Friday, March 17, 2017

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

A Weird Place to Be by Hena Khan from her blog. Peek: "I drew from my personal experience when I imagined the community in Amina’s Voice (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, March 2017)....I never in my worst nightmares imagined ever being in her shoes and actually having to grapple with those emotions in real life. But today, in an alarming rash of threats across the country targeting mosques and Jewish centers and schools..."

11-Year-Old Starts Club for Young Black Boys to See Themselves in Books by Taryn Finley from The Huffington Post. Peek: "Sidney Keys III. started his own reading club for boys called Books N Bros to show his peers that reading can be fun." Boys in St. Louis meet monthly to discuss a book they've picked featuring a black protagonist. Ty Allan Jackson, author of Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire, illustrated by Jonathan Shears (Big Head Books, 2010), joined their first meeting via Skype. Sponsorship from Serving With The Badge, a St. Louis community group, allows club members to take the books home.

Judging Books by Their Covers by Laura Reiko Simeon from The Open Book, Lee & Low. Peek: A parent asked her son how he picked books "to borrow and he said that he looked for books 'with brown people on the cover.' I was deeply moved because despite the fact that we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving equity in the publishing industry, there actually are enough diverse books out there for this to work as a selection strategy.... "

Día - El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children's Day/Book Day) resources are now available for download from the American Library Association and the Association for Library Services to Children. Add your Dia event to the national registry, get a press kit to let the community know about the celebration, and check out programming and activity guides. See also Día founder author and poet Pat Mora will receive the Texas Institute of Letters Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter by Katherine W. Phillips from Scientific American. Peek: "Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective...when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us."

Reading Without Walls: A Conversation with Gene Luen Yang by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book. Peek: "I knew that I wanted to do something that was related to diversity, and I was particularly interested in the diverse interpretations of the word diversity, so we ended up landing on three different ways of thinking about it: diversity in terms of people, diversity in terms of topic, and diversity in terms of format. See also

It's Not About Us by Donalyn Miller from the Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "The most important part of our connection to the children’s and young adult literature world lies in helping kids find their own stories. It’s not about us. It’s about them."

On Fiction, History, and Wishing the World Were Otherwise by Anne Nesbet from Project Mayhem. Peek: "...the power of a historical fantasy like A Crack In The Sea (by H.M. Bouwman, Putnam, 2017) depends very much on the reader knowing ... that in real life, these real people died terribly--and we wish so much that that could be otherwise that we are willing to write stories in which something else happens."

Margaret Peterson Haddix on Uprising by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing With a Broken Tusk. Peek: "I felt like I heard a voice telling me, 'They thought we didn’t matter'....I also stopped thinking about how I was different from the workers and started thinking instead about how much I had in common with them."

In Conversation: Laura Amy Schlitz and Brian Floca from Publisher's Weekly. Author and illustrator discuss Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Candlewick, March 28, 2017) (Brian) "Croc never gave me trouble.... he was so busy giving other people trouble, and other people’s trouble is fun to draw....I knew who he was from the moment Cora first sees him, and exclaims, 'An alligator!' to which he....replies, 'Guess again!'....the sort of writing that makes an illustrator’s life easy."

Books on Film: Shannon Hale, Jerry Pinkney, and Raina Telgemeier on Literacy by Travis Jonker from the School Library Journal. Library of Congress videos from kidlit authors at the National Book Festival. Peek: (Shannon Hale) "...literacy directly affects the quality of people's lives in terms of jobs...85 percent of incarcerated youth are illiterate."

SCBWI Books For Readers by Lee Wind from SCBWI: The Blog. Peek: "It's SCBWI's new literacy initiative, aimed at increasing book access, promoting SCBWI authors and illustrators, and advancing the mission of SCBWI: to support the creation and availability of quality children’s books around the world." Nominate a local cause or organization that connects children with books by April 30, 2017.

The Benefits of Having a Day Job by Margaret Dilloway from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: "If you give up your day job, the myth goes, you have it made. Yet I find myself having a lot of hours to fill once I’m done with my work. And giving an anxiety-prone writer too much free time can be bad."

100 Mostly Small But Expressive Interjections by Mark Nichol from Daily Writing Tips. Peek: Interjections may "seem disreputable" but "actually do a lot of hard work and are usually pretty persnickety about the tasks to which they are put." Includes spelling variations and definitions.

What Does It Mean To "Raise the Stakes"? by Jami Gold from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Low stakes—such as when there are no consequences or failure would be no big deal—can create problems with our story’s conflicts, tension, and pacing, as well as weaken motivations and make goals seem less important."

