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Posts Tagged ‘literacy’

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Photo: Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times
Customers browsing through books in Thimphu, Bhutan. Literacy is growing in the isolated Himalayan country.

Bhutan is a small Himalayan country best known for its focus on Gross National Happiness. I know two other things about it, and they are contradictory. One is that the Hindu Nepalese ethnic minority gets so little happiness there that many end up in refugee camps in India for decades.

But the other thing I know is that Suzanne found Bhutan to be a magical place when she traveled there after her time as vice president of Red Envelope and just before founding Luna & Stella. A Buddhist monk in Bhutan even provided her with a name for her first-born. (She translated it into Swedish and used it as a middle name.)

Nations are complicated.

Here is a recent article I liked about Bhutan’s growing literary culture. It’s by Jeffrey Gettleman at the New York Times. “Not long ago, when Bhutan’s government tried to enroll children in school,” he writes, “parents hid them in the attic and bribed government agents with butter and cheese to go away. Families needed their children as field hands. The last thing they cared about were books.

“But … literacy is taking root across these deep green mountain valleys — it’s now around 60 percent, compared to 3 percent in the 1950s — giving rise to a surprising underdog literary scene.

“The number of bookshops is increasing; there are around a dozen in the capital, Thimphu, and a few more in far-flung districts. Bhutanese writers are publishing books more than ever before — fantasy novels, poetry, short story collections and especially folklore. Each August, Bhutan hosts an international literary festival. …

“It’s a delicate dance of letting in outsiders without getting steamrollered. Historically, Bhutan has sealed itself off, a Shangri-La nestled in the highest, snow-capped mountain range in the world. Before the 1960s, few foreigners set foot here; it was only in 1999 that television was allowed in. …

“This new generation of Bhutanese writers and novelists see themselves as occupying a special role: as guardians of their nation’s culture. Many are relatively young, in their 30s and 40s, and love to reminisce about growing up in villages without radios or TVs or even roads, wearing traditional clothes and eating traditional foods (such as hard cubes of yak cheese the size of Starburst candies). They feel an urgency to write about the old ways deep in the mountain villages before that lifestyle totally disappears.

“ ‘Create?’ asked Tshering Tashi, a writer, journalist, tour guide and co-director of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. ‘That’s a luxury. Our foremost job is to record.’ …

“Mr. Tashi, 45, is determined to track down the last of the traditional shamans and spiritual hermits — the custodians of Bhutanese legends — and write their stories, not his, before they take them to the grave. On one mission, he hiked two weeks into the mountains where no roads reach; he finally found his target, an old hermit who had been living by himself for 70 years. …

“Gopilal Acharya, 40, is a poet with dark eyes, a natty beard, crisp plaid shirts and a slightly coiled vibe. He writes in English, like most Bhutanese writers, because that is what he studied in school. (Several indigenous languages are spoken in Bhutan but relatively few books are printed in them.) …

“Mr. Acharya is passionate about Bhutanese folklore. He wrote a book of children’s tales that celebrate a way of life rooted in isolated hamlets where even today, on windswept mountainsides, people till fields of buckwheat with yoked oxen and wooden plows.

“ ‘These stories are how we are anchored as a society,’ he said. ‘We don’t have military or economic power. Our culture is all we have.’ ” More here.

For yet another angle on Bhutan, check out this Washington Post article on why some residents hate the nasty politics of their new democracy so much, they are pining for the old days — and the “absolute monarchy under a beloved king.”

 

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Sheikh Khalifa believes the United Arab Emirates would benefit in multiple ways if people there had more time to read. So he saw to it that a law got passed requiring employers to do their bit.

The National reports, “Employees will be given time off work to read under a law that was passed [in October], which also exempts reading material from taxes and fees.

“The President, Sheikh Khalifa, announced the law, which is aimed at achieving the country’s vision of a knowledge-based economy. …

“As part of the law, the Government will give a ‘knowledge briefcase’ to the families of newborns.

“Schools will be obliged to encourage reading among pupils, as well as a respect for books. Books that are no longer wanted must not be destroyed, but preserved, reused or donated, Sheikh Mohammed said.

