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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.