Learning From Reading: Change Up Your Patterns to Gain More by Annie Neugebauer from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: "As with any endeavor, routine can build good habits, but it can also become mundane. It’s harder to find inspiration when you know exactly what to expect, and it’s harder to be surprised when you’re doing exactly what you always do. So my suggestion for writers today is this: change up your reading habits"

Congratulations to Texas Institute of Letters Award winners: Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee for Maybe a Fox (Atheneum Books, 2016), Phillippe Diederich for Playing for the Devil's Fire (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016) and Dianna Hutts Aston for A Beetle is Shy (Chronicle, 2016). Meet Kathi in person at the Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, May 20-21.

Illustration by Kyle McBride

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsations Giveaway

More Personally - Cynthia

Best Kong movie ever! A pleasant surprise.
Happy St. Patrick's Day to all who celebrate it!

SXSW has descended on my city--sunny Austin, Texas! A perfect week for this creative local to hunker down and write.

I have progress to report! After a major plot reconfigeration, the new scenes are now all first-drafted, and I'm doing that sort of global hollistic revision necessary to smooth transitions, forge connections--essentially nudge the small elements into a resonate story that makes sense.

In the short term, that means one more read-through. As of this moment, I'm about 50 pages into that. I'll finish and key in another round of changes to pass off to my next genius reader this weekend and then turn my full attention for the following week to VCFA packets and speech writing.

The manuscript is still running tight. All those years of having to streamline to integrate seamless fantasy worldbuilding are impacting--for worse or better--my contempo realism work.

Cynsational Events

Cynthia is honored to speak on the faculty with one of her heroes, Pat Mora!
Cynthia Leitich Smith will be a keynote speaker for the 33rd Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference on April 6 and April 7 at Kent State University in Ohio.

In addition, she will deliver the keynote address at The Color of Children's Literature Conference from Kweli Literary Journal on April 8 at the New York Times Conference Center in Manhattan.

She is also a faculty member for the Highlights Foundation Workshop: The Joke's On You! The Scoop on Humor for MG and YA writers, Oct. 12 - 15. She will teach with author Uma Krishnaswami, writer-poetic-comedian Sean Petrie and Curtis Brown Ltd. agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding. Note: this program is: (a) a rare opportunity to gain insights from top writing teachers and Curtis Brown vice presidents: (b) both for comedy writers and those writing more serious works that include some comic relief.

Personal Links

More Personally - Gayleen

I was inspired by P.J. Hoover's talk at the Austin SCBWI meeting: 10 Reasons to Never Give Up. Reason 4 - Time: You own your time. I put this into practice this week, dialing back television viewing in favor of more revision time. You'd be surprised how much writing you can accomplish in an hour!

Personal Links

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Guest Post: New Voice Katie Bayerl's Path to Publication

By Katie Bayerl
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Katie Bayerl is the debut author of A Psalm for Lost Girls (Putnam, March 2017).

From the promotional copy:

"Tess da Costa is a saint — a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that's what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess's sainthood official. Tess's mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted - overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.

The fervor for Tess's sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who's been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess's shrines. It's the final straw for Callie.

With the help of Tess's secret boyfriend Danny, Callie's determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie's investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for: a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana's kidnapping."

I wasn’t the girl who dreamed of becoming a writer.

I loved reading, though, and I loved being around young people and being part of social change—so I found my way into a career as an urban teacher. In my classroom we talked about books, filled notebooks with big ideas, and wrote impassioned essays and heart-cracking personal narratives.

My first career didn’t go the way I expected.
First year at Boston International High School

Being a full-time teacher took a toll. I stockpiled anger at a system that treated my students as disposable. Daily injustices battered my heart badly. I was young, discovering my limits. When my mental health nose dived, I faced a choice: turn down the volume of my heart to survive or step away from the career that I’d believed was my calling.

I chose to walk away (a messy decision and the bravest of my life). My sleep schedule was erratic in the aftermath, and I found myself up late one night watching Lifetime version of Speak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

And oh. A revelation.

Young adults and books. The two great loves of my life. I should be writing for teens! I drafted an outline of my first young adult novel that night.

I poured my wounded heart into that first story. And the next one. And the next.

10 years passed.
Dorm room at VCFA

I got a bit of recognition, discovered I still had a lot to learn, pursued an MFA, began submitting my work, found I still had things to learn.

