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Publishing children's books – and delivering them by elephant

Sasha Alyson hauls (sometimes by elephant) children's books in the local language to kids in rural Laos eager to learn to read.

Sasha Alyson (c.) reads ‘New, Improved Buffalo’ – a book he wrote and published in Lao and English – to two children at the elementary school in Pakseuang village in Laos during a ‘book party.’ Mr. Alyson’s group, Big Brother Mouse, aims to ‘make literacy fun for children in Laos.’

Tibor Krausz

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The little booklet contains riddles about animals – and the children in Pakseuang village just love it. Squeezing around a young Laotian staffer from Big Brother Mouse, the 40 or so second-graders listen with bated breath as he reads out the rhyming riddles to them.

"Buffalo!" "Snake!" "Frog!" they shout back their guesses. At each correct answer they jump up cheering with arms raised.

Books – even simple ones like the 32-page "What Am I?" – hold a magical appeal for Laotian children. Many of them have never seen a book, much less owned one.

"What struck me when I came here [as a tourist in 2003]," says Sasha Alyson, the American expatriate who founded Big Brother Mouse, a local children's publisher, "was that I never saw a book for children."

The literacy rate in Laos, an impoverished communist holdout of 6 million people bordering Vietnam, is around 70 percent. Yet most people have nothing to read besides old dog-eared textbooks and government pamphlets. At many village schools blackboards are the sole means of instruction, and children lack even pencils and paper.

"I knew I couldn't do education reform here," notes Mr. Alyson, who once ran a niche publishing firm in Boston. "But I could set up a small publishing project."

So he did. In 2006 Alyson obtained the very first publishing license in Luang Prabang, a historic northern town on the Mekong River where he now lives. He recruited several young locals he had met by chance: One was a waiter who wanted to become a writer, another a Buddhist novice monk eager to try something different.

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