Picture book review: The Katha Chest  

Picture book of the month: May 2021

The Katha Chest, by Radhiah Chowdhury and Lavanya Naidu

Allen and Unwin, April 2021

Suitable for: Lower primary

Themes: Family, culture, memory, migration

Review by Cassie

This month, I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading The Katha Chest.

Kathas are light quilts made from layers of cotton saris worn by women in South Asian countries like India or Bangladesh. The saris are made into kathas once they are old and no longer wearable, and each katha tells a story of the women who wore them and the families who keep the quilts.

In The Katha Chest, written by Radhiah Chowdhury, we meet Asiya, who at her Nanu’s house loves to explore the chest full of katha quilts and imagine the stories they could tell. In Lavanya Naidu’s moving illustrations, we see the story of each quilt – and each aunt, mother and grandmother that wore the fabric.

This is a poignant book that’s both full of heart and bursting with creativity — it tells multiple stories that branch out from the overarching main narrative – and provides ample opportunities to ignite young imaginations. Each quilt is given its own evolution, and the patterns (based on saris in the author's and illustrator’s own family chests) reoccur and can be followed through the narrative. In this way, the book is an inspired new take on a family tree.

While Asiya’s experiences are conveyed in text, the stories of each quilt are told visually through the book’s detailed illustrations. Naidu’s four-panel strips are in the style of Pattachitra – a Bengali folk art made from cloth paintings, with simple colours, bold lines and fine details – matching and elevating the themes of the story into a true celebration of South Asian colour and pattern.  The storytelling is always clear, very charming, and frequently heartstring-tugging (there are multiple opportunities for using this book as a gentle prompt to discuss themes like migration, loss, conflict and protest).

This is such a rich text that it’s perfect for re-reading and re-visiting, as each woman’s story could easily be imagined in more detail for writing and storytelling. The use of patterns, illustrations and text work in conjunction to bring generations of family together to demonstrate relationship bonds and familial legacy. It will make you think about your loved ones. This book finds joy in the fact that we live in a world where no one person exists in isolation; that there are always stories we pass down and share with each other, whether it’s through books, paintings and textiles, or through rich oral traditions.


Related units:

For teaching units of work that explore books with similar themes, why not try:

  • Family Forest, by Kim Kane and Lucia Masciullo, explores family connections
  • My name is Lizzie Flynn, by Claire Saxby and Lizzy Newcomb, is a very different story about a quilt that brought very different women together