Amidst The Mangroves
Nghia was four when the war started, nine when the schools were bombed and his education stopped. He was twelve when he learned to read and write with a teacher in the mangrove forest and fourteen when that forest was burned alive by Agent Orange.
The war took Nghia's mother and his next decade, lifting like a fog finally in 1975. For those of his generation living in rural Vietnam, there were no schools or books or writing materials.
Nevertheless, Nghia was a learner by nature and in his early thirties, he became the first shrimp farmer in Ca Mau province, the southernmost tip of the famed Mekong Delta. Here, near the sea amidst the mangrove forests, people work hard to live simply.
Photo by Erica Baker
Now 35 years after the difficult days dredging his shrimp farm, Nghia is the exceptionally proud grandfather of Nhut, a boy whose dreams change with every book he reads. “Probably my grandson wouldn't want to become a shrimp farmer,” Nghia admits happily. “Probably he wants to study more in university and do another job. My mission now is that we will try our best to have money to get him to study as far as he wants.”
Though he essentially built the shrimp farming industry of Cà Mau (now the province’s dominant livelihood), Nghia doesn’t think it will be a viable option for Nhut or the next generation given the hotter temperatures, rising sea levels, increasing soil salinization and pollution: “About four or five years ago, the situation turned for the worse because of climate change. So, this industry became less profitable. A lot of people they move to Ho Chi Minh City for working now, most of the youth. It is mostly elderly or women that stay here to raise the kids, but the money is not from the farm anymore.”
Nhut seems to know this, and like his grandfather, loves learning. Since his school built a ‘child-friendly library’ a year ago, Nhut has kept the librarian busy, checking out nine or ten titles every week. “My son has various dreams,” his mother beams shyly. “Sometimes he wants to become a construction engineer, sometimes he wants to become a doctor…it changes. Whenever he reads a book, he has a new idea of who he wants to become.”
Nhut reading at home and with his mother / Photos by Erica Baker
Today Nhut wants to be an architect, he tells me, so he can build apartment complexes for people experiencing homelessness, a problem he read about in a book. Straight from the heart and mouth of a nine-year-old, this is the future-changing work of a powerful and not-nearly-known-enough organization called Room to Read: Building libraries in schools throughout many of the world’s most remote and low-income communities.
As someone who has never known life without age-appropriate books featuring characters I could relate to, I am just now learning what it means for a library to be friendly and the difference it makes to the future of a country.
Prior to 2018, the library at 2 Vien An Primary School was a dark room with high shelves and thick books about distant and difficult subjects. Like a museum, the room was ruled by discipline and formality. Shelves lined with more reference than imagination material, books touched only with permission, and a stately table in the center which only the tallest of the oldest kids could see over. I imagine the librarian sitting stiff and gargoyle-like in the corner while the earliest of readers peer in and scurry past fast.
This morning, however, it’s quite a different scene: The library has changed rooms, this one flooded only by sunlight, safe from seawater swells, with walls painted brightest white. Teachers and parents spent months decorating with hand-cut flower and garden scenes where familiar, friendly characters sit pleasantly glued to the wall. 983 books (roughly three per student) are organized by reading level onto color-coded, child-height shelving units, everything purposefully within reach.
To see the students enter the library is to see them come to life, full of joy.
The book covers rustle playfully as fans spin overhead—the library now a room of color, life and light. Soon thirty pairs of little feet are jumping out of their sandals at the door, racing not running to find their choice for this week’s checkout.
With kids clustered and chattering, I see so plainly how books bring the world into reach. The transformation here is much more than paint, shelving, and fun with foam cutouts—the spirit of the library has changed: A love for reading has taken root. This has as much to do with what students are reading as how they’re taught to read.
Room to Read works with local authors, illustrators and designers to create and publish books that reflect the experience and culture of the children learning to read in their libraries. The stories have lessons from local life and culture, relying on fewer and fewer translations of Western stories about hot dogs and snow.
A visual study of the beautiful and transformative impact of books in the lives of children growing up in the rural, river towns of the Mekong Delta.
In 2018, Room to Read produced 25 Vietnamese children’s book titles.
In addition, Room to Read trains librarians to be artists of the reading experience. Very different than a protector of the precious, Ma’am sits on a low chair at the front of the class holding an extra-large storybook, thirty sets of wide-eyes riveted. One of Room to Read’s 1,400 titles, this story is about hedgehog, mouse and friendship. With varied pitch and perfect posture, she reads a page and slowly sweeps the pictures past her audience. The students sway like they’re attached. And can you guess what happens next?!
Reenactments. The students huddle and whisper-collaborate on how to act out the scene they just heard.
What’s more, the students take stories home with them and, in many cases, become the teachers for their parents, the vast majority of whom had no experience with child-friendly libraries or age-appropriate books when they were under twelve. Huy (pronounced ‘Huey’) and his mom, Niem Diep, are stars in this regard.
