I launched a novel a couple of weeks back called Laurinda by Alice Pung. Alice is the writer of two memoirs including the award-winning, Polished Gem, as well as a copious amount of published essays. This is her first novel.
I loved this book. I loved the protagonist, Lucy Lam. Great character. Great sense of humour. Laurinda has drawn comparisons to the feature film, “Mean Girls, but I think Tina Fey would have written a much more powerful film if Lucy Lam, and not the Lindsay Lohan character was the new girl.
Lucy Lam’s home life was a joy to read. (Can I say that I crave novels that reflect our cultural diversity and I despair that our literature, film and television has failed to do this. But that’s for another post). It’s strange to say a joy when the character’s father is the only surviving member of his family as a result of the Vietnam war. That family history is there in the psyche of the novel, but ultimately, Alice wrote a funny and thought-provoking novel full of heart and backbone, and this one made me a tad envious as a fellow writer.
I have a few connections to Alice. The most important is that we have a mutual friend in Jennie Orchard who works for Room to Read, an international non-profit organization founded by John Wood focusing on literacy and the education of girls in developing countries. I try not to dabble in stats because I know people’s eyes glaze over, but Jennie drew my attention to the article below and this particular fact wedged itself into my brain: 57 million children will never start primary school (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-26947829)
Room to Read is challenging that statistic. “If every child received an education, 171 million people would be lifted out of poverty”. More to the point – World change starts with educated children.
This is part of what Jennie had to say.
“Room to Read has now educated more than 28,000 girls, providing them not only with academic and material support but also health education and life skills such as critical thinking and communication, understanding their rights. I have remained involved with Room to Read because I am passionate about its twin ‘pillars of emphasis’, literacy and girls’ education…Room to Read is making it possible for children in the most inaccessible and impoverished communities to learn to read, empowering them to break the cycle of poverty that has imposed such limitations upon their parents and grandparents. It is so exciting to witness the transformative power of education for individuals, for families and for whole communities….
Don’t be put off by the sentiment that first world aid is patronising. Room to Read is emphatic about locals teaching and building these schools. It’s not a case of middle class white people coming in and taking over. Dare I quote Evanjalin from Finnikin of the Rock, ‘It’s against the rules of human nature to believe there is nothing we can do.”
Alice Pung is an ambassadors for Room to Read, as are many other Australian writers. (And I’m sure there are international writers attached to their own country’s Room to Read branch). Australian Children’s writer, Tristan Bancks, for example, initiated the “change the world” campaign in 2014. With the help of school kids and organisation across the country, Tristan raised over $20,000 to build a school library in Cambodia. I know he’s planning something bigger and better in 2015 so please find a way to get involved, especially if you’re connected to a school. (http://www.tristanbancks.com/p/change-world.html).
One last thing. I was at a library yesterday as part of Sydney Writer’s Festival and I heard a volunteer telling a story about one of the kids at a primary school in her area. I can’t go into details about how horrific the story began, but it ended with this particular boy being given a box of second-hand books and his emotional reaction to it. Those of us listening to the story were a bit weepy. Many kids at that primary school are from a low socio-economic background or are children of refugees. Many have never owned their own book.
It disturbs me to hear stories like that for more than one reason. My daughter received seven Frozen dolls for her birthday, yet there are kids living not even ten miles away from us who don’t even own a book. So if you’re in the Sydney area, or even interstate, and have a picture book or chapter book or anything for primary aged kids (mostly picture books because a large amount of the kids don’t speak English) please feel free to contact Sue on (02) 9632 9709. She’s the librarian at that primary school and will advise you where to send the book. In a conversation with her today, she mentioned that her greatest wish would be for every kid at that school to have their own book sitting on their desk on the first day of Term 1 in 2015. That’s quite amazing when you hear schools vowing that every kid in their school will have an iPad on their desk by 2015, and even more sobering when the Unesco prediction in 1990 was that by the year 2000 there’d be primary education for all, and that was shuffled forward to 2015 and now there’s talk that it could happen in 2030.
Jennie reminded me of the words of the youngest noble prize winner, Malala.
. . . ‘let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.’
(Below is Jennie Orchard’s complete interview about her work with Room to Read)
It is now getting on for 10 years since I first heard about Room to Read, a global non-profit which is committed to literacy and gender equality through education. I first became interested because I had strong connections with a number of the countries where Room to Read works – my husband had lived and worked in Laos and we had married there; my father had lived for a while in India; and we had travelled with our sons in Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam.
My first responsibility as a volunteer was to co-chair the Students Helping Students program in Hong Kong, where we were living at the time. This role gave me the opportunity to learn more about the organisation and, a couple of years later, when we were returning to live in Sydney, I was asked to think about establishing the fundraising presence in Australia. This turned out to be a far greater responsibility than I had envisaged and for the next four or five years, I invested very long hours, working with a team of volunteers to launch Room to Read’s Sydney chapter, later helping to build other chapters around the country and in New Zealand, eventually becoming the inaugural Development Director Australasia. In mid-2012, we returned to live in Hong Kong and I resigned from this position. I now focus on building connections with writers, publishers, literary festivals and conferences. We have around 25 writers and journalists promoting the organisation in various ways in Australia and we are starting to build this initiative across Room to Read’s global chapter network. There are volunteer chapters in more than 50 cities around the world.
I have remained involved with Room to Read because I am passionate about its twin ‘pillars of emphasis’, literacy and girls’ education. Having a publishing background myself, I have always understood the importance of books and reading. Room to Read is making it possible for children in the most inaccessible and impoverished communities to learn to read, empowering them to break the cycle of poverty that has imposed such limitations upon their parents and grandparents. It is so exciting to witness the transformative power of education for individuals, for families and for whole communities. As Malala has said . . . ‘let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. On child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.’
Gender equality is also vitally important in today’s world. Girls’ education has been described by Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, as the most effective tool for development. Room to Read has now educated more than 28,000 girls, providing them not only with academic and material support but also health education and life skills such as critical thinking and communication, understanding their rights.
Room to Read is working in 10 developing countries in Asia and Africa, building schools, establishing libraries, publishing children’s books in local languages, developing and delivering literacy programs, and educating girls. Founded in 2000, the results over the past 15 years have been quite phenomenal. In 2015 the organisation will reach its 10 millionth child, this being the goal that was originally set for 2020. John Wood and Erin Ganju, the Founders of Room to Read, both come from high-flying corporate backgrounds and apply their exceptional business acumen to every aspect of the organisation. The results have attracted extensive support from corporates and individuals around the globe.
Room to Read has been extremely well-received in Australia, with around $10m raised in the first five years of operation. Even though we’re not running programs in Australia, people understand the importance of educating young people in developing countries, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region. This also makes economic sense, given that the populations of countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are potential customers for Australian goods. There is also a strong connection between education and global security.
We are always looking for more support – for donors, obviously, but also volunteers to become involved with our chapters in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth. If people are interested in learning more about Room to Read, I suggest subscribing to the newsletter for global updates (https://www.roomtoread.org/joinus). For local information, take a look at the information about Room to Read in Australia (http://www.roomtoread.org/Australasia) and get in touch with your local chapter. You can also follow the organisation on Twitter or Facebook.