“Fees and taxes for distributing, publishing and printing reading material will be scrapped, and facilities for authors, editors and publishing houses will be provided. Sheikh Mohammed said the law would consolidate ‘the cultural image of books in our society, and oblige coffee shops in shopping malls to offer reading material for customers.’ …

“A national fund will be set up to support reading initiatives and assist media organisations to advertise the importance of books. The fund will also be used organise a month dedicated each year to promoting literature.”

More here.

It’s an unusual approach, but it seems OK as long as there is freedom to choose what gets read. Lately, I’ve been immersed in the beautiful, wrenching autobiography of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca and learning all over again how literacy gives people wings. Baca learned to read in prison at around age 20 and it transformed his life.

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I’ve read about book lovers delivering books to children and adults by camel, donkey, portable Uni bookshelf and van. Now at the BBC, Theodora Sutcliffe reports on a sailboat that can get books to watery places in Indonesia.

“The toothless steersman positioned the rudder. A second sailor, balancing barefoot on an outrigger, coaxed an elderly engine into life. A third poled the boat away from the trash-strewn beach. In West Sulawesi, Indonesia, a ground-breaking mobile library was on its way.

“The Perahu Pustaka (Book Boat) is sorely needed. In a recent study of 61 nations for which data was available, Indonesia ranked second worst for literacy – only Botswana scored lower. More than 10% of the West Sulawesi’s adult population cannot read, while in many villages, the only book available is a solitary copy of the Quran.

“So in 2015, local news journalist Muhammad Ridwan Alimuddin decided to combine his twin passions for books and boats by setting up a mobile library on a baqgo, a small traditional sailboat. His aim? To bring fun, colourful children’s books to remote fishermen’s villages and tiny islands in the region where literacy is low and reading for pleasure virtually non-existent. He preaches the joy of reading. …

“Despite never finishing university, he has written 10 books on maritime culture and helped sail a small traditional pakur craft from Sulawesi to Okinawa in Japan. His love of the sea can be seen in his maritime museum, a collection of model and antique boats, which shares space with his library. And he uses the boat journeys, which can mean up to 20 days at sea, to research and make YouTube documentaries on the fishing and seafaring life of his native Mandar people. …

“As we closed in on the oyster-farming village of Mampie on the West Sulawesi coast, a gaggle of children emerged from the palms to watch the library boat pull in. Others stopped the hard, repetitive work of shucking oysters as Alimuddin, a volunteer from his home village and his crew of three unrolled plastic mats and covered them in books.

“Excited children dived into the brightly coloured tomes; their mothers, some with babies, were more circumspect.

“ ‘We have low expectations,’ Alimuddin said. ‘We want them to use the books – that’s all.’

“With more than 17,000 islands scattered across the Indian and Pacific oceans – some virtually in the Philippines, others close to Australia or butting up against Singapore – education in Indonesia is a constant struggle. …

“ ‘When you see a child smile and open a book, all your problems disappear,’ Alimuddin said with a smile of his own.” More here.

Photo: Theodora Sutcliffe
In 2015, Alimuddin decided to combine his twin passions for books and boats by setting up a mobile library.

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Research highlighted at Pacific Standard sometimes strikes me as a little lightweight, but I am happy to endorse a study that Tom Jacobs covered recently, because I have some personal experience. It’s about the benefits of both cultural activities and Internet usage for older people.

Jacobs writes, “A new British study of people age 50 and older finds a link between health literacy — defined as ‘the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information’ — and two specific behaviors: Regular use of the Internet, and participation in cultural activities.

“ ‘Loss of health literacy skills during aging is not inevitable, a research team led by Lindsay Kobayashi of University College London writes in the Journal of Epidemiology and Health. ‘Internet use and engagement in various social activities, in particular cultural activities, appear to help older adults maintain the literary skills required to self-manage health.’

“The study used data on 4,368 men and women age 50 or older who participated in the English Longitudinal Study on Aging. Their health literacy was measured two years after they joined the project, and again five years later, by having them read a fictitious medicine-bottle label and then answer four reading-comprehension questions.”

