‘World change starts with educated children’ is the slogan of Room to Read, an NGO helping children in developing countries break the cycle of poverty by acquiring literacy, and helping me fulfil my dream of storytelling.
I was born and raised in Mekong Delta, Vietnam. I was lucky to have quite a few children’s books to read during my childhood. My mom checked many bookshops and newspaper stands for children’s books. I still remember some of them in brown jackets with thin pages filled with stories of foreign places I had never heard of. They brought me great happiness and companionship and a knack for imagining stories.
Twenty years later, I had the chance to write stories for children myself in collaboration with Room to Read (RtR), the organization founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood. In 2000, on holiday in Nepal, Wood visited a school in a remote village. When the headmaster showed him the ‘library’, the cupboard contained just a few books.
The rest is history: Wood quit Microsoft to start Room to Read for the dispersion of books and literacy. RtR now has operations in ten developing countries, where local staff stimulates the local production of children’s books.
Last week I had a chance to talk to Phong Le, country director of Room to Read Vietnam, about this publishing program.
“RtR has a program to publish picture books in local languages,” he explained. “Targeted at children who start learning to read, the stories have to be interesting, engaging and pleasant to read. Only when children like what they read, their reading skill and capabilities can be improved. At first we prioritized stories relating to Vietnamese culture, but we found that children’s engagement with the story must be the first and foremost requirement. It is not good if the story is forced within a theme frame of culture or tradition, but fails to captivate the children.”
Being an organization for development, RtR works with local authors and artists. “The picture books that RtR wants to make are a new concept to the Vietnamese authors and artists,” Phong Le said. “By organizing workshops and seminars for them, we want to extend their skill set, so that they also benefit in long-term. That is the ideology of RtR.”
The country director is motivated most “by the visible result and perceptible effects on the pupils and the schools,” he told. “For example, I feel very happy whenever seeing a new school library being opened. The same happens with the Book Publishing program. Each year I am very proud to see new picture books being published in great quality and with good content.”