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How a Boy’s First Trip Across the Mekong Delta Will Help Grow Children’s Book Publishing in Vietnam

October 15, 2015

“Instead of providing a one-time donation of materials to a school, our Literacy Program invests in a region’s capacity to create its own children’s books. When we work with a community for four years we want to make sure that what we invest in can grow and sustain itself long-term.”

One of the biggest challenges to instilling in children the habit of reading in low-income countries is the dearth of high-quality, age-appropriate children’s books in the local language.

This turns out to be a catch-22: without readers there’s no demand for high-quality children’s books, and without that demand there’s no impetus to develop the talent to create those books and the market to distribute them.

Vietnamese Room to Read author Lien working on an illustration for the award-winning children’s book The First Journey, which she co-authored with Quang

To solve this conundrum Room to Read went into the publishing business — first by scouting for local talent, and training them how to write, illustrate and edit effective, age-appropriate local language children’s books.

For instance, Room to Read conducts writers and illustrators workshops where participants learn best practices in children’s storytelling. Many of the manuscripts developed in the workshops are then produced and distributed in Room to Read school libraries. We also collaborate individually with talented authors and illustrators who create books for our libraries.

Books developed in partnership with Room to Read are regularly recognized for their superior quality, winning several national book awards. In 2011, the UN acknowledged Room to Read’s contribution to children’s book publishing with the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy.

“Room to Read is playing a vital role in helping to create a market for local language children’s books by creating the demand for them through our Literacy Program and the means to meet that demand through our book publishing,” remarked Alisha Berger, Associate Director, Literacy.

Illustration from the award-winning children’s story from Vietnam, The First Journey

Fostering local talent

But there’s more. Room to Read also supports the local publishing industry by producing those children’s books entirely in-country — purchasing materials locally and partnering with local printers.

By fostering local talents’ ability to create effective children’s books and by publishing them in-country, Room to Read is encouraging low-income regions to build their capacity to publish high-quality, local language children’s books on their own.

“Instead of providing a one-time donation of materials to a school, our Literacy Program leverages that donation by investing in a region’s capacity to create its own children’s books,” noted Berger, who heads up Room to Read’s book publishing component. “When we work with a community for four years we want to make sure that what we invest in can grow and sustain itself long-term.”

Crossing the Mekong

And that’s just what’s happening. In Vietnam, for instance, Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien, who have collaborated with Room to Read since 2012 to create local language children’s books, are using the skills they acquired in our workshops and collaborations to develop their own children’s books.

Vietnamese author-illustrators and Room to Read contributors Quang and Lien working on a drawing together

In fact, this year Quang and Lien won the Scholastic Picture Book Award, for their soon-to-be published children’s picture book The First Journey. The continent-wide competition, a joint initiative between the National Book Development Council of Singapore and Scholastic Asia, pitted them against 135 other authors, both amateur and established.

Their award-winning book tells the adventures of a little boy named An as he rows his small boat for the first time across the Mekong Delta to school, riding enormous waves brought on by the floods, alongside snakes and through a mysterious forest where a giant crocodile lurks.

From the luminous illustrations it’s easy to see why An’s first journey won over the judges.

“Our vision totally changed”

“Collaborating with Room to Read open up our imaginations,” said Lien. “We applied all the skills we learned in their workshops to this story.”

“Room to Read has changed us completely,” she added. “We learned how to design a script, interpret our ideas and illustrate them. Now we feel confident we can approach many types of children’s stories.”

Illustration from the award-winning children’s story from Vietnam, The First Journey

Room to Read also taught the budding authors about children’s classics. “Before our ideas were limited to several simple themes,” Quang remarked. “Now the way we think, the way we create is more diverse. Our vision totally changed when we joined the workshops.”

And as Berger added, “Our team in Vietnam plays a key role by promoting capacity building in their country,” noting that the authors learned about the contest on Room to Read’s Facebook page for its book collaborators, one of the ways they’re encouraged to develop on their own.

Forging their own path

So what’s next for the talented duo? That’s easy: “We plan to enter more contests,” they said, noting that the recognition has motivated them to “learn more and strive for higher standards.”

“Quang and Lien are two amazing talents we’re proud to have fostered,” said Alfredo Santos, Room to Read’s Global Literacy Program Manager for Quality Reading Materials. “Now they’re forging their own career paths as children’s book authors completely independent of Room to Read. Our capacity building is working.”

[Editor’s note: We’re excited to announce that the National Book Development Council of Singapore will be publishing The First Journey. For more information please contact them directly.]

Read more about Quang and Lien.

Find out more about why quality reading materials matter.

Learn more about Room to Read and get involved!

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