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Yali Books - A window to South Asia

Yali Books

The desire to create a window to South Asia lead the mother and daughter team to create Yali Books. KitaabWorld spoke to co-founder and illustrator Ambika Sambasivan  on the creative and challenging aspects of publishing.

What prompted you to start Yali Books?

Yali Books began as a mother-daughter collaborative project. My mom Kala Sambasivan is a writer and columnist and she wanted me to illustrate a book she had written. We worked together to create Bye, Bye, Motabhai!, a zany tale takes readers on an adventure through the historic city of Ahmedabad in India—a place special to us both. The book was well received, which made us think of growing our project into something bigger.

We dreamed of creating books that would capture the incredible cultural diversity, history, and natural heritage of South Asia. Through our stories, we wanted to invite young readers to see and learn about the places we have lived in, traveled to, or dreamed about going to, and experience the unique magic of our corner of the world.

What are the some of the changes you've observed in landscape of diverse children's literature?

We don’t have decades in the industry to answer this question as a publisher, but we can certainly comment on it as readers. Part of our process of growth is to read, read and read. We pore over children’s books to study the craft and it is fascinating to see the changes in the way children of color are depicted in books. It is certainly a major step forward – we have moved from away from caricatures and near-invisibility, gone through a phase of tokenism, and are now in a wonderful new world of authentic storytelling. We still have a long way to go before ‘diverse’ books are seen not only as books for children of color, but for ALL children to read and enjoy.


How important is it for publishers to source “own voice” narratives? How do you verify the authenticity of these stories?

We believe it is incredibly important, particularly when seeking out narratives from voices that have been marginalized or ignored in the past. During the editorial process, we work to delve into the author’s experience with the subject at hand and we try to verify details independently. We also push for illustration that is authentic, attempting to work with artists who have a deeper connection with the setting and context of the story they are illustrating. However, it is a complex issue with many shades and nuances. Whose story does the author have the right to tell? How far can the boundary of identity be pushed to remain an ‘own voices’ narrative? These are difficult and messy topics to deal with in real life, and we grapple with sorting them out as best as our resources allow.

Which part of the process - content creation, editing, distribution excites you the most?

Editing is truly rewarding. We get to enter a world that the author has created and shape the story into a compelling narrative. In the role of editors, we have the unique opportunity to identify and mentor upcoming South Asian talent and provide a platform for voices that aren’t well represented in mainstream publishing. We are truly honored to be able to work with some incredible writers and artists over these few years and hope to continue to do so for many more decades to come.

What are the challenges that you face as a publisher?

As a small press, we are constantly challenged to stretch a tiny marketing budget to publicize our titles to buyers. We currently rely on trade and customer reviews, book fairs, and creative social media promotions. Finding ways to get word of our books out to teachers, librarians and parents in effective ways is a challenge that keeps us on our toes every day.

What are your models of distribution (eg-bookstores, libraries, schools)?

We are able to get our titles into schools and libraries across the nation through wholesalers and specialty distributors. We retail our books through our website and many online booksellers, including the unique KitaabWorld! We also sell at book fairs and South Asian community events.

What plans does Yali have for the future and what titles can we look forward to?

We are driven by the belief that children deserve ‘windows and mirrors’ in the books they read – windows that open up into places and lives different from their own, and mirrors that reflect their own families and immigrant cultures. We hope to continue to offer these ‘windows and mirrors’ to many more years to come by bringing some of the color and joy of South Asia to classrooms, libraries and homes.

We are very excited about the two titles we are launching this year –

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan, a picture book biography of Goharshad, a 15th century queen who ruled from Herat in modern Afghanistan. She ushered in an era when the arts, literature, poetry, and architecture flourished in the region and commissioned some of the most beautiful buildings ever built.

Ritu weds Chandni, a vibrant picture book that sets the story of a same-sex couple struggling to gain acceptance within a conservative family against the colorful backdrop of an Indian wedding.

Both feature inspiring stories and eye-catching artwork that we are certain young readers will enjoy!

Kala and Ambika are the mother and daughter team behind Yali Books. They enjoy discussing books over coffee, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They can’t imagine talking about anything else.

Also see our books on Malala Day

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