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10 South Asian Books to Develop Reading Strategies

Diversity multicultural Reading

Guest post by Sania Zaffar and Armeen Sayani, Special Education majors from Loyola University, Chicago. 

“All you have to do is flip the fraction,” my fourth grade reasoning suggested to my friend having trouble with fractions. “Ohhhh, I got it. Thanks!” he replied as he carried on with the math problem. That was the first moment the seed of teaching was planted.

Helping students achieve their “aha!” moments in the classroom, as well as being able to connect with their salient identities, are just two of the many gratifying parts of teaching that made us want to pursue education as a career choice. We realize the impact that we can have on students as a teacher, because of our own social identities. Teaching gives us an opportunity to empower and connect with students, especially students of color, immigrants, Muslim, those that speak English as a second language or come from various cultural backgrounds.

We want all our students to hear, see, and connect with stories and texts similar to their experiences. We also want them to see versions of themselves reflected in books throughout their schooling.

Most of all, we want texts reflecting South Asian experiences to be used within the curriculum as an effective tool rather than a tokenized text. This got us thinking about developing this list of South Asian books tied to three main reading strategies.

10 South Asian Books to Develop Reading Strategies

While there are many more South Asian children’s texts out there, we developed this list in an effort to find books tied to Common Core State Standards for teachers to use in their classroom.

The following booklist is organized into three main reading and writing strategies. The first looks at analyzing themes and central messages of a text, the second uses books as anchor texts for writing, and the third is looking at how the text’s structure and organization influences the meaning of the book.

Theme and Central Message, Grades K-4

Studying and teaching theme, or the central message, of a text is key to students grasping the nuances occurring throughout the text. Theme often begins to be taught with the younger grade levels, such as when looking at the lesson of a fable, and gradually increases in complexity when students begin chapter books.

Grandma and the Great Gourd (pre-k- 2), By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 

    • This text is a retelling of a Bengali folktale about a grandma going on a journey through the jungle to visit her daughter.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.K.2: Demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds (phonemes).

This text uses a folktale to tell the story of a grandmother outsmarting forest animals on her journey. Using stories is a great start with younger readers to learning about theme as most short stories will state the theme/lesson at the end explicitly.  

See more Folktales here.

The Boy and the Bindi ( gr. K-2), By Vivek Shreya

    • In this picture book, a young boy is fascinated by the bindi that his mother wears on her forehead. He asks her  a lot of questions about the bindi. She teaches him the cultural significance behind the bindi and also lets him wear one on his own forehead. A lot of people stare at the boy in public and ask him lots of questions about his bindi. However, he continues to to love and be proud of his bindi. His bindi makes him feel unique, beautiful, peaceful, protected, connected to the world, and grounded in his culture and identity.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.2 Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral.

Children can explore the central message in this book of accepting differences and being proud of their social and cultural identities. The title itself lends itself to discussing possible overarching ideas present within the book. It is possible that the boy in this book is exploring his gender identity since bindis are usually worn by Hindu women. Therefore, this book can be used to teach students about breaking gender norms.

See more books on Identity here.

My Dadima Wears a Sari (pre-K-4), By Kashmira Sheth

    • This picture book is about two young sisters, Neha and Rupa, who learn about saris from their grandmother, who always wears a sari everywhere she goes. Their grandma teaches them how to wear saris in different ways, how a sari can come in handy in daily life, the different colors, materials, and styles of saris, and three particular saris she owns that are special to her. By the end of the story, Neha, Rupa, and their grandmother become closely bonded by their strong love and appreciation for saris.  
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.4.2: Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

This is a great text to talk about themes in descriptive writing pieces as young readers can explore the development of the main theme of this story by analyzing the dialogue between Neha, Rupa, and their grandmother and the feelings they show about saris.

See more books on Grandparents, here.

Writing, Grades 1- 4 and 5 - 8

When we talking about teaching reading strategies to children, we often forget how important pairing writing with reading can be to develop these  skills. Students need to have the chance to become the authors to better understand the intentionality behind what the text is doing. Although students often have more space to create stories when they are younger, it’s vital to carry the momentum through the middle school years.  

Chachaji’s Cup (gr. 1-4), By Uma Krishna swami

    • This picture book ties the relationship of a nephew and his Chachaji to the important of Chachaji’s favorite teacup. Written from the child’s perspective, the book is familiar and relatable.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.2.1.e: Use adjectives and adverbs, and choose between them depending on what is to be modified.

This text is written and illustrated in a very relatable way for children of all cultures through its use of adjectives and adverbs when it comes to describing the scene, or what the boy is experiencing. The illustrations are also a great starting point for children to use when developing their own sentences. By removing the text, or covering it up, ask children to use their five senses to write what is happening in the picture.

Shooting Kabul (gr. 5-8), By N.H. Senzai

    • This realistic fiction showcases the struggle of a young refugee boy from Afghanistan adjusting to life in the US. Through a relatable tone in honest situations, Fadi shows just what it means to persevere.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3.b: Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.

