When I helped start Ethiopia Reads in the 1990s, there was little support for childhood literacy in Ethiopia. Even though the government had lofty goals for getting more children into school (and was generally meeting those goals), many schools had under-trained teachers and no books. Ethiopia Reads focused on shipping English-language books and planting libraries as the most practical step in helping develop a reading culture.
But as ELL (English Language Learners) teachers in the United States know—and global research shows again and again—children learn to read best in their mother tongue. They can then more easily also learn to read in other languages. So in the past decade, USAID and the Ethiopia Ministry of Education have poured efforts into training teachers and creating workbooks around local language instruction. (See a demonstration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLR-o0FXQK4)
Workbooks and phonetic drills are important tools. But passionate adult readers trace a love of reading back to an emotional charge: a gripping story, a warm connection to a book, a giggle or a nudge of curiosity or a jolt of recognition: there I am in the pages of a book! As a children’s book author, I know that where the creative, inventive imaginations and skills of writers and illustrators meet stories and concepts, sparks fly.
Early in 2016, I traveled back to the remote area of Ethiopia where I first learned to read. Our group was made up of artists: writers, photographers, painters, both Ethiopian and American. When we returned to Addis Ababa, we organized a day of writing, illustrating and translating simple stories.
After my sister Caroline and I got home to Portland, Oregon, we engaged other volunteers to help figure out how to take what we’d begun and create small, easy-to-read, colorful, culturally appropriate books. Voila! Ready Set Go Books was born.
Using a few donations and some encouragement from Ethiopia Reads, Ready Set Go Books currently has ten titles translated into four Ethiopian languages and being printed. 1000 copies of the books will soon be tested in two Ethiopian schools. Meanwhile, other volunteers are working on ten new titles. A major joy of this project has been the generous energy of volunteers—children and adults—using their writing and artistic and design skills to share a love of reading.
Many small NGOs working on projects that involve education and literacy have expressed enthusiasm for having these books available for children. WEEMA Founder Elizabeth McGovern says, for example, “Kids in rural schools just CRAVE books! There are so few children’s books available- and especially in local languages! I think these 10 easy reader books may be the first ever in the local language where we work.” But no NGO we’ve spoken with has the capacity to figure out the logistics of funding and developing systems for production and distribution. Caroline and I turned to Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund to play the role of building the model that will allow organizations and donors to engage with Ready Set Go Books while not having to make the choice to burn out volunteers or keep a powerful project like this small, limiting its impact.
In 2017, Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund will take a good idea and figure out how to spread that love of bright illustrations, engaging words, and the process of reading to children all over Ethiopia!
Ready Set Go Books and Open Hearts Big Dreams Advisory Board Member