Youngsters' story has happy ending

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2011, 12:00am

It's a sight to warm any teacher's heart: scores of schoolchildren absorbed in their books - during break time from class.

On a recent morning in Pakseuang village in northern Laos, dozens of village children perched, like birds on a wire, on the local elementary school's cinderblock balustrade. Other students sat in areas of shade - their heads bowed in concentration.

Each one had 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.

The children had just received the books at a 'book party' held by members of staff at Big Brother Mouse, a small Laotian publisher.

In Hong Kong books are easy to find and reading them is a familiar chore for students. But for youngsters in the small landlocked nation of Laos, 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 Laotian children have nothing to read. In many village schools teachers have only simple blackboards to use during lessons and sometimes students lack even notebooks and pencils.

However, Big Brother Mouse has helped to open up a whole new world of literacy for children throughout the countryside. The small publisher has produced more than 130 titles in four years.

Set up by a retired American publisher in 2006, the non-profit venture is run from a modest two-storey building in the centre of Luang Prabang, a historic northern Lao town on the Mekong.

Its energetic staff of about 30 young Laotians in their late teens and early 20s aim to 'make literacy fun for children in Laos'. They create amusing stories on local themes, write down and record spoken folktales and translate out-of-copyright foreign children's classics into Lao. The company also publishes titles on subjects such as astronomy, foreign animals and dinosaurs.

Big Brother Mouse uses talented local teenage artists, picked from local schools through drawing competitions, to illustrate each book.

'Very few people read books in Laos,' says Siphone Vouthisakdee, 26, of Big Brother Mouse, who 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.'

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

When they arrive at the villages, Big Brother Mouse staff hold 'book parties' and hand out books to children. They also organise 'swap libraries' in the bamboo huts of local volunteers, so that children can exchange books that they have read.

'It's fun to read and learn from books,' says Boonken Thongsamai, an 11-year-old boy from Pakseuang village.

Phoonsook Bhandasak, the school's headmaster, says: '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.'