Ever wondered what it would be like to have never seen a “book”. Never know what it was like to turn a page and leap into a world of wonder and make believe. Have you ever imagined never knowing about Classics as Harry Potter, Disneyworld Collections like Cinderella, Jurassic Park, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, etc…
Think for a moment what it must be like the first time someone hands you a book, the bright colours on the cover, the letters in dark shapes forming words. You turn it this way and that and still you are puzzled by it. Then someone shows you how to open it. Oh the wonder of such discovery inside, there is more colourful pictures and more of that black print that seems to stretch from one side of the page to the next. You are encouraged to turn a thin page and on the other side again more colour pictures and footprints of black artwork creeps across the page again……and so on
Can you imagine the delight on the face of a small child who has just been given this wonderful gift…..What is it made of? How did it get here? What do I do with it? In some places neither child nor family has money to buy such a gift…. Enter Big Brother Mouse.
As Christmas Day approaches my thoughts returned again and again to the Children of Laos and my visit earlier this year to the small village Luang Prabang where I spent 5 beautiful days. (my earlier post of the Lao Children https://thepatientdreamer.com/2011/08/20/the-children-of-laos/ ) Oh how I wish I could have done something, anything to assist this small, brilliantly creative and enterprising publishing organisation to put books into the hands of these children when I was there. Children that otherwise would never know what a book was, never seen one. Visiting Big Brother Mouse website, is an awe inspiring achievement of how one retired American along with some Lao students (his staff) has changed the lives of so many youngsters. Started up in 2006, and by 2010, 85,000 children received the first book they had ever owned. Earlier this week I sent a donation to sponsor a “Children’s Book Party” Where, often access is by elephant, some of the staff will travel to a remote village and show, and give children and their families or carers books. Along with games, and story telling, they are shown how to use them. I will receive soon an account of what happened along with photos. Here are some pictures from the website of Big Brother Mouse of children’s parties taken earlier this year. If you check out Big Brothers Website here you will be amazed at what they have achieved and continue to bring to Laos and the children of Laos. From not only producing books, but workshops for teachers and young and aspiring writers within the small villages, learning not only to write, teach, but to produce books in their own language as well as english.
I caught up with Sasha Alyson the founder of Big Brother Mouse over the past couple of weeks and he happily answered a few questions for me that I am sure you will find interesting.
P.What first motivated you to set up Big Brother Mouse?
S. I came to Laos as a visitor in 2003. As a former publisher, I always look around when I travel to see what books people are reading, and what’s being published. I never saw a book in the Lao language. Tourists were reading books, and a few shops sold recycled foreign-language books, but I never saw anything published for Lao readers, and never saw a Lao person reading. As someone who loves reading, and thinks books are important in the development of both individual lives, and of countries, I got the idea for a publishing project that would help young people learn writing and publishing skills.
P. You mention on your website that abroad volunteers help in many ways, with
one goal in mind, besides donating what else can they do?
S. Fundraising is really the most important way people can help from abroad, and I think that’s important to note. We have several people who regularly help with the proofreading of English, and with some computer projects, but our needs in those areas are pretty well filled now. It’s natural that people want to do something other than “just” donate, but in fact, what keeps us from doing more is that paying the printer expense. Without money to do that, we can’t do more.
We often hear from people who want to volunteer in other ways, either where they live, or when they visit Laos. We have sessions every day where visitors help local people practice English, but that’s the only volunteer opportunity we have now. I clearly understand the urge to get involved in a way other than fundraising, but the way to make the greatest difference is to organize a fundraiser where you live, use that as an opportunity to tell people about Laos and conditions in Laos, and about the importance of literacy, and then help us get the money to print more books.
P. Can you tell us a little about an everyday life of a rural Lao child living
in a remote village?
S. Most children go to school these days; that’s a big increase from just a decade ago. School is heavily based around a teacher with a blackboard, helping children memorize the alphabet, and that’s why high-quality books are important: They give kids a fun way to use that alphabet.
Some kids do not go to school. The amount varies greatly by region, I think typically from 5% to 40%. They’re needed to help out at home, often caring for younger brothers and sisters (five-year-olds care for 2-year-olds); or, as they get a bit older, to help on the farm.
Before they reach school age, or if they’re not in school, many children go to the field with their parents, and sit in the field as their parents work. It doesn’t give them much stimulation. A very exciting bit of news in the past few months is that some parents are starting to take our books with them, so the children can read or at least look through the books, while the parents work.
Outside of school, kids help with family chores, from a young age. Collecting and carrying water and firewood are two very common jobs for children. Boys often care for the family buffalo and other animals.
P. What books are you finding popular with children? I gather new books are
written in Lao and those donated are being reproduced in both Lao and
English is this correct?
S. Traditional fairy tales are the most popular. But children also very much like books with facts. A book about dinosaurs, and another about animals of Laos, are extremely popular.
P. I was asked by a friend if you thought of taking smaller donations which
could with others accumulate towards a Book Party? We were thinking it
might encourage those who donate to other charities or schools would also
be able to participate?
S. We’re happy to accept donations of all sizes, and yes, they accumulate toward a book party. But staff with the computer and recordkeeping skills to track things like this are still very few in Laos, so donations under $250 go into a general fund, and we don’t link them to a specific book party. For donations of $250 or more, each such donation lets us go to one more school, and we send a report and photos to the donor.
P. Can you tell us about any special or personal experience with the children
and the books that you could share with us?
S. One common experience impressed on me how little experience children have with books. When I give them a book, they often start at the very beginning, by reading the copyright information, publisher address, etc. I have to explain, “No, you can jump ahead to the good part!” Now, especially in the easiest books for new readers, we often put that information at the end, so children can jump right in.
P. On your website you mention a couple of things you hope to achieve, what is
the Ultimate dream for Big Brother Mouse?
S. First, we want to see both children and adults in every village have meaningful access to books. That means not just a place where they can get books, but people in the village who love reading, and who encourage others to read.
And second, we want Big Brother Mouse to become a self-sustaining publisher. For many years, we’ll need help from abroad to keep book prices low. Printing costs here are the same as in developed countries, but the average annual income is only about $1,000, so book prices would be prohibitive without some help. But gradually, as the country develops, we feel it’s important for families and villages to contribute to the cost of books. First, however, they have to know about books, and to feel there’s value there.
P. Have you ever, and if you were asked, would you or a member of your
publishing house be interested in attending a conference to talk about Big
S. We have, although only a few times; getting from Luang Prabang, Laos, to the location of most such conferences is no small matter! (Typically it means going to Bangkok in the afternoon, spending a night there, then connecting to another destination.)
Thank you for your interest. Also, just in the past day, we’ve posted a lot of entries in our Photo Album. (There have been about 40 here, for the last few weeks, we got it up to I think about 140 now.) If you want to browse, you’ll find a caption for each page, which sometimes might have other information of interest.
And we look forward to seeing you here again one day.
Thankyou Sasha Alyson, for such an insightful view of what Big Brother Mouse does, and your hopes and plans for the future. I hope that by letting people especially our writing community out there, know about what this very small non-profit publishing project is doing, to put books into the hands of children who otherwise would never see them will inspire more awareness and help your way.
I hope to return to Luang Prabang, armed with books and eager to assist in a Book Party, what fun and magic to see the wonder, and joy on small faces as they pour over colourful illustrations and text.
If you feel you can help in any way check out Big Brother Website here and on my side bar, and thankyou.