How does anyone learn to write a good book, in a country where most people have never read a good book? It's a long process.
Good writers usually have 3 things in common:
* They read a lot.
* They write a lot.
* They get helpful feedback about their writing – from a teacher, a blunt-tongued spouse, a writers' group, or friends and readers.
On the last two points, we provide time and encouragement for our staff to write. Periodically, they meet and discuss one another's work.
As for the first point and most crucial point: We're trying to publish as many good books as we can, from a wide variety of sources, reflecting a great range of subject matter and writing styles. More than anything else, we believe that increased reading material will help create a generation of Lao writers. Here are some of our approaches for creating that variety of books. Click on a book title to see what it looks like inside. This is a long page; we've tried to provide enough detail to help other who are trying to do the same.
One-word thrillers. Second-grade teachers tell us that many students cannot read a full sentence. They can figure out an individual word, but by the time the reach the end of a sentence, they've forgotten how it began. So we've looked for ways to make reading fun for these children. Only half tongue-in-cheek, we call them "one-word thrillers."
The spectacular photographs available on Wikipedia have helped enormously. Nang Khamla is a young woman on our staff with no previous writing experience. She created Fly, Fly, Fly! She found 16 photographs of animals moving in different ways. Each page has one eye-catching photograph, a single large word describing that sort of movement, and then a slightly longer sentence. All ages enjoy the book; older children often read it with younger siblings.
What Am I Doing? Here's another approach. The top of each page shows cartoon animals engaged in activities that are similar, but not quite the same. For example, one page might show walking, running, crawling, climbing, trotting. At the bottom are words for those activities. Readers try to match up each word with the right picture. We used funny clip-art cartoons from CDs.
I Am... Children entering first grade here often face an extra obstacle: School is taught in the Lao language, but nearly half the children in Laos speak an ethnic language at home and cannot understand Lao. Books alone won't solve this, but they can help. Each book in this series shows the daily life of one child, with a large photo and a short caption.
In I am Piak, a Khmu girl tells about her family, her daily household chores, and playing with friends. For the first time, Khmu children will see people just like themselves in a book. We're now doing some variations, but maintaining two key elements: Photos of real children and their families, in their village; and short, easy captions. Naly's Hmong New Year shows the major Hmong holiday. Three children are featured in We Are Katang; that allowed us to show a greater variety of activities.
True facts. Children are eager for facts. In Laos, they can't alway find many. Like Fly, Fly, Fly (above), this series has one large word, a short sentence with an interesting fact, and one or more eyecatching photos on each page.
The Animal with No Brain tells about sea life. Jellyfish have no brain. Eels get their teeth cleaned by tiny shrimp. Among seahorses, it's the male that get's pregnant. Beginning readers may have to work to understand the sentence, but there's a reward when they succeed.
Inspiration from Dr. Seuss. We read books that have been popular in other countries, then ask: What made this book successful? We apply that underlying idea to Lao subjects and culture. For our goal to "Make literacy fun!" our top inspiration has been Dr. Seuss. For example:
Green Eggs and Ham. Starting with the question "Do you like green eggs and ham?" Dr. Seuss used only 50 different words but with lively repetition, as each scene built on the one before, he built those 50 words into a full story. Link, Yuphin, and Vannaled chose a question that in Laos might seem equally preposterous: "Do you like to read?" and wrote I Am Geum
To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. A boy sees a broken-down wagon and horse, but in his imagination, they grow into something more splendid. In Laos, a day-dreaming boy is more likely to see a buffalo. That led to New, Improved Buffalo.
Hop on Pop. The brief sentences in this book aren't poems in a traditional sense, but they include two or three words that rhyme; that creates a humorous effect. Several of our books use this idea, including Jong Jong Jong! and
Polar Bear Visits Laos.
Inspiration from other books. Many other superb books have given us ideas. They include:
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Colorful animals cut from paper, and repetitive, easy-to-read rhymes were the essence of this classic by Bill Martin and Eric Carle. Tha Tao used it as a model for a book with Lao animals and a Lao farmer: Do You Want to See?.
