‘Lost in Books’: Lessons from a Polyglot Bookshop

Jane Stratton, Creative Director of the Think and Do Tank Foundation & Sydney, Australia’s Lost in Books answered a few questions about how their pioneering polyglot bookshop makes space for world literatures: 

I see you have bilingual (or I’m sure in some cases multilingual) staff members. That’s an excellent idea. What else can bookshop owners do to make people from many different language backgrounds comfortable as they enter (and spend time in) the shop?

Jane Stratton: We are really lucky to exist in a very polyglot community. People who live in Fairfield are often learning English as a third or fourth language. So our volunteer base represents a pool of more than 60 languages – but not all in the store at one time!

We do our best to greet and help people in the shop and at Lost in Books activities in the languages in which they feel they can express themselves. We can do this because we look closely at the community where we operate. Other stores could do the same by looking at the statistics on languages spoken in their location and ask themselves how they can welcome and celebrate those people. If you don’t want to provide a service to speakers of other languages, find out who can.

Where do you source your non-English books? I know sometimes when book-buyers get Arabic books, they tend to only get Scholastic translated titles, vs. interesting titles written originally in Arabic. How do you get as diverse & interesting a range of titles as possible?

JS: It’s a challenge! And made more challenging again by the distance to Australia and the cost of freight that imposes. We are very fortunate to have staff and a volunteer base of Arabic readers from a range of backgrounds. We are hungry for suppliers of Arabic books and especially look for books which were written originally in Arabic, rather than having been translated from other languages. We also look for books which are excellent and beautiful.

Sometimes the publishers, authors and illustrators find us and bring their books to show us. Other times, we work with our staff and volunteers to make contact with publishers and try and negotiate supply. We are also working towards the publication of our own locally-written books which will express an Australian experience in Arabic (and other languages).

How important is it to have books that reflect the realities back in the countries from which kids might have migrated? 

JS:Very important. And also the cultures that their families have brought with them. We sometimes say that stories told in your mother tongue are like home-cooking. They feel familiar and nourishing in deep ways. But it’s not just important for those children whose families have migrant backgrounds. Every Australian child can grow from the richness of stories told about countries and cultures that are not their own.

The residencies also sound amazing! What is the application process like? And then I assume you stock former residents’ books in your shop? 

JS:Applications are currently open for the third round of the In Other Words residencies. The residencies always unlock a treasure-trove of talent and creativity within our community and this round is set to bring more. We encourage applicants to show us as much as possible what their dream is for their own work, but also how they will share that work with our local community.

The experience of working towards a published outcome with the time and encouragement to work is an important offering for the artists who get the residencies.

We are able to produce a very basic in-house publishing option at the moment. And we are working towards partnerships with book designers and editors which will help us be able to develop these works into a fully-published format very soon. We are also actively seeking funding to be able to create a thriving small publishing house within Lost in Books.

What is the importance of bilingual books? What other sorts of books are important in a multilingual community where many children (and their adults!) are acquiring a new language? 

JS:Bilingual books act as a bridge in communities where English is an important pathway to education, work and opportunity. And where other languages represent family, home, culture and an ability to express oneself fully and deeply.

In many families of new arrivals, children are being supported at school and over many hours to learn and practice English. Adults can quickly find themselves lagging behind while their children become confident in English. A bilingual story book allows a family to share a story in both languages in a warm and gentle way.

The other issue to consider in choosing books for a multilingual community is that the recommended age of a book in English doesn’t always match the language development of the child who is new to learning English. There is a challenge to find books with concepts interesting for older readers where the language level is simple. There are also many books now available where the story and meaning is mostly in the pictures. So regardless of your reading level or the language you read in, you can appreciate and enjoy the book.

It looks like LOST IN BOOKS has massive community support, which is excellent. What lessons have you learned that you think other smaller bookshops (and libraries, and festivals, since you run a festival) could take and possibly implement in their multilingual communities? 

JS:There is so much! And we are still learning too. The approach of Lost in Books is that we want everyone to be welcome, regardless of the language they speak. If we see the opportunity and joy that comes with a diversity of languages, rather than see it as a problem and a barrier, we open the world up to everyone.

In our weekly textiles group, bilingual story-tellers’ training, homework club, baby music time (and more!) our community comes together to celebrate, create and learn in so many languages. We sit beside each other, share food, a song or an experience and grow stronger because we are open to each other.

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