You know this story. The writer who faces rejection, persists. Except I’d always been impatient. I went full blast at the things that came easy. When things got hard, I found an out.

I couldn’t quit again, though, not after the last defeat. Also, I could sense that the pieces were beginning to click. My stories were changing, becoming deeper, more true to me.

Things started to happen.

First, an agent. Then, a book deal. My born-again author career was suddenly becoming real.
But—plot twist—over the same period, my first calling had wormed its way back into my life. I picked up creative writing classes at GrubStreet and found that, in smaller doses, teaching teens still filled my heart in a way nothing else did.

I wondered: Was being a writer enough?

I’d been watching other writers carefully, noticing how they braided their work as authors with their deepest-held concerns. I looked to Kekla Magoon, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Dana Walrath, among others.

I wanted a career that could incorporate all sides of me.

I found myself circling around an idea that had been planted in grad school—a few of us had a notion that Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) could become a hub for diverse young writers. We had a solid idea. All we really needed was someone who had the time, passion, and persistence to make it happen. Passion I had. Persistence I’d learned. Time I could make.

VCFA Young Writers Network Kickoff event with author Kekla Magoon.
Shortly after my book deal became public, we announced the launch of the VCFA Young Writers Network.

It’s a balancing act.

Leading this work means I won’t be a book-a-year author. I’m ok with that. I want to be in the business of cultivating stories, plural, and elevating voices, most especially young writers from marginalized groups. I feel this as a white author in a severely unbalanced field and as an educator who still feels the tug toward social justice.

Last fall, I returned to the role of student. 

The Launch Lab, designed for soon-to-be-published authors, helped me get clear about my goals and weed-whack through the clutter of promotional activities to find those that can help me become the writer, teacher, and change-seeker I want to be.

There are still many questions about how this will go, what comes next. But if 10 years as a writer has taught me anything it’s how to stay the course.

Cynsational Notes

When Katie Bayerl isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. She currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network and teaches classes for teens at GrubStreet.

Katie has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder.

Publishers Weekly gave A Psalm for Lost Girls a starred review, describing it as "richly and evocatively written." Peek:"Through these two perspectives—alleged saint and grieving sister—debut author Bayerl unspools a gripping story of loss and grace."

Kirkus called it "packed with vivid cultural scenery, this ambitious debut offers readers a journey worth taking."

Enter for a chance to win one of five copies of A Psalm for Lost Girls in a giveaway from the publisher.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 13, 2017 and 12:00 AM on March 27, 2017.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about March 29, 2017. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

In Memory: Josanne La Valley

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Josanne La Valley obituary from The New York Times.

Peek: "Josanne received degrees from St. Lawrence University, Smith College and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She worked in arts management and as a professional musician before she turned to writing."

A few members of the children's literature community shared their thoughts about Josanne.

From Laurie Calkhoven:

I first met Josanne at a children’s writing class in 1998. We rode the M66 crosstown bus home together, and about halfway through our six-week course she mentioned that she and another writer, Shirley Danko, were planning to start a writer’s group and would I like to join them?

I liked the idea of a group, but it was a commitment to people I barely knew. I said yes, promising myself that I could make up an excuse and drop out if it became too much of a burden. That group did more for me than I ever could have dreamed. Not only was it the beginning of a 19-year friendship with Josanne, having the group to go to week after week to read my chapters kept me going through the early years of rejection.

Shirley left the city, and other writers came and went. Josanne and I were the two steadfast New Yorkers, the Thursday-nighters. We learned how to write together and how to critique together, and as happens when you’re laying yourself bare on the page week after week, we shared joy and heartbreak and became the best of friends.

Josanne was the first person to celebrate when someone else in the group had a success—always with champagne. She never complained that her journey to publication took a little longer. She was a traveler as well as a writer and found her voice in northern China, getting to know the Uyghur people. She published a middle grade novel with with Clarion about that community and lived long enough to see her second published and to read its very good reviews.

No one ever believed in me the way Josanne did—with optimism, enthusiasm, and a belief that I could break out of my comfort zone and dig deeper. I miss her generosity of spirit, her loving kindness, and especially her fierce commitment to making her words the best they could be.

The Champagne Sisters: Kekla, Josanne, Laurie and Bethany
From Bethany Hegedus

In 2001, I met Josanne LaValley at the Rutgers-One-on-One Conference and we began chatting in earnest as we waited for the train back to New York City.

Soon after I joined a critique group Josanne and Laurie Calkhoven had started. We met on Thursday night’s twice a month and then increased to once a week. Always Thursday nights. Always a pot of peppermint tea no matter whose home we met in.

