As a teacher of nonfiction studies, I also hope that it soon makes its way into classrooms where educators can convey to their students that books are indeed mirrors, windows, and doors.
“Mirror books” enable a reader to see herself in the text. Seeing this reflection of herself, the young reader is likely to experience what education professors Drs. Claude and Dorothy Steele call identity safety, and thus entertain a life-long love of reading, of seeing herself in literature.
“Window books” engage the imagination about worlds outside a child’s direct experience. Just think of all those children transported to a particular platform at King’s Cross station in London (thank you, Harry Potter!) As a teacher, I’ve been delighted to see girls and boys of Pakistani and non-Pakistani descent relate to a Nobel Prize winning Pakistani girl (shukriya, Malala Yousafzai). “Door books” encourage one to action and interaction, to take a step out of one’s comfort zone and engage with something or someone new.
In their book, Critical Multicultural Analysis of Children’s Literature: Mirrors, Windows, and Doors, Maria José Botelho and Masha Kabakow Rudman convey the power of these metaphors: “The mirror invites self-contemplation and affirmation of identity. The window permits a view of other people’s lives. The door invites interaction.”
Perhaps it was serendipity that we (Mangla and Rajesh) wandered through the door of this year’s Durga Puja in Newark and interacted directly with the many self-affirming books offered by Gauri Manglik and Sadaf Siddique of KitaabWorld bookstore. What a joy it was to see wooden blocks in Devanagari; we envisioned those being building blocks for the Sanskritic literacy of generations to come. What fun to see quality puzzles designed around Indian themes; we imagined hours spent with children gathered around a table, bringing order to the chaotic pieces of India. What sheer relief to see books of varying literary merit; we embraced the diversity of Caldecott-winners sitting side-by-side on bookshelves which include lesser fare. And then we realized that the generation of desi-millenials had indeed arrived on the California scene!
To have arrived is to have access to places like KitaabWorld.com which enable choice-making: to choose to remain Indian; to elect to become American; or to explore ancient and modern scripts to discover one’s own sense of wonder of what it means to be an Indian in America and an American in India.
In their own words, Manglik and Siddique’s mission, vision, and business plan reflect the aforementioned door, window, and mirror metaphors:
“In many languages, the word ‘Kitaab’ means book—our mission is to connect the world to South Asia one book at a time, and that’s why we chose the name ‘KitaabWorld: [a door]”. We have handpicked books, toys, and games from over eight South Asian countries to help children learn and experience the diverse elements of South Asian culture [a window]. KitaabWorld is a product of our passion and commitment to increasing the diversity and representation of South Asian children’s literature in American homes, schools, and libraries. Our aim is to have South Asi=an children feel represented in the stories and books around them [a mirror].”
They went on to say, “Parents, librarians, and teachers can order books (as well as flashcards, puzzles, toys, and games) on our website. KitaabWorld.com is easy to navigate—just add products into your cart, follow the steps to complete the process, and we’ll ship your order.”
Upon returning from the Durga Puja we eagerly shared one of the books in KitaabWorld’s collection with our daughter Anu to give her a sense of this bookstore’s many offerings for Indian-American children, indeed for all children.
Aruna Hatti and Kalyani Ganapathy’s “A is for Anaar” is a fine first book for the Hindi learner. Cleverly written, colorfully illustrated, and compellingly published, this book would sit proudly on any bookshelf containing books that feel like substantial keepsakes from generation to generation.
Hatti’s writing has a light touch, like the cadence of children’s poetry that has the reader singing. She uses a lay transliteration of Devanagari into English rather than the approach taken by scholars (example: “A is for Anaar” rather than “A is for Anãr”). While this strategy suffices to understand the correct pronunciation, young readers could become confused; someday a child might ask her mother, “Why isn’t your name ‘Anupamaa,’ and why isn’t Naniji ‘Manglaa’ and Nanaji “Raajesh?” Of course those same names would rarely, if ever, be spelled out as such, and thus we’ll just have to wrestle with this cross-cultural linguistic challenge. Hatti’s more substantial area for improvement might be in creating a storyline that connects all the vowels and consonants rather than a seemingly arbitrary collection of disconnected illustration captions; for example, “A” may be for “Anaar” and “AA” for “Aankhen,” but what do pomegranate (anaar) and eyes (aankhen) have to do with one another?
Fortunately, Ganapathy’s illustrations save the day. Not only are her colors vivid, but she brings her characters alive. The little Indian girl on the Aankhen/Eyes page has sparkling Indian eyes, and her dainty hand reaches back across the spine of the book to the previous page to Anaar/Pomegranate to pluck a seed from the juicy ruby-red fruit. It is quite appealing to imagine a Rajasthani desert-brown American child identifying herself with the big-hearted brownness of this anaar-plucking girl with the plucky aankhen.
Leaving aside the critiquing of this particular book, we must say that with KitaabWorld on the scene, all three of us look forward to the next generation of children saying, “A is for Anupama’s Arrival!” For a community to have truly arrived on foreign shores, it must write its own stories, and those narratives must be published. Ultimately, bookstores play a vital link in bringing our stories from authors, illustrators, and publishers to the reader’s mirror, window, and door.
Progress has been made, but a wonderfully named website called weneeddiversebooks.org argues that much still needs to be done: “In the year 2013, out of 3,200 children’s books published, there were only 93 about African American people. This led to a New York Times article that asked the question, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”
One hopeful response is, “Right here at KitaabWorld.com!”
For Rami Nair (Anupama’s professor of Hindi at Northwestern University) and for all the other teachers committed to keeping Indian languages and literature alive in America and beyond.