The quiet American bringing books to a nation

Small-scale literacy initiatives in impoverished Laos are making great strides in kindling a reading culture among youngsters



Tibor Krausz

The Sunday Post, 29 September 2013

Luang Prabang, Laos


It’s a sight to warm the cockles of any teacher’s heart: scores of schoolchildren absorbed in their books — and during break time from class.

Dozens of them are perched, like birds on a wire, on their elementary school’s cinderblock balustrade, while other students sat in areas of shade — their heads bowed in concentration.

Each one has a brand-new book in hand: a pocketsize alphabet book, a book of short stories, a science primer, or a collection of fairy- and folktales.

Sasha Alyson, a retired publisher from the US, reads from a book to students at the primary school of Pakseuang village in northern Laos (photo: Tibor Krausz)

But this scene did not take place in Thailand, where you may be more accustomed these days to seeing children absorbed in games on their mobile phones. It took place in the hardscrabble village of Pakseuang, outside the historic capital of Luang Prabang in northern Laos.

The local youngsters, many of them wearing soiled and tattered old clothes, had just received the books at a “book party” held by members of staff at Big Brother Mouse, a small Laotian publisher.

For children in the small landlocked nation, one of the world’s poorest, storybooks for children have been almost nonexistent until recently. Apart from dog-eared old textbooks in village schools, most children have nothing to read. In many village schools teachers have only simple blackboards to use during lessons. Sometimes students have to do without even notebooks and pencils.

“I knew I couldn’t do education reform here, but I could set up a small publishing project,” says Sasha Alyson, founder of Big Brother Mouse, a small but thriving enterprise that has a bookish cartoon mouse for its logo. Alyson’s mission is to “make literacy fun for children in Laos.”

The American and his energetic staffers of about 30 young Laotians, who are all in their late teens and 20s, create amusing stories on local themes, record spoken folktales, and translate out-of-copyright foreign children’s classics into Lao. The company also publishes titles on weightier subjects such as basic astronomy, history and zoology for local children.

Alyson launched Big Brother Mouse in 2006 after he realized, while travelling in the country on a trip from Thailand, that Laotian youngsters simply had no books to read. The retired publisher from Boston, Massachusetts, started a non-profit publishing venture, which is run from a modest two-story building in the heart of Luang Prabang.

His initiative has helped open up a whole new world of literacy for children throughout the countryside. In just seven years, the small publishing outfit has produced more than 250 high-quality books for young readers, giving an estimated 160,000 children their very first book of their own.

To illustrate each new book, the publisher employs talented local teenage artists, picked from local schools through drawing competitions.

“Very few people read books in Laos,” explains Siphone Vouthisakdee, 28, who works for Big Brother Mouse and grew up in a village where only five people have finished primary school. “For one thing, local books are not interesting. For another, no one encourages children to read.”

Lao village children are absorbed in the new books they have received from Big Brother Mouse, a small initiative aimed at improving literacy in the landlocked communist holdoutn

Big Brother Mouse employees do. They regularly travel across the rugged Laotian countryside with heavy stacks of books strapped to their backs to reach remote hamlets, many of which do not even have electricity.

When they arrive at the villages, they hold “book parties” and hand out books to children. They also organize “swap libraries” in the bamboo huts of local volunteers so that children can exchange books they have already finished reading for new ones.

“It’s fun to read and learn from books,” confirms Boonken Thongsamai, an 11-year-old boy from Pakseuang village, while he glances up from a book of stories for a second. Presently, he has his nose buried again in his new book.

Khamla, a shy nine-year-old girl who wears a Young Pioneer’s red kerchief, chose “Animals of Africa” this time around. At a previous book party she received “The Monkey King” storybook. “When I read, I feel happy,” she says.

The school’s headmaster, Phoonsook Bhandasak, stresses the importance of developing reading habits among youngsters. “These children are from poor families, but now they have books to read and learn about the world. Their reading skills have already improved a lot,” he says.


The literacy rate in Laos, an impoverished communist holdout of 6 million people, is around 70 per cent, with female literacy rates at only 63 per cent. In Thailand, the overall literacy rate is 93 per cent with more than 90 per cent of both males and females above the age of 15 being able to read and write.

