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August 14, 2018

Bharat Babies Is Changing The Way Children Read About Colour

Text by Sholeen Damarwala

Indian-American publisher Sailaja Joshi is determined to fill bookshelves across America with literature that’s more inclusive

Five years ago when Sailaja Joshi was pregnant with her first child, she was surprised by the dearth of relevant and impactful books geared towards Indian-American children. A self-confessed bibliophile with a background in anthropology and sociology and a deep-rooted interest in studying the Indian diaspora, Joshi realised that there was a void in children’s literature about the experiences of Indian-American children. “In the American publishing world, there are five times as many books about dogs, trucks and little boys than there are about children of colour,” she says. “And, when you can’t see yourself reflected in books, the message is clear: you don’t matter.”

Determined to change that, Joshi founded Bharat Babies in 2014, a publishing company that aims to fill bookshelves across America with age-appropriate, culturally sensitive and visually vibrant books that tell tales of brown kids growing up in diasporic communities. “Over the last two years we have interviewed over hundred parents and community members to understand what they need,” says Joshi, “and it was evident that they were looking for a line designed to grow with a child’s mental and physical capabilities.”

In the first few years, she published books that reflected the religious and cultural stories she grew up listening to. Their first two titles, Hanuman and the Orange Sun and Ganesha and the Little Mouse, focused on Hindu mythology, while their next two books touched upon the topic of Ramadan with Amal’s Ramadan and Amal’s Eid. “India often gets homogenised as a Hindu nation and while it certainly has a predominant Hindu population, there are Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists — a whole diverse demographic that calls India home,” says Joshi, stressing on why it’s crucial for her to represent that diversity.

By the third year of its existence, Bharat Babies had decided to shift its focus from stories with a religious bent, moving on to sharing tales about these kids just doing cool things — like Always Anjali, the story of a little girl who gets a new bike for her birthday and decides to change her name because she can’t find a nameplate with her name on it. Or Super Satya Saves the Day which revolves around a girl who has to find a way to channel her powers when her superhero cape is at the dry-cleaners. Or Shubh Raatri Dost, a bilingual book about two siblings bidding their animal friends good night.

Joshi works with a list of seasoned authors and illustrators, ensuring that the scripts and characters are authentic depictions of South Asian children. For instance, attention to details like skin tones, cultural quirks like pierced ears or visualising Indian hair in its flowy thick form, are crucial representations that sets Bharat Babies books apart. “D. Bishop from Ohio State University has this theory about the role of sliding doors, windows and mirrors in children’s lives — and how having diverse literature is important because it allows the reader to have this sliding door, to peek into a culture they might not know. It gives them this opportunity to open a door or window into new worlds. And it provides them with mirrors in which they can see their lives and know their experiences are possible,” says Joshi. “Because when you can see yourself as something other than a kid who’s picked on, then you have this opportunity to imagine yourself as a kid who can do much more.”

Currently Bharat Babies has four product categories that aim to grow with a child. Board books that have simple stories and bright images, focusing on children from birth up to the age of two; illustrated books that are intricate and help with cognitive developments and foster a love for learning for children from the ages of two to eight; early reader series that take the first 250 to 400 words a child learns to read in school and puts those into stories; and art series that target adults looking for coffee-table books that reflect their cultural heritage. The brand is also growing at a rapid pace, working towards audio and bilingual books (they plan on starting with Hindi first), apps and toys, with plans for a television show in the pipeline. “The Trump presidency has really impacted people of colour,” says Joshi “and while I don’t protest for a variety of reasons, I always tell people that Bharat Babies is my protest — to insure that these communities are not erased from bookshelves and their existence is made equal.”

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