As a school bus driver, Niem sees her son and the other kids reading every day on their way to and from school, a twelve kilometer journey. Of course this being the Mekong Delta, her bus is a 7.5 meter flat-bottom canoe with a long rudder-propeller powered by a car engine. She begins her route at 5am in order to drop her sixteen students off at school by 6:30am, the children with their books and life-preservers.
The students in Cà Mau travel to and from school two times per day (they go home for lunch), which offers nearly two hours of cumulative reading time on the bus.
She has noticed over the past year, since the library opened, that he has become kinder to her and more empathic, more considerate. “Huy learns from books how to treat me and how to treat his sisters,” says Niem. “He also learns how to show emotions. He reads a book and kind of internalizes the stories, putting himself in the feet of the characters.” Dozens of certificates of achievement hang on the wall behind her. “In these poor regions, everybody loves to be rich,” says Niem, “but for me the awards that my children receive at school is what makes me proud the most. It's more important than money is.”
Bus driver, Niem Diep with her son, Huy, in their home. Photo / Erica Baker
With the harsh impacts of climate change on subsistence farming and aquaculture livelihoods, parents increasingly see their children’s education as a strategic investment ensuring the next generation can solve any challenge. “That's why whenever we talk with parents about education for their children, about a library, about reading books, we always receive almost 100% support,” says Tri Le, who oversees Room to Read program operations in Vietnam.
“They are aware of the problems they are facing, but they don't have the solution for it, so education seems to be the only hope that they can give their children.”
Tri Le, Program Operations Director, Room to Read, Vietnam
Since 2001, Room to Read has built 1,522 libraries and inspired 665 schools to replicate its model throughout Vietnam. Multiply that by the hundreds of little imaginations engaged in each, and the fifteen other countries Room to Read works in, and you quickly get a sense for the scale of learning and world-change in the making.
Driving an hour north on the only road there is, we come to the town of Cái Đôi Vàm in the Phú Tân District. Here Room to Read has partnered with another primary school, Cái Đôi Vàm 2, in a slightly different way.
“We are the only school in this town that has a library with the Room to Read model,” explains Principal Dinh Nguyen. “So we invite other schools to come learn about this library and all of them, when they come, they are very surprised by the friendly model.” By ‘friendly’ he means the color-coded book system: green, red, and orange are for grade one; red, orange, and white are for grade two; orange, white, and blue are for grade three, and so on.
Also, the three activity corners are quite novel: one for games, one for reference material and one for writing and drawing. As seen in the 2 Vien An Primary School library, the tables are no higher than a small child’s knees, and the floor is padded with colored, rubber squares for easy sitting.
“With the previous library, it was very disciplined,” Principal Nguyen remembers. “Students needed to sit in the right position, take the book with the permission, and sit at the big table. I thought it should be that way. But it turned out to be very surprising when I saw the friendly model. I saw that students were very comfortable in the library and they came a lot more than before. And the parents, they even came to read books with their children. And that's a big change in the school.”
2 Vien An and Cái Đôi Vàm 2 libraries are nearly identical, except for what happens behind-the-scenes. The library at 2 Vien An was an example of the Demonstration Model, where Room to Read carries 90% of the responsibility for set up, training and ongoing support. In communities like Cái Đôi Vàm where school leadership is able to build strong partnerships with businesses and government and mobilize parents for things like fundraising and volunteering, Room to Read recommends its Collaboration Model.
With this model, it’s the parents who make much of the difference. One father in particular has been instrumental. Working closely with Principal Nguyen as a parent representative and key advocate for the library, Liem has mobilized many parents to participate in the library program and contribute financially. “For me, students deserve all the best. It is necessary to do good things for the young generation of our country. Once the young generation have awareness and knowledge, the country will grow better,” he says.
Liem with his daughter, Dol / Photos by Erica Baker
Liem and his family operate a 16,000 square meter shrimp and crab farm, while his youngest daughter, Dol (pronounced ‘Yawng’), is in first grade at Cái Đôi Vàm 2 and a very early reader. Since the new library opened in September 2018, his daughter has been borrowing books every week. “She always shows us those beautiful books and then starts reading to me. Generally speaking, I am happy that my children have developed in many ways through this library, firstly in terms of mindset, secondly the ability to read and write. They grow better than those at schools which don’t lend books.”
Liem's father farmed rice before switching to shrimp in 1990. Their biggest challenge is patrolling the perimeter of the farm to catch shrimp thieves.
“Reading books is not only for student at school. It's not just a mission in the school. It is a nonstop journey. We need to study and read books at school, at home, and even when we are finished with school.”
