Helping Children’s Literacy Is Possible Anywhere



“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” —Margaret Mead

This story is a vignette from the life of a dedicated friend who works in an international organization committed to children’s rights. We will call her Saraswati, after the Hindu goddess of knowledge and arts, believed to endow human beings with the powers of speech, wisdom, and learning.

Saraswati was assigned to a small country in the Himalayas to look after communication programs enhancing efforts that transform children’s lives in this magical kingdom that for centuries had attracted visitors from all over the world. When Saraswati saw what was being done to teach children how to read, she was very pleased, and asked herself what else she could do to assure that these children had enough reading materials to nurture their newfound love for reading.

She was also passionate that these children should acquire an appreciation for their own language, discover the written treasures of their own culture with the wisdom of their elders. More than anything, she hoped that these children would one day write in their own language — for their own children, and for those who would come to visit and stay in their country.

Saraswati had reason to be concerned; she knew this small country could easily be overshadowed by its powerful neighbor with a similar language, written with the same script. How easy it would be to just give her new protégés books in that dominant language and with stories from other countries, so alien to the culture of this special land. How easy, yes; but Saraswati felt she would be shortchanging the children she came to care about, who would be denied the right to their own identities, denied the stories of their soft-spoken culture written for them, denied the right to self-esteem and self-confidence that comes from reading in one’s own language.

Inspired by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates, among other things, that activities for children should aim at the best interest of the child (their development), that children have to be treated in nondiscriminatory ways (equality), and that they have the right to participate (inclusion), Saraswati felt compelled and able to make a difference.

She looked at the resources she had and saw a mountain of obstacles as high as Mount Everest, but she was not daunted by this; she had friends in many places and with many talents. Moreover, creativity and compassion were two of her own many talents. She also knew that she could sway her detractors with the kind of information that would make them become her allies. She knew how to present the case for local literacy materials so everyone — not only the children — would become a winner!

Saraswati wrote first to a friend who was an expert in designing reading materials for children, and who could teach local authors, educators, artists, and editors what it takes to design, write, and publish books for kids. Saraswati offered her own abode as accommodations, and the friend forfeited a consultant’s fee and did not request to stay in a fancy five-star hotel, cut off from the dynamic local experience. Rather, the expert found herself much closer to the real sources of creativity — caring people living the local life.

Once the group started to produce stories and other reading materials, it was time for Saraswati and her friends to approach local publishers.

“But we cannot afford this costly paper if we are only printing such a small amount of books,” said publisher number 1.

“For the first round,” Saraswati replied, “let us use a cheaper paper stock, which allows us to make materials for more children. And maybe if we published the stories in a magazine format, we could use this as a test run to find out how many children would buy and read the new materials. In addition, we will do the initial printing only in limited colors, to keep the price down and make it affordable for more new readers and not only for an elite few.”

The initial printing was successful beyond anyone’s expectation. The next victory was when, during the summer months, Saraswati organized with friends in a nearby country a series of short courses on publishing children’s reading materials for young authors and local writers. Again, this was accomplished with maximum contribution of the learning institution, minimal expenses, and a growing passion to produce locally appropriate materials for newly literate children in the magical kingdom.

With newly trained authors, more reading materials, a magazine format, and an expanding readership, there was such a demand that the quality of the printing had also been improved. The publisher had a good return on his venture, so much so that two days after the magazine reached the sellers, they were all sold out!

Now there is a growing number of authors who write for the children’s book market, and, to Saraswati’s delight, there is a dynamic population of children who read voraciously the materials written for them in their own language.

For a fraction of the cost, and with creativity, compassion, the contribution of friends near and far, persuasion and leveraging with resourceful entrepreneurs, Saraswati bestowed her gifts to newly literate children in this magical kingdom.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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