Curious George. A little monkey goes to the city, and finds it both exciting and bewildering. Years ago, I interviewed two young women in a village just 90 minutes from Bangkok, which they had never visited. They had the same mixed feelings about the big city. Would it be fun and exciting? Or scary and dangerous? That gave rise to Bangkok Bob, in which a monkey finds out for himself what the city is like.
Notes: Using this approach, we've produced a range of original and popular children's picture books. The key is to identify what made the original book successful. With that key concept, and guidance from an experienced writer, motivated young people with no writing background have produced books that children love. Next on our "inspiration" list: The Magic Treehouse series.
Translation and adaptation of public-domain works. If a book is still popular a century after it appeared, there's a reason for that. Furthermore, it's out of copyright. We've issued Lao editions of several such books.
Dr. Dolittle. With some adaptations and abridgements, we've published the first two books in this series. Both were delightfully illustrated by a Chittakone, a local high school student: Take a look at The Story of Dr. Dolittle and Dr. Dolittle and the Floating Island.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. One problem with reprinting public-domain books is that our list could become disproportionately heavy with western characters, themes, and images. While we want readers here to see a wide range of books, we also want children to read about characters like themselves. So in this classic, we reset the beginning and end in Luang Namtha, Laos, instead of Kansas, USA. Kham is swept away in a flood. After she reaches Oz, not much changes except that she carries sticky rice instead of bread in her basket. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Sherlock Holmes. The world's most popular detective stories are now published in Lao, in bilingual editions with Lao and simplified English side by side. For the first time, college students learning English can practice their skills by reading something truly interesting, instead of an imaginary conversation at airport customs. The Red-Headed Club,
The Man Who Disappeared and The Secret of Boscombe Valley.
We've also published Pinocchio, The Jungle Boy (the first story in Kipling's Jungle Book), and The Bag of Smiles (selected stories from Why the Chimes Rang). Coming up: Robin Hood, The Wind in the Willows, and Kidnapped. Most classics can be found at
Lao folktales. For children and adults alike, our most popular stories are traditional Lao folktales. Our staff writes the stories they know. They also record and transcribe stories told by village elders. From this have come such books as The Cat that Meditated, The Grasshopper War, Aijethai, Xieng Mieng stories, and the current #1 favorite, Phiiyamoi, which ends with a witch devouring the intestines of man who became a bit too greedy. Each of Laos's 49 ethnic minorities has its own stories and traditions, and we're collecting and publishing as many of those as we can. The first, from the Khmu' group, was The Hunter Who Meditated.
Proverbs. For centuries, proverbs have passed wisdom from one generation to the next. Putting them into book form gives them one more opportunity to be remembered. For Proverbs of Laos, we asked children to write down their favorite, then illustrate it and briefly explain it. Get Up Early Like a Crow has a single proverb and colorful cartoon on each page.
Regional stories. Stories from neighboring countries are new to Lao readers, but are set in the context of cultures that readers can relate to. Our first such collection is Tigers and Rice. The five neighboring countries of Laos are each introduced with two pages of photos and background, followed by two popular folktales from that country. We thought the stories would pull in children, who would then read the background after the finished the stories. In fact, we found that many children, eager for facts, read that part first.
World folktales. Our first collection from outside Asia came from Africa: The Adventures of Anansi, followed by International Folktales. Most children start with the more familiar Lao stories, then graduate to these.
Notes: Folktale collections are easily found in bookshops and on websites. Some carry a copyright, but in the case of traditional stories this applies only to that author's telling of the story. The storyline itself cannot be copyrighted.
Alphabet books. Lao is phonetic. Once you've learnd the alphabet, you can read. You'll read very slowly, but then it's just a matter of having books that make it fun to practice. And it's more fun if there are several alphabet books to practice with. Here are some approaches we've used:
Frog, Alligator, Buffalo Each Lao consonant is formally affiliated with a noun. The alphabet begins gaw-gai (chicken), kaw-kai (egg). During my first years in Laos, I saw several alphabet books and every one one of them used those official words to illustrate the letter: For his first book, Khamla introduced some different words and wrote a humorous 2-line rhyme for each letter. It's a hit; many rural children can have memorized some lines.
