292nd Meeting – Tuesday, September 11th 2007

‘Big Brother Mouse’ - Book publishing in Laos

A talk and presentation by Sasha Alyson and Khamla Panyasouk

Present: Jack Moerschbaecher, Sharon Downing, Carole Beanclerk, Steve Epstein, Carole David, Bodil Blokker, Nantiya Khamkham, Trasvin Jittidecharak, Alain Madec, Reinhard Hohler, John Cadet, Kanokwan Cadet. An audience of 12.

Summary of the talk and presentation

Traditionally, books have been rare in Laos. Shared textbooks are available in many villages, but most children have never seen a book they would want to read. Few people even realize that reading can be enjoyable, or could add to their education, or could provide information to improve their quality of life.

Khamla Panyasouk and Sasha Alyson are changing this picture. At the meeting they talked about Big Brother Mouse, a publishing project they run from Luang Phrabang, Laos.

Sasha is a retired American book publisher. He first visited Laos in 2003 and met many young people who were eager to learn new skills and to improve the quality of life for people in their country, but had no place to start. He decided to teach writing, computer, and publishing skills to young people, while striving to increase reading and literacy throughout Laos.

Khamla was born in a typical rural village and grew up with no electricity, no running water – and of course, no books. After he moved to Luang Phrabang to become a novice monk, he had access to a few books, and began to develop an interest in reading. Khamla was a Lao college student when he met Sasha, who was soon impressed by his drive, and his eagerness and ability to learn. They formed Big Brother Mouse. Less than 18 months later, they’ve published more than 30 books.

After organising painting and writing competitions in a number of schools, Khamla and Sasha realized that while there are some promising young artists in Laos, writing skills are still very weak. Almost all of the children could use their imagination and create pictures on a theme: ‘Why is the monkey afraid?’, but very few could write about it. Although several local writers have produced collections of traditional stories, and easy alphabet books, for Lao children, producing other types of books, with Lao content, is a challenge. For new ideas, they look at the books children in other countries have enjoyed most, such as those by Dr. Seuss, and discuss what underlying concepts made those books successful. Then they apply those concepts, but with new Lao content and pictures. They have also translated some classics: a Lao Dr. Dolittle has already been published; The Wizard of Oz, Sherlock Holmes, and, on a more serious level, Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, are currently being translated. To assist in production of the books, Sasha and Khamla recruited young Lao artists and writers.

With virtually no books to distribute, Laos also had no distribution system for books. Big Brother Mouse has begun going into rural villages to hold Book Parties in the schools. Some villages are so remote that the journey is made by road, by boat, and then walking for an hour or so, carrying all the books. At the village schools, the young Lao artists and writers talk about their work and read from books. Then every child in the school gets a book – virtually always the first book they’ve ever owned. Finally, Big Brother Mouse leaves a “swap box” where children can exchange their book for a new one. About 85 children came to the first Book Party and all received their free book. The next day more than 50 of them came back to the “swap box” to exchange their book for another one. Within a very short space of time all of the children had read all of the books in the “swap box”. While the children are given advice and instruction about book care, the books are paperbacks and with constant use do deteriorate to become unusable.   

In response to a question about the cost of the Big Brother Mouse books, Sasha said that the cost price of one of their picture storybooks is about US$ 2, Khamla then added that a book costing more than US$ 1 is beyond the reach of people living in villages. For the first year, Sasha was able to fund printing costs from his personal savings. Now, the project needs a sponsor for each new book before it can go to press. Details about sponsoring a book party ($200) or a book ($1,000 to $3,000), and more information about the project, are available on their website: www.BigBrotherMouse.com

After the question and answer session the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria, where members of the audience engaged Sasha and Khamla in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.