Kid Review: The Katha Chest by Radhiah Chowhury

 

About This Book:

 

Reminiscent of Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s Mommy’s Khimar, this beautifully woven tale about the bonds of love, culture, and memory follows a young girl learning about her family history through her grandmother’s katha chest.

 

Asiya loves to visit Nanu’s house where she can rummage through Nanu’s katha chest filled with quilts. There are stories in each of the quilts that her Nanu has collected through the years, all about the bold and brave women in Asiya’s family. Among all of the games and exciting things at Nanu’s house, Asiya thinks these hidden histories are the grandest treasure.

 

*Review Contributed by Karen Yingling, Staff Reviewer*

 

Comforting Family Memories

 

Asiya enjoys the katha quilts that her Nanu made out of the saris that her mother and aunts were no longer useful as garments. The quilts are stored in a chest, and Asiya likes to look at the different patterns and think about the family stories that are kept within the folds of cloth. One reminds her of a medal that an uncle got when he was in the military, another has paint on it because her aunt is an artist, and one exemplifies the neat, ordered way that another aunt wears her clothing. While the quilts often preserve whole swaths of fabrics, they frequently have pieces of other cloth as patches of additions, and some of these are the white of mourning garments. Asiya’s favorite quilt is one that her mother made that consists of many different patches in unusual shapes, and which smells strongly of her mother’s cooking, and of home. The quilts are a way to bring the family together when they are in the house, and a way to remember Nanu, who has passed away.
Good Points

Interspersed with the short descriptions of the quilts that Asiya is looking at are pages without text that have the feel of a photo album. Illustrations show the different family members at stages throughout their lives. These have no explanation, and there is one of an aunt sitting next to the bed of a little girl who looks to be sleeping, with a shadowy form hovering above the girl with her hand on the aunt. The aunt is crying, which made me wonder if the little girl was actually dead. Since there is no text to this effect, younger readers might not pick up on this. Seeing the saris being highlighted in the context of family history makes the katha all the more poignant.

The author’s family has some Bangladeshi heritage, and the illustrator is from Kolkata, and the illustrations bring even more cultural connections to the text. the end papers have a tile effect seen in Indian art, and the illustrator’s note indicates that all of the textiles in the book are based on family saris. The palette is largely soft yellows, oranges, and teals, but also has a lot of purples, greens and pinks, since there are such a wide variety of fabrics.

This was a simple story of family love and connections that would hold up well to repeated readings. My objections to the book were all based on the fact that I just wanted MORE. Since I have only read a few books about Bangladeshi culture, a table of the names of different relatives would help. Information about sari fabric or making katha would have been interesting. I would even like more biographies of the women depicted in the wordless albums!

I love needlecrafts as a way to examine the culture and history of women, which is why I would love for The Katha Chest to have more explanations, as well as more of the great illustrations. Young readers who want to connect more to the past through textile art can add The Katha Chest to a list of books from other cultures, such as Polacco’s The Keeping Quilt, McKissack’s Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt, Herkert’s Sewing Stories, Khalil’s The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story or Rockwell’s The Altogether Quilt.

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