Nor is there a dearth of fine reading material in the Kingdom, where bookstores are stacked with titles by myriad local authors and the translations of foreign bestsellers from the Harry Potter books to Dan Brown’s mysteries to more substantive works of world literature.

Yet neither a high level of literacy nor the ready availability of books has translated into strong reading habits in the country. Rare is the sight of a young Thai reading a book for pleasure — other than an installment of some popular Japanese manga comic book series.

The reasons for this are manifold. Perhaps most importantly, many traditionally run schools, heavily invested in tried-and-trusted techniques of rote learning, rarely encourage students to pursue a route of intellectual curiosity for its own sake. Students are expected to read only their textbooks, if that.

A recent nationwide survey by the National Statistics Office found that on average Thais, aged 10 and older, spend only three minutes a day reading. At normal reading speeds, that translates into fewer than 10 lines of text per day. Youngsters in the crucial 10-14 age bracket spend only an average of 1.28 minutes reading a day.

Overall, only a meager 4.4 per cent of Thais aged 10 and over are believed to be regular readers. The rate stands at 8.6 per cent in urban areas and at 2.6 per cent in rural regions. The vast majority of Thais can read, but they simply don’t.

To counter the trend of a poor reading culture in the Kingdom, the Ministry of Education’s Office of the Non-Formal and Informal Education has recently launched its “Smart Book Home” project with the aim of inculcating in Thais of varying ages a love of reading for pleasure. The initiative specially targets youngsters and people living in rural areas.

Village children perch on the branches of a tree with their noses in their brand new books

“The project calls for the establishment of community libraries, or community learning centers, in all villages nationwide,” the ministry said in a statement. “The objective is to provide opportunities for local people to have greater access to lifelong education through reading,” it added.

The government has designated April 2, the birthday of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, as the Love of Reading Day. Its Smart Book Home project seeks to establish some 42,000 community libraries in the country’s 80,000 or so villages by the end of this year. Such libraries could be set up in village coffee shops, the homes of community leaders, or village pavilions with resident volunteers working to help promote reading locally.

Up in Laos, Alyson and his small local staff have been doing all these for years.

“The goal,” the American philanthropist notes, “is for children to enjoy reading, look forward to it, and develop the habit of reading.”

A useful method he has devised is to encourage older students to read aloud with younger siblings, with parents, or with other children in school. “Lao people, like Thais, like doing things together. We promote reading aloud as a way to enjoy books with others.”

The publisher has also distributed 40,000 copies of its booklet “The Joy of Reading,” which gives teachers and appointed storytellers basic tips in how to read stories out loud to children. These include changing their voice for different characters or situations; using gestures and facial expressions, much like trained actors, to animate action; and pausing occasionally for dramatic effect.

“With a little practice, storytellers discover that this is fun for them, and for their audience,” Alyson says. “After being read to and enjoying reading on their own every day, children acquire a valuable habit. [Parents and teachers should strive] to see that habit firmly established before children get their first cell phone.”

A lot also depends on the availability of quality books. The stress is on “quality,” Alyson says. “Good books are better than mediocre books,” he notes. “Anyone who’s ever read a book knows that. Yet librar¬ies and reading programs are consistently measured by the number of books they have, not their quality.

“Quantity is easy to measure, quality is not,” he explains. “We’ve seen literacy programs using books that simply didn’t appeal to children. The adults simply concluded that ‘The children just don’t want to read.’ But the real fault was in the books.”

He adds: “Remember [the craze about] Harry Potter? There’s a big difference between children’s response to an okay book and their response to a great book. Parents, schools, and libraries need to search out the best books, rather than take whatever comes along, as if books were all interchangeable.”

The American publisher’s relentless efforts to promote literacy in Laos are paying marked dividends.

“Before Big Brother Mouse brought books, the rate of students who graduated each year from grade 1 and grade 2 was 60 per cent to 70 per cent,” teacher Khamsing in Natak Village in Xayaburi, a Lao province bordering Thailand.

Now it’s about 90 per cent.”


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