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KitaabWorld Interview: South Asia Book Award Committee

South Asia Book Awards

The South Asia Book Award is the only US based award that exclusively recognizes South Asian children’s and young adult literature.  As the 2016 South Asia Book Award (SABA) ceremony approaches, KitaabWorld spoke to Rachel Weiss, Award Coordinator and Kevin King, 2017 Committee Chair about the thrill of discovering new titles, SABA’s evaluation process and South Asian representation in children’s literature.

Founding SABA

For SABA Award Coordinator, Rachel Weiss, creating a South Asia Book Award was an extension of her passion for South Asia. It was a role she was eminently suited for considering she directed outreach programming at the Center for South Asia, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for over 16 years.

While working on bringing aboard another committee member, she was directed to the Head of Patron Services and Information Technology at the Kalamazoo Public Library, Kevin King (who is serving his third year on the committee as the Chair). “The reason the SABA award was established is very similar to why you wanted to start KitaabWorld - to put South Asian literature in the hands of librarians and teachers and promote the great work coming out about South Asia” he enthuses.

Initially, however, Weiss faced a hard time finding and tracking down appropriate resources. “There were very few picture books, school readers or literature that were reaching the hands of kids, teachers, librarians in the U.S., that explored a multifaceted South Asia,” Weiss recalls.

History of the South Asia Book Award

As Weiss began to find appropriate books related to South Asia for her own work, she reached out to colleagues who had established the Américas Award and the Africanas Book Award. They were hugely supportive of her efforts to start the South Asia Book Award.

In 2010, with the help of her mentors Ginny Moore Kruse (Director, emeritus, CCBC, UW-Madison) and Julie Klein (UW-Milwaukee, who served as the award coordinator of the Américas Award), Weiss worked with her colleagues across universities in the U.S. who were member institutions of the South Asia National Outreach Consortium (SANOC) and founded the South Asia Book Award, established guidelines, developed the submission process and selected a national jury for the first SABA awards.

Rachel Weiss (far left) with Kathy Mervis and Maryann Owen, SABA committee members

All members institutions of SANOC are designated as South Asia National Resource Centers and funded by the US Department of Education Title VI. As its main initiative, the SABA awards seek to promote ‘high-quality children's and young adult books that portray South Asia or South Asians living abroad.’

“Institutions who are funded by Title VI have a federal mandate to conduct K-12 outreach -- each member program works to bring outreach on South Asia into their community and State -- SABA allows us to work collaboratively to bring outstanding works of literature about South Asia to schools and libraries nationwide” Weiss explains.

Criteria for Selection

Since its inception in 2012, SABA has granted Awards to two books, as well as created a list of Honor and Highly Commendable Books each year.

Expanding on the criteria for selection, Weiss mentions authenticity and accuracy are two criteria that SABA holds dear. She says, “There is an emphasis on literary quality, and that’s what we are honoring in the award books. So we have very robust conversations about whether the books have content to expand someone’s knowledge of this very diverse and expansive region, culture, and languages. We also want to ensure accurate and authentic narratives that aren’t promoting stereotypes or misinformation.”

Authenticity holds not just for content but for illustrations as well. “We evaluate the illustrations and the message they are putting forward” says Weiss. Unfortunately, stereotypical representations are all too often a concern even in picture books and sometimes the most subtle illustrations will elicit long conversations among committee members to ensure accuracy.

The award was not intended to reach South Asians in the diaspora alone, but more so to reach educators, librarians, and interested readers in schools and libraries across the US (and beyond) that want to engage with stories about the region “That’s why we rely on a jury that is a mix of content specialists, teachers, librarians -- while many members of the jury have experience in the region, some have no South Asia background -- they have a different gaze into many of the stories and spark conversations about observations and questions that engage the committee in dialog.” Weiss explains.

Reflecting on South Asian Diversity 

So then are these books mainly restricted to those from US and Canada or open to publishers writing about South Asia from all over the world?

“We are conscious of selecting books not just from mainstream publishers but also seek out smaller publishers from South Asia, Canada and the US” adds King.

Kevin King (right) with Kathy Mervis, past SABA committee member

SABA actively seeks books that represent the diversity of the South Asian region. This year, their list of Honor mentions includes The Boy Who Speak in Numbers by Mike Masilamani set in worn-torn Sri Lanka and the Crane Boy by Diana Cohn, an environmental story from Bhutan.

“Even though the SABA Awards are fairly new, librarians and teachers who are part of the committee are hyper aware of books coming out in the region and with the awards giving these books their prominence, most librarians and teachers have been advocates to get these books on their shelves,” says King.

“Every year we are amazed at the submissions! It is exciting to see the growing diversity in what’s getting published within South Asian children’s and young adult literature, for instance this year, Rani Patel in Full Effect, may be controversial for some readers but the story is very effective in addressing abuse and gender dynamics in South Asian cultures. On the other end of the spectrum, we have had books such as Mission Mumbai which are a fun stories about discovering new places” exudes Weiss.

Lesson Plans and Outreach

Another aspect of SANOC support is ‘to  encourage and commend authors and publishers who produce such books, and to provide librarians and teachers with recommendations for educational use’. SANOC members work with school teachers or SABA committee members to create lesson plans for the award winning and honor books to help teachers introduce those topics in schools.

Through partnering with South Asia National Resource Centers, and institutions with South Asian programming across the United States, SANOC actively promotes sharing of information and resources on South Asia. They work towards incorporating South Asia content into school curricula, and promoting the resources, workshops, conferences, and educational programs at the South Asia centers.

As she looks back, Weiss reflects, "An unexpected outcome from establishing the SABA award are the connections that have been created with authors, small publishers, and book stores like Kitaabworld that share a passion for and pursuit of diversity in books with a focus on the South Asian experience."

SABA Award Ceremony and Submissions for the 2017 Awards

Gearing up for the SABA 2016 Award Ceremony in Washington DC on December 2nd 2016, Weiss mentions that they are excited to honor the SABA 2016 Award Books - Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins and Dear Mrs. Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian.

The 2016 SABA Honor Books are Razia and the Pesky Presents, The Boy Who Asked Why and The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers.

The 2016 SABA Highly Commended Books are A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic, My Friend is Hindu, Crane Boy and Sona and the Wedding Game.

SABA’s submission deadline for the 2017 Awards is January 31, 2017, and all books published in the 2016 calendar year are eligible for submission. The submission process can be found here, and for publishers based outside the US, they can send all the submissions directly to Rachel Weiss to distribute to other members of the SABA committee.

So to all writers and publishers of South Asian children’s books in 2016, don’t miss out on your chance to get stamped, sealed and approved by SABA!

As for the rest of us -teachers, librarians, parents and South Asia enthusiasts, get your hands on all these award winning titles today at KitaabWorld today!

KitaabWorld is passionate about making South Asian children's literature more accessible in the US. To make it easier for teachers, librarians and others, we have created curated book bundles for different school ages from the books that have been recognized by SABA.

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