Dinh Nguyen, Principal, Cái Đôi Vàm 2
As of Spring 2019, Room to Read operates in 33 of the 63 provinces in Vietnam. “We have tried to come up with the most affordable solution that most of the schools and provinces can adapt to make sure that students have access to culturally appropriate reading materials,” says Tri.
Room to Read programs benefit 16.8 million children in 16 countries.
There is still a lot of work to be done to bring every province on board and build exemplar libraries throughout, but the real goal is systemic change through local capacity-building. This is true not just in Vietnam, but in every context that Room to Read works in globally, which now includes nearly 4,200 schools throughout South Asia and Africa.
Du Le, Vice-Director of the Cà Mau Province Department of Education and Training, has seen the difference: “The impacts that we see is not only stay with the students, but also extend to the parents. The community is also engaged in library work, so our own stakeholders, our own people work together to help students learn new knowledge and develop directions for their future. I do hope that the educational sectors will continue to replicate this library model with quality in the future.”
In their many years as overseers and implementers for the literacy program in Vietnam, Linh Truong (Field Manager) and Quoc Nguyen (Senior Program Officer) have worked very closely with the government and visited nearly every partner school. Travel between sites is long and slow, however, so hand-holding on a school-by-school basis is increasingly becoming a bottleneck for expansion. Seeing this, Linh wrote a guidebook for every school interested in converting their existing library into a friendly one.
“My idea was to create guidance for the expansion model,” says Linh, “so that even if we do not have enough human resources to work directly with the school, they may have a textbook, a guide book, that they read to understand step-by-step how to establish a library with the Room to Read model. Every step is explained, so it saves time and will help us work in a more systematic way for the Expansion Model.”
This Expansion Model Guidebook is the key to equipping provincial and school leadership with the tools to implement and manage systemic change at scale, making the Vietnam program a preeminent example of Room to Read’s model and vision. For his work on the guidebook, Linh received an Award for Innovation and in humble, selfless Linh-style promptly donated the cash reward into the ‘Empowering Foundation’ fund for girls in Room to Read’s Girls Education Program who need financial assistance to continue in higher-education.
Photo by Erica Baker
“Room to Read can only support 30% of our schoolgirls that need support for school fees, uniforms, a bicycle. We saw that many schoolgirls don't have food to eat, like rice, the every day staple. This Foundation actually helps them in that, with the very basics. It's been our help to the schoolgirl that may have more motivation to develop in the future. Some of our alumni have already graduated and are studying in university,” he says.
“Our girls education program is a compliment to what girls are doing academically,” says Ebolutalese Airewele, Communications Manager for Room to Read. “We focus on life skills, like confidence, negotiation, decision-making, saying no, owning your body, refusal; the kinds of things that are integral to girls and whatever lifestyle they choose. Whether they want to be a mother with seven kids or they want to be the president of France, they are going to need all those skills.”
Linh Luong began writing and illustrating children’s books with Room to Read four years ago. His latest title, But Chi Bo Tron, is interactive, he says, designed to wake children up by inviting them to knock-knock-knock on the page to bring more characters into the story, or shake-shake-SHAAAKKKE the book to make the next thing happen. He delights in making reading fun, even while weaving storylines on diversity, kindness, caring, and earth-consciousness—lessons carried through his every concept.
Author and illustrator, Linh Luong, in his studio with some of his latest and in-process works.
“Talking about diversity,” Linh remembers, “when we went to Đắk Lắk, there was a kid, a boy, who really loved flowers and we saw that all the class was teasing him. I want to change that. I want to change the way that the children think about a boy loving a flower. And that's the reason we are doing on a book about how the boy loves a flower.”
“It seems to be common stories that all the girls want to be beautiful," says Tri, "all the girls want to be rescued by someone, or they always need help or they need someone to marry them in order to live happy forever. So in the past year, we have tried to deconstruct some of those stereotypes.”
“For example, there are some traditional folklore that emphasize the role of man in our culture,” Tri continues. “There was a story about a prince who was very smart, but one day he upset the king and the king punished him by sending him to an island. But that does not scare the young prince. He was smart and courageous enough to develop a new kind of watermelon from that island. We rewrote that story, not abusing the plot, but turning the man characters from a prince to a princess so we can consciously tell our readers that girls can be courageous as well. Girls are not afraid of going out to the island and the girls can survive.”
Everyone at Room to Read has a story of how books changed their world at pivotal times and ages. Characters can make sense of complex emotions and conflict can inspire creative thinking and, ideally, collaboration. This is precisely what we see happening in and through Room to Read and their work around the world.
“If we want to change our future in this country, we should start with the kids. When they read, they understand more about themselves. When they grow up, they may contribute more. Together, we may make a change for society and that's the very far vision that I wish—that it will bring change for the country in the future.”
Linh Truong, Field Manager, Room to Read, Vietnam