In 2002, Josanne started her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was in the class above me. Maybe this was a sign I would follow Josanne anywhere.

She was a trailblazer: smart, sophisticated, kind and in my mind, an ageless and timeless Eileen Fisher model. She was worldly and well-traveled. I hadn’t yet traveled out of the United States and in an earlier incarnation had lived in a trailer in the rural South as a young military wife.

Josanne and I couldn’t have been more opposite but we formed a deep friendship as we worked on our writing, week after week, with pot after pot of peppermint tea.

There were other rituals—writer’s pajamas—bought for Laurie when she transitioned out of her Scholastic editing job to be a full-time writer.

Champagne when one of us had a sale—and ever after we became known as the Champagne Sisters. The celebrations, hard work and sales continued as Kekla Magoon joined our group.

Josanne was the last in the group to publish. She landed her dream agent, Marietta Zacker, and the two sold her first novel The Vine Basket to Dinah Stevenson at Clarion, the right and perfect publishing home for Josanne. The book won an Amelia Bloomer award and appeared on many state lists. Josanne’s main character Mehrigul was inspired by one of her trips to China and depicting the Uyghur people’s hardships and hope was an integral part of who Josanne was.

Josanne’s second novel released this January, Factory Girl. I have a copy proudly on display at The Writing Barn, now forever without Joasanne’s signature—but more than an autograph in a book—Josanne La Valley, my friend and champion, autographed my life: teaching me what diligence, fierce intellect, and true kindness can achieve.

From Kekla Magoon

Josanne was consistently one of the most supportive people in my writing life. From the time we met as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts over a decade ago, she took me under her wing.

Kekla, Laurie, Bethany and Josanne
Our writing group, which we dubbed The Champagne Sisters, brought out the strengths in each of us, but Josanne's warm and welcoming spirit clearly stood at the heart of our circle.

She refused to tolerate any self-deprecation, self-doubt, or hesitation about putting oneself out there, both personally and professionally. Her quiet but insistent encouragement fueled me through a lot of difficult decisions early in my publishing life.

It was always easier to go out into the world, knowing that Josanne had my back. I trust that she still does. I will miss her greatly, but her inspiration and influence remain in my heart, and will be reflected in my work for the rest of my life.

From Tim Wynne-Jones

"I had the great pleasure of working [as VCFA faculty] with Josanne on her creative thesis. She was such a warm person with such a lovely smile — a good soul and a good writer, too. I'm so sad to hear of her passing."

Cynsational Notes:

Josanne's most recent novel, Factory Girl (Clarion, 2017) focuses on Roshen, a 16-year-old Uyghur girl from northern China who is sent to work in a textile factory in the south. Kirkus Reviews  described the book as "A thought-provoking look at oppression and the power of words from a viewpoint not often heard."

Josanne's first book, The Vine Basket (Clarion, 2013) followed the story of Mehrigul, a 14-year-old girl forced to leave school to work on her family's farm. School Library Journal gave The Vine Basket a starred review. Peek: "The realistic and satisfying resolution will resonate with readers, even as they learn the fascinating details of an unfamiliar culture."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Author Interview: Longy Han on Crowdfunding Books

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Longy Han is the author of two books, Gusto & Gecko Travel to Kenya, illustrated by Elinor Hagg (Longy Han, 2015) and Gusto & Gecko Travel to New Orleans, illustrated by Elinor Hagg (Longy Han, 2016).

Her publication journey began as a crowdfunding project, and the second book was recently picked up by Scholastic Reading Club.

What was the initial spark for your book?

My love for travel to exotic places, my appreciation for different cultures, and my desire to bring the world to young children!

Children’s books played a big part in my childhood - when I first arrived in Australia, I didn’t speak a word of English (and neither did my parents). So I submerged myself in reading children’s books before eventually catching up to other kids my age. It made learning English so much more exciting.

What was the timeline from spark to publication?

A little under two years. The first version of Gusto & Gecko Travel to New Orleans dates back to May 2015, and I successfully crowdfunded the project in November 2015.

A year later, I had a launch party for the book at Harvard Graduate School of Education, was accepted into the Venture Incubation Program at the Harvard Innovation Lab and now, Scholastic Reading Club is distributing it online. Yay!

How did the Scholastic distribution come about?

A friend of mine recommended my books to them and they got in touch with me. I believe the sales of my first book got them interested in my second book!

What were the major challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) along the way?

Distribution, by far, is the biggest challenge for self-publishers.

