Who writes and illustrates the books?
We'll start with the simplest part of the question. Laos has many talented artists. We've held two art contests at the Children's Cultural Center in Luang Prabang. The winner of each contest has now illustrated several books for us. In our office, we're building a small library of art books, which our staff uses to get new ideas and improve their techniques. Visiting artists also sometimes offer suggestions. Nearly all of our illustrated books contain art by a Laotian. (The exceptions are a few books we've reprinted from elsewhere.)
Writing talent has been harder to find. People learn to write a good book by reading good books, and by writing a lot and getting feedback on their writing. None of those things happens routinely in Laos. By publishing a variety of books, we'll help improve that situation. In the meantime, we have developed a mixture of sources for books:
* Local Lao writers, especially college students, have written traditional stories, alphabet books, and other
beginner-level books. Some of them are now working on books for older readers.
* We've adapted and translated some works in the public domain, such as Dr. Dolittle, Sherlock Holmes, and The Wizard of Oz.
* Some books have been written for Big Brother Mouse by non-Laotions, including Sasha, who founded the project, and Jane Burren of Australia, who has helped us with whatever we need.
* We have published a Lao edition of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and we're working on Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun. In the future we expect to translate significant books from other countries.
* We've translated and reprinted a beautiful story, Wolf Mountain, that was originally published in Cambodia by Domrei Sor, a project similar to ours. We're talking with other Asian publishers about sharing more work.
* Another excellent book, The Monk and the Trees, was published in Laos in 1999 by a French NGO, CIDSE. It has been out
of print for several years, and we received permission to reprint it. Several other good books have been published in Laos over the years; we hope to bring some of them back into print, and get them more widely distributed.
In short, we're getting books from many sources. This helps us achieve our goal of showing the full spectrum of what books can be. It also provides Laotions who want to become writers with many sources and types of inspiration.
Where did the name "Big Brother Mouse" come from?
We hope you're asking because you like the name, not because you don't! It's one of those names that just sort of happened.
In 2005, when Sasha was working with Khamla, Siphone, and Khout to develop the first books, and meeting with government
officials and others to talk about his ideas, the project didn't have a name. But he needed a business card,
so he made one with simply his name and contact information, and the words "Books that make literacy fun!" To make the card reflect that idea, he looked through some computer clip art for an amusing picture, and found a drawing
of a mouse looking out of a mousehole. It fit nicely at the bottom of the card.
In Lao, family terms are often used for people you are close to, even if they aren't related. Khamla, Siphone, and Khout called Sasha "ai", which means "big brother" in Laos, because in a Lao family, the older brothers or sisters help their younger siblings. By the way, in English "Big Brother" still has some connotations from George Orwell's
book 1984, but in Lao, it does not.
When the first books were ready for press, we needed a publisher name to put on them. We tried several ways to combine the word "ai",
to show that the project would help children, and the mouse, which showed that we wanted the books fun. We finally decided on the name "Ai Nu Noi". This actually translates into English as "Little mouse that is a big brother" but that's too long, so we shortened it to "Big Brother Mouse".
Where do you get your funding?
During the first year, the project's founder, Sasha, was able to pay for most of the overhead and printing costs from his personal savings, and we were helped by occasional donations from visitors. That allowed us to focus our energies on producing some books. Now, we need to find other sources of support.
Is Big Brother Mouse a business, or is it non-profit?
We're something of both. Laos doesn't have just the same business and organizational structures as many western countries. Big Brother Mouse is a not-for-profit,, Lao-owned business, licensed by the government since 2006 with tax-exempt status because of our educational work. All of our paid staff if Lao, and they earn a living by working here; but there are no investors who draw a profit. Any profit is put into making more books and distributing them more widely.
By sponsoring a book party and mini-library in a rural village, you're achieving several things. In a direct sense, your donation is being used to help a village. But it also helps to create a market for books in Laos, which will make publishing a viable business in the future. You're helping to create a market right now, for books published by Big Brother Mouse.
