Love of literacy: meet the people taking the gift of words to children in Laos

In Luang Prabang, we discover a series of initiatives designed to bring books to children

Also known as "The Royal Temple", it is located next to the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Photo taken at sunset on January 16, 2017

It is my second day in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos. The scent of frangipani hangs over the city's gold-­plated Buddhist temples, wooden shop houses and French colonial villas. I am meandering around the centre of the ­Unesco-listed Old Town when I catch sight of a board that reads "Big Brother Mouse". I hear the animated sounds of children talking and laughing, and there's a group of school boys sitting on plastic chairs chatting with foreigners,  in front of what looks like a bookshop or a library of some sort.

I continue on my way, exploring the intricately decorated wats, or temples, but later ask the concierge at my hotel about that intriguing spot. He explains that Big Brother Mouse publishes books in English and in Lao, the area's official language, and also offers a space where local children can practise their English skills while interacting with tourists. I make an appointment for the following evening.

On arrival, I am greeted by a pair of expectant faces – two schoolboys of about 15 years old who speak to me hesitantly at first, wanting to know where I come from and what I do for a living. As I ask them questions about themselves and their families, we slowly become more comfortable with each other. They tell me about their large families, how they love football and movies, and want to join the police force when they grow up. They describe how much they enjoy reading books, and how the centre helps them to access good-quality titles and translations.  

Viewpoint and landscape in luang prabang, Laos.

Big Brother Mouse is a not-for-profit business that was started in 2006 by a retired American publisher, who identified a need for children's books in Luang Prabang. She started the publishing house in partnership with a group of locals who wanted to "make literacy fun". Their stories and book designs have a strong local feel, with students, artists and teachers from the area all involved in their development. Visitors who are travelling to rural sectors are encouraged to purchase a set of books and hand them out to the children they meet there.

For many in Luang Prabang, and the rural areas around it, books remain an unaffordable luxury. For the most part, stories are passed on orally by teachers and family elders.

I meet Celine Drean, who manages L'Etranger Books and Tea, which is named after the Albert Camus novel. This is the town's first licensed bookshop, located in an old wooden building on Ratsavong Road. "When my daughter Isabel Drean [an award-winning filmmaker now living in LA] arrived here in 2001 while backpacking in Asia, she had some books that she had read and wanted to donate them to a local store or a library.

Books by Big Brother Mouse. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder

“Isabel discovered that there were no bookshops or libraries here and decided to open one. She was supposed to stay here for two days and ended up staying for 10 years,” Celine explains with a smile.

Today this charming cafe and bookshop-come-library, with an outdoor patio and a fair trade gallery selling local textiles and souvenirs, is a popular haunt for locals and visitors. "It started as a library, slowly it developed into a cafe, and today, we screen movies every evening, which are free," Celine explains. "Those who donate books get a discount on food and drinks, and locals can borrow books free of charge."

I walk upstairs to see a large room filled with paper lamps, art by local artists and old copies of National Geographic lining the shelves. There's a shoes-off policy here and there's low seating in the area where non-mainstream movies are shown at 7pm. I spend an enchanted hour mulling over a pot of tea, reading old copies of National Geographic.

A sign outside Big Brother Mouse encouraging visitors  to help children practise their English skills. Courtesy Kalpana Sunder 

Over the next few days, I discover more people who are trying to procure books for the city's children. The Luang Prabang Public Library on Sisavangvong Road operates two library boats that bring book bags to children in more than 75 villages down the Mekong and Ou rivers. The initiative is supported by the local government and charities. Volunteers travel on the boats twice a month to deliver them and help teach children to read. There is also a tuk-tuk mobile library run by the Public Library, which goes to village schools, taking volunteers, librarians and book bags with them. They spend the day teaching young people how to read, playing games and imparting both life and writing skills.

The children they meet are curious and eager to read. And these small sparks of literacy and learning will no doubt go a long way.