It’s so difficult to reach your target market especially if you don’t have a marketing budget or existing distribution network. It’s everyone's dream to sell directly to end customers but very few authors have achieved this.

On some days, I want to just throw in the towel because nothing seems to work. On other days, when I receive fan mail from kids with their scribbles of Gusto & Gecko, that just sends me over the moon and makes all the struggles worthwhile.

Which opportunities and challenges were unique to crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is a great way to 1) test your idea, 2) build your fan base, and 3) raise the initial capital to self-publish.

One major misconception people have about crowdfunding is that the campaign starts on the day it goes live online.

That is false. Successful crowdfunding campaigns “launch” weeks before – you should have scheduled all your social media posts, told all your friends and family about the project, reached out to kidlit bloggers, etc.

A good rule of thumb is: the campaign needs to raise 50 percent of its funding target within the first 48 hours (otherwise it will most likely fail). If interested, this is a reflective piece I wrote about my experience.

Why did you decide to go that route?

Back in 2014, I spoke to an editor of a large publishing house about my first book, Gusto & Gecko Travel to Kenya, and she told me that they weren’t considering new authors for at least two years because their pipeline was already filled with published authors.

I’m not someone who sits around and wait for things to happen, and I guess the rest is history.

What did you learn from the process?

Persist until you succeed. And trust me, you will.

What advice would you give to someone else taking that route?

Look up other projects that have been successful and learn from them.

Look up Facebook pages on crowdfunding and get feedback from others in the community.

Remember, crowdfunding isn’t easy money but if you are committed, you can make it work.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

This is where I give a plug about Gusto & Gecko right?

But seriously, my email address is If any readers of this amazing blog want some advice or got more questions about crowdfunding, feel free to contact me.

Cynsational Notes

Longy Han is a lawyer turned children's book author.

Naturally curious and mildly adventurous, she has traveled independently across seven continents, visited 40 countries and 100 cities. Longy has kissed a giraffe in Kenya, eaten rooster testicles in Budapest, swam with fish at the Great Barrier Reef and flirted with penguins in Antarctica.

She is currently studying for a master of education in technology, innovation and education at Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter @LongyHan. Watch the Gusto & Gecko crowdfunding videos on their YouTube channel.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bookseller Interview: Gauri Manglik on Connecting Children with South Asian Culture

By Gayleen Rabakukk
Co-founders Gauri Manglik & Sadaf Siddique

for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

KitaabWorld is a new online bookseller focusing exclusively on South Asian and diverse children's
titles. I interviewed founder Gauri Manglik about their unique niche, how the business got started and their Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.

KitaabWorld is a great resource for finding children's books with South Asian connections. Tell us more about how it got started.

Like many new ventures, it all started with a personal problem. 

As our own children were growing up, we started to see the struggle in trying to raise them with an understanding and sense of rootedness in Indian culture, while they were growing up in America. We looked around libraries and bookstores and barely found any books, toys and games to expose our kids to Indian culture. 

I recall once I was at our local public library, and we were thrilled to see a book called Hot Hot Roti for Dadaji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min (Lee & Low, 2011). We eat rotis (an unleavened flatbread similar to wheat tortillas), and my son was thrilled to see a book which talked about something so familiar - hot rotis! 

Another time we were visiting India, and my then four-year-old would keep comparing his life in the U.S. with the world he saw in India. He said, “In the U.S., there are stop signs, but in India, there are none. In the U.S., cars go really fast on freeways, but in India, they don’t go as fast.” We came back and again, after much searching, found Same Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw (Henry Holt, 2011) - it provided many of these comparisons with lovely visuals and conveyed a beautiful message! 

Around the same time, I was a corporate lawyer advising startups every day who were working on “the next big thing” - often when I asked my clients how did you think of this idea - they would say, “At my previous company, I noticed this problem and I realized I could solve it, so I decided to quit and start my own company.” 

These cumulative experiences inspired me to do something to solve my own problem - I had a few ideas on how I could do it, so decided to take the leap!

How did you come up with the name? Does it have a special meaning?

It took a while for us to land on the name - we wanted it to appeal to the most, if not all, of the South Asian diaspora, but yet be something that was relevant and interesting to the mainstream audience.

The word kitaab means book in many languages - Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Persian, Nepalese to name just a few. Other languages have similar words - see kitap (Turkish), kitabu (Swahili) and katav (Hebrew). We wanted to create a gateway into a world of diverse children’s books, so “KitaabWorld” felt ideal.

