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Difference Maker

Publishing children's books – and delivering them by elephant

Sasha Alyson hauls (sometimes by elephant) children's books in the local language to kids in rural Laos eager to learn to read.

By Tibor KrauszCorrespondent / February 21, 2011

Sasha Alyson (c.) reads ‘New, Improved Buffalo’ – a book he wrote and published in Lao and English – to two children at the elementary school in Pakseuang village in Laos during a ‘book party.’ Mr. Alyson’s group, Big Brother Mouse, aims to ‘make literacy fun for children in Laos.’

Tibor Krausz

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Luang Prabang, Laos

The little booklet contains riddles about animals – and the children in Pakseuang village just love it. Squeezing around a young Laotian staffer from Big Brother Mouse, the 40 or so second-graders listen with bated breath as he reads out the rhyming riddles to them.

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"Buffalo!" "Snake!" "Frog!" they shout back their guesses. At each correct answer they jump up cheering with arms raised.

Books – even simple ones like the 32-page "What Am I?" – hold a magical appeal for Laotian children. Many of them have never seen a book, much less owned one.

"What struck me when I came here [as a tourist in 2003]," says Sasha Alyson, the American expatriate who founded Big Brother Mouse, a local children's publisher, "was that I never saw a book for children."

The literacy rate in Laos, an impoverished communist holdout of 6 million people bordering Vietnam, is around 70 percent. Yet most people have nothing to read besides old dog-eared textbooks and government pamphlets. At many village schools blackboards are the sole means of instruction, and children lack even pencils and paper.

"I knew I couldn't do education reform here," notes Mr. Alyson, who once ran a niche publishing firm in Boston. "But I could set up a small publishing project."

So he did. In 2006 Alyson obtained the very first publishing license in Luang Prabang, a historic northern town on the Mekong River where he now lives. He recruited several young locals he had met by chance: One was a waiter who wanted to become a writer, another a Buddhist novice monk eager to try something different.

The mission of the small but thriving enterprise, which has a bookish cartoon mouse as its logo, is to "make literacy fun for children in Laos."

On a recent Friday morning, Alyson and several of his helpers were in Pakseuang to hold a "book party" at the local elementary school. They led the children in playing games and singing songs with words like "Books are good/ Books make me smart."

The children then each had their pick from a stash of new books – and instantly lost themselves in them. Khamla, a shy 9-year-old with a Young Pioneer's red kerchief, chose "Animals of Africa." At a previous book party she received "The Monkey King" storybook.

"When I read, I feel happy," she says.

Based in a modest two-story house in Luang Prabang, Alyson and his two dozen helpers produce more than 30 new titles a year in print runs of 6,000 copies each: colorful alphabet books, science primers, fairy tales, and folk tales. All the books are produced in-house and most are written by "Uncle Sasha" and his Laotian staff.

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