No Chickens, No Eggs Thongkham plowed through a dozen CD's of computer clip-art. For each Lao consonant, he found 8 or 9 pictures for words beginning with that letter. We added the English equivalent below the Lao, so the book helps both children learning Lao, and older students learning English. A second book, Ant, Knife, Tied Up took the same approach for Lao vowels.
Jong Jong Jong! Lao is tonal. If you change the tone in which you say a word, it becomes a new word. Dog, horse, and come, are all the same, except for tone. To introduce the most common tone symbols, Chittakone wrote sentences that used words from these sets, and drew a cartoon for it. By reading the sentence and looking at the picture, children who have learned the alphabet can see the effect of each tone mark.
Notes: Countless alphabet books are available for inspiration. Some approaches, like Khamla's Frog, Alligator, Buffalo, have full sentences and are best for a teacher or parent reading to a child. Others will allow a child or adult to learn and practice alone.
Health. Few things affect our quality of life more than health. Doctors, clinics, and hospitals are part of this, but wider knowledge of health, sanitation, and nutrition would make a great difference, at a relatively low cost. I hope one day a large health organization will create booklets providing that information, in a useful, entertaining way, for children and adults, and make them freely available for anyone to translate, reprint, and publish.
That hasn't happened, but there's something almost as good: Books about health and related issues from
The Hesperian Foundation. Their book Where There Is No Doctor is a classic, and deservedly so. Hesperian books can be printed or translated at no charge on a not-for-profit basis; their website has details. Our books Women's Health, Family Planning, Water for Life and others are adapted from their work.
In Laos we've worked with Save the Children to produce books about basic health issues. They understand what information is most needed in rural villages, and how to present it. We've published two books in cooperation with them: Good Nutrition for Mother and Baby and Raising Smart and Healthy Children.
Another good source has been Child-to-Child Trust in London, which produces a series of pamphlets about children's health and safety, which can be used by others. We've adapted two for use in Laos: Helping Children Develop and Helping Children Learn.
Dinosaurs. If you want to get kids excited about reading, there's no such thing as too many dinosaur books. An eight-year-old child who is absorbed in one subject wants to read all they can about it.
There's plenty of information available from which a moderately experienced writer can prepare an interesting book on this subject.
Dover Publications has a wealth of good picture books on every imaginable subject. You can use, without charge, up to 10 of the colorful paintings from their Dinosaur CD-ROM and Book in your own work.
Books previously published in Laos. Some beautiful and well-written books were produced in Laos in the past, often by an NGO that received funding for the book, but had no way to get it widely distributed. Finding these, and tracking down the rights-holder, can be a challenge, but we keep our eyes open. One of my favorite books, The Monk and the Trees, came to us this way.
Wikipedia and public-domain art.
Wikipedia is a wonderful source of photographs and art. I quickly put together Spectacular! just by browsing the Featured Pictures section. Other Wikipedia photos helped with Homes Around the World, and with picture books described above. While there's no charge to use material from Wikipedia, there are sometimes restrictions and requirements, which you should understand.
As for content: Information from Wikipedia is more accurate than you might expect for an encyclopedia where anybody can write an entry, but you should still double-check it. Ideally, any source should be double-checked; researching a book about animals I found one reliable source that says camels can swim, and another that says they cannot. Who ever knew that so many had investigated this?
There are many other good sources of free art. Most photographs taken by U.S. government employees, as part of their work, are public domain. We used NASA's stunning pictures of planets, galaxies, and exploding nebula for What's in the Sky? and other U.S. government pictures for World War II.
Books published by Big Brother Mouse. Organizations in Cambodia and Timor Leste have translated and published New, Improved Buffalo, Do You Want To See?, and No Bananas. We've given others permission to publish many other titles. We're happy to hear from organizations already publishing books and doing literacy work in in less-developed regions, that would like to make use of books we've developed. Tell us a bit about what you've done, and what you're looking for; we'll see if we can help. We unfortunately do not have the staff to offer general publishing advice.