How long did it take to get up and running? What were the challenges?

It took us about three long months to get up and running - from incorporation of our LLC to getting the website designed and ready to go. 

We were new to the bookselling game, but knew we wanted to curate a strong collection, so it was lot of research to find the right books, and set up distribution channels, especially for books from South Asia.  We’re still learning the tricks of the trade but it’s been fun. 

My years of experience negotiating corporate deals definitely has come in handy! Marketing is always a challenge for a start-up, but we were pleasantly surprised with a lot of traffic and customers we acquired through word of mouth. 

Also, in the mainstream conversations around diverse books and representation of diversity, we felt that South Asians were missing or very scattered. Right from the beginning, we knew we wanted to create easily accessible frameworks for parents, teacher and educators to include South Asian perspectives into their discussions on identity, race and representation - it felt like a gargantuan task in the beginning, but we’re proud now to see we’ve made good progress on this front.

For perspective, what is the South Asian publishing industry like? How many children's publishers are you working with and approximately how many books are they producing each year?

The South Asian publishing industry has been very active, especially over the last decade. Most of the books are published in English, given that’s sort of the unifying language throughout South Asia, though we actively scour for bilingual or books in regional languages. 

We sell books on Kitaabworld published by around 10 different publishers in South Asia right now, and are actively working with new ones to review and stock their books in the coming months. We don’t have exact data, but I am quite sure over a 1,000 books are being published every year in South Asia.

How did you and co-founder Sadaf meet?

Gauri and Sadaf at a Holi event at the
Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose
Sadaf and I go back a long way - our husbands went to the same school and knew each other since kindergarten. We were good friends and would often meet up for playdates, coffees and mom’s night outs. 

When I felt the urge to start Kitaabworld, I reached out to Sadaf to brainstorm ideas with her - she and I complement each other very well in our skill sets, and I felt she would be the perfect partner to work with on Kitaabworld. I was delighted when she agreed to work on it with me, and we’ve not looked back since!

Corporate lawyer to bookseller seems like a big leap. Were there events and experiences in your background that helped prepare you for this?

Indeed it is, but definitely a fun one! Reading children’s books seems so much more fun than those 100 page agreements in size 10 Times New Roman filled with legalese. 

Having said that, I don’t think anything could have prepared me better for starting Kitaabworld than my many years of legal experience - well, I take that back - maybe some digital marketing experience would have been helpful! 

I was always an avid reader, and so introducing my kids to books was a given. I saw the power of children’s books as I was raising my own son - through books, we were able to calm his stranger anxiety, teach him how to share, understand how life would change when his baby brother arrives, and so many other life lessons. 

I realized how crucial books are for young children, and that convinced me even more to make the switch.

How do you promote your books or raise awareness about South Asian children’s literature?

At Kitaabworld, we wanted to be able to bring South Asian characters, books, issues, authors and those interested in South Asia under one umbrella - or at least to one place. One way we spread awareness is through curated book lists. For example, we published a round-up of best of 2016 South Asian children’s literature, a round of books celebrating mothers for Mothers’ Day, or books on Buddhism. 

Another way is through our curated book bundles, where we create topic-based book bundles such as Folktales of South Asia Book Bundle (for elementary schools) or our South Asian Book Award book bundles sorted out age-wise. These bundles help discovery of books that a prospective customer may not know exist on our website.

Tell us about the Counter Islamophobia Through Stories Campaign. What inspired it, how did you implement it, and what response have you had?

Like most of us, Sadaf and I were closely watching the political environment while working on Kitaabworld. When the Republican government won, we were really stunned - we did not realize the extent of divisiveness in the country.

We wondered what we could do as a children’s bookstore to contribute - 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. 

We felt that a key element missing from children’s literary landscape was positive representations of Muslims, especially Muslim kids. Since we had actively sourced a number of books keeping just 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.

We decided to break it down into four curated booklists around four different themes: Muslim Kids as Heroes, Inspiring Muslim Leaders, Celebrating Islam and Folktales from Islamic Traditions

We worked really hard at it - focused on the books we wanted to feature, the authors we wanted to interview, the stories we wanted to share. We brainstormed with some teachers and parents as to the best way to implement it. 

The response has been truly overwhelming - we have sold many books, and are excited to see them reach so many children all over the US. We are grateful that we were able to make a difference, and so thankful for the support we have received from parents, teachers and the community. 

We are now working with teachers and other community organisers to take the campaign offline through schools and into the hands of children. We hope that in our own small way, we can work together to plant the seeds of change.

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