Logo of Big Brother Mouse, publishing books in Laos

Good books... and unwanted books

Huge amounts of time and money are spent shipping books from the west to less developed countries such as Laos. It seems like a good idea. Education, literacy, books – we all agree that these are important. And nobody, least of all a Lao mouse, wants to seem ungrateful. But it's time for someone to point out the dismal truth: a very high percentage of this time and money is utterly wasted. There are several reasons.

* Unwanted books. Books sent here are often the books nobody wanted. And probably nobody here wants them either. They may be obsolete, or dull, or so technical as to have a very limited audience. Big Brother Mouse is scratching his head, wondering about why someone thought it was worth the time and cost to send The 1991 Writer's Digest to Laos. Or the 20 copies of an American history high school textbook that went to the local university. Or the Radio Shack TRS-80 computer repair manual. Or... but we'd better change the subject, or our mouse is going to have a bald spot from all that scratching.

* Language. People here speak Lao – or, often, a tribal language first, and Lao second. Granted, English is an important international language, but if we want to get children enthused about reading, we need to start in their own language.

There's an important place for books in English. But it must be addressed thoughtfully. A Lao college student, who has studied English for three years, probably cannot read a book written for English-speaking eighth graders. There is a need for simple, but interesting, texts for such students, both as a source of information, and to practice English. But there's a far greater need for money to print and buy books in Lao. Books written for an English-speaking audience older than 15 are unlikely to ever be read.

* Culture. Just as books in English have a role here, so do books that depict other cultures. But again, there needs to be an appropriate balance. When children only see books from western cultures, they soon feel their own culture and values are inadequate. For example, many women in Asia damage their skin with bleaches and whiteners, trying to look more western. We need more books about Lao people, Lao lives, Lao culture, and Lao concerns.

What about buying a new, carefully-selected book, and sending it over?

That avoids some of the problems. Certain books can be put to good use. (What we DO need in Laos.) But there are still important factors to consider.

First, unless you've spent considerable time interacting with local people in Laos (or the country where you're sending the book), you can easily misjudge what content is appropriate. You can also misjudge what reading level is realistic. A 6-year-old in Australia, the U.S., or England, typically knows 5,000 to 15,000 English words. A Lao college graduate who majored in English is lucky to know 3,000.

Also, think about the environmental impact. That book may well have been printed in Asia, shipped to your country, then trucked to a bookstore. Now it's retracing that route. If enough people do this to make any real impact on literacy, it will also increase global warming – which is going to hurt poor countries the most.

Yes, there's something very satisfying about selecting a book at the bookstore, and shipping it off, with visions of it being enjoyed by children halfway around the world. But the cost of buying and shipping one English-language book is enough for us to print 10 to 20 books that were written and published to meet Lao needs.