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.
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"When I was 7, my parents bought me 'The Cat in the Hat.' That turned me on to reading," Alyson says. "Most Laotian children have no comparable memories. Many don't even know what a book is. Sometimes you have to show them how to turn a page."Skip to next paragraph
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Inspired by the playful style of Dr. Seuss, Alyson, who taught himself to read and write the Lao language, has penned more than two dozen children's books.
"New, Improved Buffalo," for one, tells the story of a village boy who outfits his trusted mount in various ways, much to the animal's dismay. Like all the publisher's books, it's printed on glossy paper and illustrated in a charming, idiosyncratic style by local teenage artists recruited from schools and villages through drawing competitions. It sells for just 15,000 kip ($2).
Alyson's team also sets local folk tales down in writing to preserve them and translates out-of-copyright foreign children's classics, retelling them in a local context. In its version of "The Wizard of Oz," illustrated by a 16-year-old Hmong boy, Dorothy is a girl called Kham who is swept away by a flood from Luang Namtha Province to the magical land of Oz.
Most of the books – and the "parties" at which they're given to children in 500 villages near and far – are sponsored by foreign donors, many of whom are tourists like Stuart and Alison McKenzie, a couple from Glasgow, Scotland, on their honeymoon.
"[Alyson and his staff] seem very engaged," Mr. McKenzie says. The couple paid for the book party in Pakseuang. "It's great to see children so happy with something we take for granted in the West," he adds.
Printing books is one thing. Getting them to children in remote villages is another. Alyson's helpers, several of whom are from Hmong and Khmu villages, regularly fan out across the rugged countryside.
Lugging stacks of books strapped to their backs, small teams undertake arduous days-long treks on foot, by boat – and at times astride Boom-Boom, a sturdy Asian elephant whose name means "books" in Lao. Boom-Boom now even has her own book, "The Little Elephant That Could."
In village after village they set up "junior libraries" for children in the bamboo hut of a local volunteer.
"Very few people read books in Laos," says Siphone Vouthisakdee, who is from a village where only five people have finished primary school. He now writes, edits, and designs books at Big Brother Mouse.
"But some children are becoming little bookworms," he says, "and take their books everywhere with them."