Our mascot, a happy mouse

Siphone Sengvandy

Collecting Khmu stories and words

When he was about 10 years old, Siphone and his younger brother went out to catch some mice for a high-protein snack. The biggest and healthiest mice live far from the villages, so they walked two and a half hours, and laid their traps. In the evening, they lit a small campfire, ate their catch, and went to sleep on a pile of straw.

In the middle of the night, Siphone awoke to find the whole haystack on fire. He and his brother leapt to safety. They managed to put out the flames, but lost their torch along with their clothes and sandals, and so had to feel their way back to their village barefoot, in the dark.

This is one of several childhood stories that Siphone has written for a collection we are preparing. Siphone was born in 1988 in Bersip Village in Xiang-Ngeun province, south of Luang Prabang, where his parents grew sticky rice and corn to support the family. He and his family are Khmu, the largest of the minority groups in Laos. As a boy, Siphone bicycled two hours to and from school every day. Although he shared textbooks with other students, he never saw a picture book as a child.

Siphone leading games at a book party in a rural Lao village Siphone started working at Big Brother Mouse in January 2007. That was the first time he ever saw a book with color illustrations. His first job was to record and write down traditional Khmu stories. He talked with village elders and recorded their stories on a discarded cell phone, that could still record speech. At first, as he wrote the stories on paper, he translated from the Khmu language of the speaker to Lao, because although Khmu is his first spoken language, he didn't know how to write it. Since then, he has learned to write in Khmu, and we will publish some of these stories in a trilingual version: Lao, Khmu, and English.

Siphone has been learning English since he arrived in Luang Prabang after high school in 2005, and he enjoys the interaction and language practice he gets through meeting so many travellers in the bookstore. In addition to collecting traditional Khmu folktales, and writing stories about his own boyhood, he is compiling a Khmu dictionary, and often helps at our book parties in villages. The Khmu culture is important to Siphone, and he hopes to educate more visitors about traditional food, music, and language of his culture.