I am over 50, enjoy cultural events and the Internet, and understand most medicine bottle labels. So there you go. It’s all true.

Get the key details at Pacific Standard.

Photo: Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock 

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Back in first-grade, we learned to read from books featuring invariably blond, blue-eyed children. Today, primers have more variety, but multicultural pleasure reading, where it exists, is not always available to poor children.

Leslie Kaufman wrote recently at the NY Times that a  “nonprofit called First Book, which promotes literacy among children in low-income communities, announced the Stories for All project, a program intended to prod publishers to print more multicultural books. …

“In a 2012 study, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison evaluated some 3,600 books, looking for multicultural content. Of the books examined, 3.3 percent were found to be about African-Americans, 2.1 percent were about Asian-Pacific Americans, 1.5 percent were about Latinos and 0.6 percent were about American Indians.” More.

First Book picked two winning publishers in its first Stories for All competition — HarperCollins and Lee & Low Books — and purchased $500,000-worth of books from them. The books “will be available beginning in May through the First Book Marketplace, a website offering deeply discounted books and educational materials exclusively to schools and programs serving kids in need.”

Among the books are:  “Shooter”, Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins); “Tofu Quilt”, Ching Yueng (Lee & Low Books); “In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson”, Bette Bao Lord (HarperCollins); “The Storyteller’s Candle: La Velita de Los Cuentos”, Lucia Gonzalez (Lee & Low Books); “El Bronx Remembered: A Novella and Stories”, Nicholasa Mohr (HarperCollins); and “Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story”, Ken Mochizuki (Lee & Low Books).

More information at FirstBook.org.

Photograph: Strategies for Children

kids--teacher

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My husband and I like Colin Cotterill’s quirky mystery books about Dr. Siri Palboun of Laos. The series starts with The Coroner’s Lunch, in case you are interested.

Cotterill has been involved in several worthy causes in Laos, including one addressing the abysmal lack of children’s books in the country. You can read how he got started on his quest for children’s books, here. That work is now handled by Sasha Alyson at Big Brother Mouse, who writes:

“Do you remember the excitement of rushing home to read a book that you hoped would never end? Many Lao children have no such memories, because they’ve never seen a book that was fun or exciting to read. Some have shared textbooks; others have never seen a book at all. We sometimes have to explain how books work: ‘Look, if you turn the page, there’s more!’ ”

Big Brother Mouse is a “Lao-based, Lao-owned project.” More.

Cotterill also works with http://www.copelaos.org to help victims of land mines left over from the CIA’s “secret war.”

And, pointing out that more than 75 percent of children in the far north of Laos have no schools, Cotterill funds efforts to get hill tribe students into teachers colleges. More.

Art: Colin Cotterill at http://www.colincotterill.com

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The other day John brought up the topic of Andrew Carnegie. Whatever else might be said about this 19th Century steel baron, you have to give him credit for putting so much of his fortune into philanthropy, especially libraries.

Today John Wood is carrying on that work in impoverished countries around the world. As Nicholas Kristof writes in the NY Times, “Wood’s charity, Room to Read, has opened 12,000 … libraries around the world, along with 1,500 schools. …

“He has opened nearly five times as many libraries as Carnegie, even if his are mostly single-room affairs that look nothing like the grand Carnegie libraries. Room to Read is one of America’s fastest-growing charities and is now opening new libraries at an astonishing clip of six a day. …

“He also runs Room to Read with an aggressive businesslike efficiency that he learned at Microsoft, attacking illiteracy as if it were Netscape. He tells supporters that they aren’t donating to charity but making an investment: Where can you get more bang for the buck than starting a library for $5,000? …

“ ‘In 20 years,’ Wood told me, ‘I’d like to have 100,000 libraries, reaching 50 million kids. Our 50-year goal is to reverse the notion that any child can be told “you were born in the wrong place at the wrong time and so you will not get educated.” ‘ ” Read more.

Photograph of John Wood: Room to Read

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