Using this book teens can develop writing that includes descriptions, pacing, and/or events as the text not only includes flashbacks, but also how Fadi grows as a character based on his dialogues and actions. This reading creates a long term goal when it comes to writing begging students to think about sequencing, characters, and what a narrative text entails.

Text Structure and Organization, Grades K-7

Analyzing the larger idea of the structure of the text and its specific features related to genre often goes overlooked when teaching reading and writing. By understanding how the text itself is organized, readers can connect larger ideas to critical thoughts. Again, as the text increases in complexity, the skill of analyzing structure become evermore helpful, hence this category encompassing grades K-7.  


Many Windows (Short Stories, gr. 4-7) , Rukhsana Khan

    • This collection of short stories brings together six children, from the same class, to share their faith based celebrations. Not only does the text touch on various religions, but it also creates a community of celebration among the religions.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.6: Compare and contrast a firsthand and secondhand account of the same event or topic; describe the differences in focus and the information provided.

Pairing this informational text, with an objective informational text about the religions touched on within the books will set up a compare/contrast activity of nonfiction texts. The narrative additive can push students to analyze the realities of religion for young people, and the larger idea of how comparing these narratives highlights points of connection between differences.

Muslim Child (Short Stories + Poems, gr. 3-6), By Rukhsana Khan

    • Sharing short stories, recipes, and an overview of the basics of Islam through narrative, this text shows what it means to be a Muslim child with all the doubts and insecurities in between. The text also has a reference section in the back for pronunciation.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.7: Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, timelines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

These short stories can be used to teach text features, such as footnotes, sidebar, glossary, pronunciation guide, and visuals, that students can later use in other informational texts. Not only is the text easy to read, but it also contextualizes the text features into a Muslim child’s experience.

King for a Day (gr. K-3), By Rukhsana Khan  

    • Set during the Basant kite festival in Lahore, Pakistan, this picture book follows a young boy that has a disability and his excitement for the kite festival.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.7 Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.

Students can look at the colorful illustrations and the specific words in the text to determine the emotions that the young boy is feeling throughout the book. Thus, students are able to connect illustrations to the text to better understand the main character and how sequencing in the illustrations helps move the story along.

See more books on differently abled South Asian kids here.

Sona and the Wedding Game (gr. K-3), By Kashmira Sheth  

    • This book is about a young girl named Sona who attends her first Indian wedding. Throughout the book, Sona’s cousin Vishal explains to her the significances behind the various traditions that are part of a cultural Indian wedding. Sona takes part in one of those traditions: stealing the groom’s shoes without him knowing and then bargaining with him when he asks for them back. She devises a plan to steal the shoes and is ultimately successful. In exchange for the shoes, Sona asks the groom to give her the beautiful white horse that he entered on as her prize.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.3 Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events

With this text, students can describe Sona’s character and her motivation to successfully steal the groom’s shoes, as well as how her strategic actions contribute to the sequence of events in the story.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-Ji (gr. K-5), By F. Zia

    • Aneel is a young boy who has a very close relationship with his Dada-ji, or grandfather. In this picture book, Dada-ji tells Aneel stories of how he used to fight the animals in his village because of the strength he got from eating roti, a popular flat, whole-wheat bread in most South Asian homes . Inspired to help his grandpa regain his strength again, Aneel takes on the challenge of making roti for his grandpa. Ultimately, Aneel is successful at making roti and, after devouring it, his grandpa regains his power and becomes strong and lively again. In the end, Aneel and his grandpa go on many adventures outside together.  
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.

Students can develop a deeper understanding of this book by studying the metaphors, imagery, higher-level academic vocabulary, onomatopoeia, and Hindi words in the text to analyze how the cadence of the text, paired with the illustrations, assists in the overall message of the story.

Developing a multicultural curriculum and classroom environment increases students’ engagement and motivation to read, which is especially important for struggling readers. Parents can also bring these books into their homes and allow their children to experience children’s literature and practice reading and writing strategies through a South Asian lens.

As we researched and read the books on this list, it was such a validating and empowering experience to see our cultures and traditions represented in stories, to see main characters that looked like us, to understand the words in Hindi and Urdu, and to relate to the different experiences of the South Asian characters. As future educators ourselves, we understand how crucial it is to include these texts in their classroom libraries and lesson plans.

Sania Zaffar is a first generation, Pakistani, fourth year student at Loyola University Chicago. She chose Special Education because she believes everyone has the right to an education- regardless of ability.

Armeen Sayani is an immigrant from Pakistan, a first-generation American education student, and a senior at Loyola University Chicago. Armeen is pursuing Special Education because she is passionate about helping individuals with disabilities overcome academic, emotional, social, and physical boundaries so that they can reach their highest potential in life.

Check out this post on Picking Picture Books for Kids with Autism


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