Wednesday 13 July 2005

Make READING Poverty History!

Poverty is an insidious beast that rears its ugly head in the most unexpected situations.

While travelling in South Africa, I visited some bookstores, eager to check out South African picture books. I was pleased to see that the book stores were up to date with the latest children’s books from England – from the latest Artemus Fowl to Mini Grey’s Biscuit Bear. I was shocked to find however that in a country where 50 per cent of children live in poverty, the books were two to three pounds (US $ 3 to 4.50) pricier than the equivalent in Britain!

In my native Philippines, the average YA novel retails for about the same amount it would in the West. So a £4.99 children’s paperback in London would sell for the same amount in Manila, where average family earnings are between £2 to £3 a day.

It comes as no surprise that books are not a priority to a typical family in the Philippines. And what a tragedy that is.

As a child growing up in Manila, I trawled my school library for things to read and saved my pocket money to buy books at the local bookstore. Books were not unaffordable then.

It is amusing to me now that publishers resist manuscripts that have strong cultural references for fear that the book won’t sell to markets in other countries. I thrived on the other worlds I discovered in books. To me, the alien cultures of those novels set in England, America and other exotic, faraway places were more fascinating fantasy than Tolkien.

Discovering other worlds through reading enriched my world and gave me the imagination to think that there were better things out there for me. But today, there is a whole world of children out there who may never share that thrill.

What to do? Publishers should re-examine the way they retail books to poor countries. What is it in the publishing chain that pegs book prices in developing countries at the same level or (scandalously) even more in the developed world? The West is pulping remainders while children in poor countries are hungry for something to read.
The dwindling of readers in impoverished countries not only fuels the endless poverty cycle but is bad for a business that is built on the love of reading.

It was heartening to spot this report on Publishing News that HarperCollins had launched an initiative to provide books for schools in Ghana. They’ve even recruited last year’s children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo to visit the schools.

The aim is to get textbooks and reference books (including dictionaries, children’s picture books and atlases) into schools in deprived and rural areas of Ghana, with three schools given specific support via links with British schools. The publisher will send an emissary to Ghana later this month to set up the infrastructure and establish contacts.

(Thorsons MD) Belinda Budge told PN: “The project in Ghana is very close to our hearts. Although we’re still only in the early planning stages, we’ve been delighted by the enthusiastic response we’ve already had from authors. We’re hoping there will be an opportunity for them, and for some members of HC staff, to visit the schools we’re linking up with. Ghana spends more money paying interest on debt than it does on education, and we hope our literacy project, which will be organised at a local level, will make a difference.”

(HarperCollins CEO) Victoria Barnsley concluded: “Poverty stops 100 million children around the world going to school Education is something we take for granted, but these kids miss out all together. If we are serious about fighting poverty, and enabling people in the poorest nations to help themselves, the education is absolutely key and books have a vital role.”


  1. Books are the luxury I can never give up. Manila's been sprouting with specialty bookstores for a while, and I am only hoping that it will in fact encourage more reading. But then again, economics play a factor, because how does one rationally choose between a meal and a good book?

  2. Thank you for a wonderful article on a topic I see very rarely discussed or even mentioned in the realm of U.S. and U.K. books-for-children publishing.

    I grew up in Northern Thailand back in the 60's. So. I saw this kind of poverty every single day while I was growing up.

    I have often privately wondered just how many folks in the books-for-children publsihing world have ever seen first-hand the kind of poverty you describe in this article. I suspect that very few have.

    Thanks, again, very, VERY much.

    Rinda M.Byers


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