More importantly, you're creating a new generation of readers who want books, because they see the value of books: as entertainment, to sharpen their mind, to broaden their knowledge of the world, to gain new jobs skills, or
to provide new information and insights into the problems they face in their village or on their family farm.
In recent years, there has been a growing look at foreign aid. Many people are asking: with all the money that's been spent on foreign aid, why isn't there more to show for it? Part of the answer seems to be that much of this foreign aid
created a sense of dependency in countries where it was spent. Increasing attention is now turning to what is
often called "social enterprises" – small businesses, locally owned and operated, that provide a socially
imortant service while also earning an income for the owner and employees. Such businesses have helped address
such issues as creating clean water supplies, improving sanitation, and making micro-loans, often with far more
success, for less money, than traditional forms of aid. Here in Laos, we believe this model can also help
us increase literacy, book availability, and education.
In a region that has lived under colonial rule for so long, the importance of a Lao business – run with
help from many people in many countries, but ultimately Lao-owned and Lao-controlled – cannot be overestimated. The impact on the young people learning to run a business – and on children in villages where we have book parties, who see role models for what they can one day do – is immeasurable.
I see some unexpected books on your list – Sherlock Holmes, The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Dolittle, The Diary of Anne Frank. Are these really appropriate for Laos? Wouldn't it be better to publish books about Lao culture?
First, thank you for asking. Asia's poorest countries are awash in books, sent by well-meaning donors, that are not relevant, not appropriate, and are never opened – but which somebody paid a lot of money to ship here.
We agree that books set in Laos, books reflecting Lao culture and life, are a top priority. A majority of our books were written in Laos, with a Lao readership in mind. But we also believe it's important to show other cultures and perspectives. Does anyone in Australia argue that Australians should be able to read only books about Australia, by Australians?
However, that doesn't mean we want 60% of our books to be Lao-oriented and 40% to portray urban and suburban life in the west. We're seeking a rich variety, but we particularly want books that reflect cultures that have both similarities to, and differences from, Laos. Our first book of folktales from outside Laos was The Adventures of Anansi, from Africa. Each Dr. Dolittle story begins in 19th century England – more similar to Laos than modern-day England is.
We expect college students to be the primary audience for Sherlock Holmes, which they can read in Lao, or in simplified English. Those who have read the stories so far have eagerly asked for more. We've adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to begin and end in Laos, with a Lao girl as the main character. The Land of Oz is as strange and delightful to Lao readers as it is to westerners.
Right now, there are not enough writers producing good original fiction in Lao. That's not surprising. If you've never
read a good book in your language, you're not likely to write one. But as more young Laotians grow up reading
such books, we have no doubt they'll begin writing some.
Why do you print some books in English, as well as in Lao?
We feel the most pressing need here is for books in Lao, and that's our top priority. But adding an English translation to some of them provides several advantages. First, many young people are eager to learn English, but the bilingual books currently available are usually dull, and contain poor or even incomprehensible English. These students are thrilled to get something that's interesting to read, while it also helps with their studies. Second, it means that English-speaking visitors can understand the books, and perhaps take some home as souvenirs, or to help young people in their country learn about another culture.
In that case, why not print them all in both languages?
First, that means more pages, so printing costs go up, and we wouldn't be able to print as many books.
Second, more subtle but more important, our goal is to help create a Lao literature, and that doesn't require having English in every book. If every book were bilingual, it would convey the messages that many people here already believe, such as "The only reason for Lao is to help you learn English" or "You can't be successful if you don't learn English." We do not want to send or reinforce those messages.
We want to start a project similar to Big Brother Mouse in another country. Can you help? Will you give us permission to translate some of your books?
We've been asked about this often enough that we've put together some advice and suggestions about
creating a literacy project.
We suggest that you start, as we did, by publishing some books written in your country, and rooted in your culture. After you've shown that you have the commitment and ability to publish three books, we'll be happy to discuss letting you translate any of our books that you think are suitable. In return, perhaps you can give us permission to publish some of your books in Laos. We're eager to publish folktales from many cultures.