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IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award Winners 2010
IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award celebrates 20 years of bringing books to children

The Osu Children’s Library Fund (Ghana)

Children spend quality time with their favorite books at their community library-which used to be a container-in Accra. Local director, Joanna Felih, is in the back row, center.

Children spend quality time with their favorite books at their community library-which used to be a container-in Accra. Local director, Joanna Felih, is in the back row, center.

The annual International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY)-Asahi Reading Promotion Award supports grass-roots activities, committed to bringing books and children together. This year marks its 20th year of promoting books and literacy around the world. One of this year’s recipients was the Osu Children’s Library Fund (OCLF) in Ghana. I was greeted by warm smiles when I visited an OCLF library in Accra, Ghana’s capital.

Accra sprawls along the coast facing the Gulf of Guinea. There is a narrow one-story building about 12 meters long. In its previous life, it was a storage container. The place was filled with colorful picture books-and children, everywhere. They were scattered around the carpeted floor, each clutching their favorite book. The library stocks about 5,500 titles. This is the first community library that was created by OCLF.

When the local director, Joanna Felih, 43, asked the kids to name their favorite book, hands shot up. Children excitedly called out titles such as “Curious George!” and “The Red Book!”, naming picture books from the U.S. and stories about Africa. The most popular titles were original photo-picture books compiled by the OCLF.

In the past, there were scarcely any books for children that were published in Ghana. So the Osu Children’s Library Fund began publishing children’s books themselves. One such publication is called “My Happy Book.” It is a collection of special moments when a seven-year old girl feels happy. The young readers watch the girl get her hair washed squeaky clean by her mother, and see her sing and dance with her friends. There are other photo-picture books that teach the alphabet and numbers. The OCLF has independently published 25 books.

The library serves as a home away from home for the children. When children stop by at the library, Felih makes sure they all get a big welcoming hug. The children love to hear stories read aloud to them. There is more entertainment, such as bingo, card games, and quizzes, that helps them build their vocabulary while having fun. Most of the visitors are children ranging in age from around six to fourteen. Sometimes, young toddlers show up tagging along with their siblings. Most of the children are hungry. So the library serves light meals such as bread and bean soup.

The project all began 20 years ago when Kathy Knowles, 54, a nurse from Canada, was living with her family in Accra. She started a weekly reading group. She gathered her own and other children in the neighborhood under a tree in her garden, and read them stories. Soon there were 150 eager children gathering around her, eagerly listening to her stories. Most of these children knew only text books. They had never heard of story books. They were captivated by the world of storytelling.

Together with Felih, who was working for the Knowles helping with the housework and babysitting, Knowles began collecting books for children. She was spurred on by the wish to “spread the joy of reading.” Even after returning to Canada in 1993, Knowles managed to come back to Ghana almost every year, and has kept the project going with Felih ever since.

The two visited over 200 regions and schools in Ghana, and helped develop and expand library facilities. They are both self-taught lay librarians but, nevertheless, have shared and spread their knowhow and experience in other countries such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

As much as 80 percent of the Fund’s operating costs rely on donations. Last year, the OCLF managed to collect US$260,000, mostly in Canada. Knowles said that they learned from their mistakes as they discovered ways to manage their libraries and establish teaching methods that nurture self-respect. IBBY praised their good work as extremely effective and fruitful -enough to make certified librarians green with envy.

Under the tutelage of Knowles and Felih, seven community libraries have sprung up in low-income areas in the city and fishing villages. Every library is equipped with a lavatory outside, and a shoe locker at the entrance. Children are instructed to wash their hands with soap before reading a book and to return the book the original shelf after they are done with it. Book shelves are protected with dust covers before closing time. Everyone is entrusted with the spirit of taking good care of books.

Though these are libraries for children, they also offer literacy classes that reach out to grown-ups. The classes teach reading and writing in English, the official language used in Ghana. A building custodian Yuseif Asabia, 51, began taking classes in August. He confessed that it was tough not being able to read or write, especially when he went to the bank or the hospital. He said that he grew up poor and could not attend school. When his class for the day came to an end, he seemed reluctant to go. He said the lesson was “too short.”

Many children who spent time at the library when they were growing up have returned to the library as support staff. Martin Adjei Legend, 26, attended high school with a scholarship from the OCLF. He said that it was the library that built the basis of his life. Legend is directing and producing a show that combines traditional dance and songs of Ghana at a small theater built adjacent to a community library in the Nima district. He is working together with about 50 children.

All the children I met in the library in Accra displayed a vibrant enthusiasm. The librarians had to call for silence again and again. I taught the children the Japanese word “arigato” which means thank you in English. When it was time to bid farewell, the air was filled with voices calling out “arigato!” trailing off like echoes, as they went on their way home.

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Taller de las Letras Jordi Sierra i Fabra Foundation (Colombia)

Juan Pablo Hernandez, director, Convenio de Cooperacion al Plan de Lectura, giving his speech.

Juan Pablo Hernandez, director, Convenio de Cooperacion al Plan de Lectura, giving his speech.

Another co-recipient of the IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award this year was the Convenio de Cooperacion al Plan de Lectura that is based in Medellin, Colombia. Juan Pablo Hernandez, 38, used to be a librarian at a public library. He now heads the project as director.

He lives in Medellin that has the unsavory reputation of being Colombia’s drug dealing center. Hernandez grew up amidst gang wars. One of his friends is in jail for running errands for a gang. Hernandez was born the youngest of six children. And only Hernandez managed to stay away from drugs. He said: “I had my books, instead of drugs.”

Because only children in the neighborhood can come to libraries, the Convenio de Cooperacion al Plan de Lectura project makes “book deliveries.” They go everywhere, visiting street corners, parks, and into the mountains. Hernandez said: “Handing books to children who are living lives that have nothing to do with books is not enough.” Thus he came up with schemes that bring children closer to books through soccer and drawing. He added: “It is easier to draw them into the world of literature when you read stories aloud. That’s the starting point. Step by step they will discover their wish to read on their own.”

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The first IBBY - Asahi Reading Promotion Award Winner 1988
Banco del Libro (Venezuela)

Maria Beatriz Medina, executive director, Banco del Libro, poses in front of a poster of the IBB-Asahi Reading Promotion Award.

Maria Beatriz Medina, executive director, Banco del Libro, poses in front of a poster of the IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award.

The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY)-Asahi Reading Promotion Award began in 1988 when the Asahi Shimbun Company pledged support for the activities of IBBY. The first organization to receive the award was Banco del Libro, which means bank for books, in Venezuela. Maria Beatriz Medina, 61, executive director, Banco del Libro, was one of the participants at the biennial IBBY Congress held in Spain this year.

Venezuela used to suffer from a low literacy rate. In 1960, a movement, carried mostly by women, opened a mini-sized library, and began managing a travelling library. Medina said: “Receiving an international award certainly gave a boost to our activities.” Banco del Libro put together a network of school librarians and made efforts to educate and enlighten teachers and librarians. The Banco del Libro collected reference material related to children’s books from countries across Latin America and opened a resource center.

Now the Banco del Libro also focuses on distributing books to children who became victims of natural disasters and conflicts. Medina said: “Books are necessary to melt the hard-frozen souls of children, just as much as blankets and food.” The Banco del Libro has been sharing its accumulated knowhow in other countries such as Mexico.

An out-size poster recounting the footsteps of the IBB-Asahi Reading Promotion Award was on the wall at the IBBY Congress venue. A Rwandan woman stopped by to proudly announce, “Our organization won the award, two years ago!”

(By Yukiko Sazanami, The Asahi Shimbun, October 19, 2010)

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