Imagine a place where there are no books; where most people have never seen a book, except perhaps a dry and dog-eared textbook shared by a classroom of students in the village school.
Imagine children learning to ‘read’ by looking at letters and words written on a chalkboard – if they have the luxury of attending school at all.
Imagine having to teach a child how to ‘work’ a book – how to turn the pages, one by one, to reveal the rest of the story, the next picture.
The place is rural Laos, where most of the seven million Laotians live.
Life in these villages is virtually unchanged from what it was 50 or even 100 years ago. And it is a life without books.
Now imagine an organization dedicated to bringing books to the people of Laos, and in particular to the children in these small, remote villages. An organization that employs enthusiastic young Laotians as writers and artists, and publishes colourful books that make it fun and easy for Lao people to learn to read.
The organization is Big Brother Mouse.
Big Brother Mouse started in March 2006 with the publication of five books.
The books are mostly in Lao, although some are in Lao and Hmong, and some are in Lao and English. Some are translations of old favourites like Aesop’s Fables, Dr. Dolittle, and The Wizard of Oz.
Big Brother Mouse has also published books on the kinds of subjects children love – dinosaurs, animals of Laos, Africa and Australia, and the wonders of the world. But most of the books are distinctly Lao: The Proverbs of Laos, New Improved Buffalo!, The Monk and the Trees, and A Very Good Day.
Big Brother Mouse has also started to publish some pocket-sized books that it hopes will be cheap enough, at around 50 cents each, that villagers will be able to buy them.
The primary objective of Big Brother Mouse is to publish books. But its secondary objective is just as important: to experiment with different ideas for getting books out to rural and remote communities.
They have had considerable success with book parties. These are usually held in local schools. Big Brother Mouse staffers take enough books to the village to ensure that every child will be able to leave with a book of his or her choice.
Another method Big Brother Mouse uses to distribute books is a system of junior librarians. Junior librarians may be young or old – what matters is that they love books and are willing to take responsibility for them. Their house becomes a library, where community members can go to borrow a book. The junior librarians are given 20 to 30 books to start.