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“Room to Read” Brings Love of Books to Children in India

By Howard Cincotta
Special Correspondent

Washington — Hema, a 19-year-old teacher at the Shishu Mandir School in Uttarkhand, and Bharti Devi, a school librarian in Jharkhand, are two faces of Room to Read’s expanding programs in India, which are focused on gender equality in education and literacy initiatives.

Hema had to drop out of school because her parents decided they couldn’t afford to continue educating their two daughters. With the help of a Room to Read scholarship, however, she graduated with distinction and has gone on to college while continuing to teach.

“I know how empowering good education can be,” she says.

When Room to Read opened a library in her Jharkhand middle school, Bharti Devi volunteered for special training and turned it into a vibrant, colorful, child-friendly space.

Teachers quickly recognized the value of Devi’s library, where children could find attractive picture books in different languages, older children could read to younger ones, and students participated in word games, poetry readings and drawing.

“It’s not like we’re reinventing the wheel — we’re basing our work on a lot of research we have on reading,” says Dhir Jhingran, Room to Read’s chief program officer. “We are bringing our own innovation, of course, which is children’s literature. Good children’s literature is at the heart of it.”

FROM NEPAL TO INDIA

Room to Read began in 1998 ( http://www.america.gov/st/develop-english/2010/April/20100414101216kJleinaD0.8164636.html ) as Books for Nepal when former Microsoft executive John Wood, on a vacation trek, visited a school whose library had no books except for tourists’ castoffs — and no children’s books whatsoever.

He was stunned, and never forgot the paradox summed up for him by a Nepalese educator: “We are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor.”

In 2000, after opening several libraries and schools in Nepal, Wood and his team changed the organization’s name and expanded its programs throughout South Asia and southern Africa.

They also recognized that donated English-language books were only a partial solution; the most urgent need was for attractively illustrated children’s books in local languages. That led to local publishing ventures and the commissioning of local writers and artists.

Room to Read’s growth over the past decade has been explosive. Today, the program operates in nine countries — India, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zambia and South Africa — and plans to continue expanding. On average, Room to Read opens a children’s library every four hours.

As of October, Room to Read has established more than 10,000 libraries and 1,100 schools, published more than 430 original children’s titles, and distributed a total of 7.4 million books.
Wood and Room to Read made a strategic decision at the start that has been key to its success: the program would not simply donate money, but insist that local communities invest their own time and resources to make the libraries their own.

DIVERSITY AND CHALLENGES

Since its inception in 2003, Room to Read India has established nearly 3,300 school libraries and printed more than 620,000 books in three nationally recognized languages — Hindi, Telugu, and English — and four regional languages — Rajasthani, Garwali, Chhattisgarhi and Jharkandi.

In 2009, the program published 74 new local language titles, with 18 more planned for 2010. Another 850 libraries are planned for 2010, along with the printing of more than 170,000 books.

Another important Room to Read component, the Girls’ Education Program, works to help disadvantaged children in urban and rural areas complete their secondary education and learn the skills necessary to succeed in their lives and careers. Hema, the teacher in Uttarkhand, was an early participant in the Girls’ Education Program.

The girls’ program, which will reach a total of 2,800 girls by the end of the year, includes slum dwellers, migrant workers, child laborers and those without parents or guardians, as well as Dalit and tribal girls.

Room to Read faces special social and cultural challenges in each country, and India is no exception. The Local Language Publishing Program, for example, is spread across eight states: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand.

“Text that has been accepted and appreciated by the communities in one state may be denied and undervalued in another,” says Room to Read India Country Director Sunisha Ahuja. “As a result, our teams have been challenged to ensure that our text speaks to the lives, perceptions and values of many cultural groups.”

Ahuja and her colleagues identify two of their biggest challenges as engaging public-school teachers and coordinating closely with state and district government education officials.

Teachers who are burdened with administrative duties along with classroom responsibilities often have little time for library activities, according to Ahuja.

However, the new Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which mandates a functional library in every public school, should encourage better support for such library initiatives, she says.

Room to Read has always stressed the need to coordinate closely with public officials in every country where it operates. “Room to Read places a high value on ensuring government buy-in and support before beginning project implementation each year,” says Chief Executive Officer Erin Ganju.

WRITERS AND ARTISTS

Room to Read also has always sought to maintain a balance between having books written and illustrated by established authors and illustrators, and encouraging emerging artists, according to Ahuja.
Since the Local Language Publishing program began, Room to Read India has worked with 79 writers, 50 of whom were established authors and 29 of whom were published for the first time, Ahuja observes. Fifty percent of the artists were illustrating a children’s book for the first time.

One of these new author-illustrator teams, writer Manju Gupta and illustrator Mehul Navodit, collaborated on a popular Room to Read title, Machho’s Ocean Journey.

“To see your work published, you feel a lot of confidence,” illustrator Navodit said in an American television interview. Gupta, a former school principal, has already written another tale about a turban that goes on an adventure.

Looking to the future, “Room to Read envisions a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential,” says Ahuja. “Anyone investing in Room to Read is investing in world change.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site: http://www.america.gov)

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