Curling up with a book and escaping to a new world full of adventures is special. However, it is something that many of us, including myself, take for granted. Throughout the world, there are children growing up without books – without the opportunity to discover these new worlds.
They will never know the excitement of finishing a book or the anticipation of starting a new one. In many places, children don’t even understand that reading can be fun. This is a big problem in Laos – so, when we visited Luang Prabang and heard about Big Brother Mouse, a non-profit organisation which publishes and distributes fun books to local children, we couldn’t wait to get involved.
Literacy in Laos
According to Unicef, the youth literacy rate in Laos is 84% – the second lowest rate in South East Asia. School attendance levels are also relatively low compared to other South East Asian countries. However, this isn’t the only issue – in the words of Big Brother Mouse, ‘literacy doesn’t help, if there is nothing to read‘. In Laos, books are a valuable commodity – some children have never even seen a book. Children learn to read from a teacher and a blackboard, but many schools do not have textbooks or reading books. Few Lao people understand the benefits of reading or see how reading can be fun. This is something that Big Brother Mouse is trying to change.
Big Brother Mouse is a non-profit, Lao-owned organisation, founded by retired American publisher, Sasha Alyson, who visited Laos in 2003 and was shocked over the lack of books. He decided that he could make a difference and the idea for Big Brother Mouse was born. The aim was simple – to change Laos from a country where ‘people don’t read’ to a county where people love books.
Since 2006, Big Brother Mouse has published over 350 books. Some are traditional fairy tales and others are stories written by aspiring local writers – but all aim to make reading fun. However, getting books to local villages (many of which are not easily accessible) can be a challenge – this is the role of the Big Brother Mouse book parties. Books are taken to local villages by Big Brother Mouse staff, who talk to local children about books, sing songs about reading and read stories out loud. At the end of the party, every child gets to choose their very own book to keep – an item which for many becomes a prized possession. Big Brother Mouse also leave a set of 80-100 books in every classroom so that children can take part in the ‘sustained silent reading’ programme, where teachers set aside time every day for children to read a book of their choice, in the hope that reading will become a lifelong habit.
Many people in Laos are also keen to learn English, therefore Big Brother Mouse also established English conversation practice classes. Not only can students read bilingual or English books published by Big Brother Mouse, but English speaking tourists and volunteers are also encouraged to visit the shop in Luang Prabang to give locals the opportunity to interact with native English speakers.
We loved our morning at Big Brother Mouse, talking to local students and trainee monks – they had questions about our lives and culture and we had many about theirs. It even gave one of the older boys a chance to try out the English chat up lines he’d learnt from other travellers – I never thought I’d be asked to explain the meaning of the phrase: ‘Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?’… It was a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone.
Big Brother Mouse is making a big difference. In 2015, Big Brother Mouse published an evaluation into the impact of the Sustained Silent Reading programme – it found that reading abilities in schools that had sustained silent reading once a day for 15 minutes increased by about 39%. Most importantly, the work of Big Brother Mouse has shown teachers that reading is not a waste of school time, but that it can be an effective way of improving education. It has also provided employment for a number of local people – all of the paid staff at Big Brother Mouse are Lao, many of whom are high school students and recent college graduates.
UNESCO’s Education For All Global Monitoring Report clearly demonstrates the importance of reading – they estimate that if every student from low-income countries left school with basic reading schools, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. With this in mind, it is clear to see how vital the work that Big Brother Mouse does really is – and they really are doing an absolutely amazing job!
So what can you do to help?
If you are in Luang Prabang:
Buy books and bring them to a local village – there are many hiking opportunities around Luang Prabang, most of which will take you through local villages. Buy a set of books to bring with you, to give to local children and leave at local schools. The staff at Big Brother Mouse will advise you on what to bring and the best ways to distribute them. You can also bring books to bigger cities or towns while travelling through Laos to give as gifts or tips. We bought some sets of books and brought them with us to a village we stayed in – most of the books went to the local school, but we gave a few to the children of our host family. They were very gratefully received!
Help at English Conversation Practice – drop into Big Brother Mouse at 9am or 5pm and talk to local Laotians who want to practice their English. From our experience, the young people will want to know a lot about your life and culture back at home – and are happy to answer questions about theirs. Despite some initial shyness, by the end of our two hours, we felt like we’d made some new friends!
But you can also help from back at home:
Sponsor a book party / reading programme – $400 will sponsor a daily reading programme in an entire school and the book party to launch it. Big Brother Mouse will bring books to between 50 and 300 children and leave another 80 – 100 books in each classroom so that children can start a sustained silent reading programme. $80 will do the same for one classroom (so smaller donations can be combined).
Sponsor a new book – each new book costs Big Brother Mouse between $2,000 and $6,000. There is a list of books that require sponsors and the sponsorship amount required – sponsors will get a thank you in the book and on the website (if wanted) and will receive copies of the book when it is printed.
Translate to Lao – if you speak Lao, Big Brother Mouse needs your help to translate English books.