By Liesl Clark
(If you want to go directly to our donations page at Active Giving, feel free to skip this article and do some good.)
When our first child was born, friends and relatives gave us their favorite baby books. Many were classics, and some were just popular books by authors who had coined series starring hippos or other unlikely megafauna. I think we received no less than 6 Good Night Moons.
When our son was of the age where he would actually listen to a book being read to him, we had acquired several hundred children’s books. I was amazed at how easy it was to accumulate that many — all for free. We found children’s books at our dump in a trailer where families would drop off their well-loved books for others to take. Books were at the ends of people’s driveways in boxes marked “Take me.” Books were on “free” tables at yard sales and library sales. Books were at birthday parties as party favor gifts. We never had to buy a single children’s book and yet we had a home library consisting of a complete set of Dr. Seuss books, the Magic Tree House series, and countless large format books featuring trucks, bull dozers and other modes of transportation.
It got me thinking. If it’s this easy to collect children’s books, why don’t I gather enough to give to someone who could really use them?
After 11 years of making films in Nepal, I had never seen a child there reading a children’s book. Sure, there were government-issue mimeographed textbooks, but I couldn’t recall seeing a child poring over illustrations of farmyard animals or trucks and helicopters or innovative and colorful representations of the Nepali alphabet.
I knew nothing about trying to increase literacy in a culture that has no written language, their native language now dying in the case of Sherpa, but my instincts told me that if we put books for kids with illustrations for kids in the hands of kinds, the kids would start turning the pages and “read” the stories as they went along.
Although our books were in English, I knew the majority of them were meant for pre-literate children. Nepali children all have English as a second and often third language taught at school, so our English books with ample illustrations would get the kids rolling on discerning story and pleasure through reading.
We started collecting books in earnest, spreading the word about our desire to open children’s libraries in remote villaes in Nepal. We moved to Bainbridge Island, WA that year and in my spare time I’d drive to islander’s homes who had read my pleas for books for Nepal and they put shopping bags filled with books out on their front porches for me. I was humbled by the enthusiasm and interest the mothers and children had in helping others half a world away.
We named ourselves “The Magic Yeti Children’s Libraries” taking the Yeti myth into a magical realm that would be appealing and fun for kids (and perhaps we’ll write a book one day about the Magic Yeti herself.)
One lovely family on Bainbridge had party-going children bring books for the libraries instead of gifts when their daughter turned 5. I quickly got to explore the private dirt roads of the island, driving up to beautiful homes with my baby girl and toddler boy in the back seat.
I had only 3 kinds of books I felt I should keep to a minimum in the mix: 1) Religious books (we were working in Buddhist villages so they didn’t seem entirely appropriate;) 2) Block buster movie-related books (this felt too commercial and not part of our mission;) 3) Barbie and princess books. A preponderance of blond haired blue-eyed pink dress-wearing princesses have a dubious place in the minds-eye of a brown-eyed brown-skinned ethnically Tibetan or Nepali girl.
We eventually convinced The Asia Foundation to partner with us to ship the books we had collected from their base in San Leandro, CA to Kathmandu. A dedicated volunteer, Stephanie Graham, raised over $20,000 for the libraries and joined us in Nepal for the establishment of our first Magic Yeti Children’s Library in the Khumjung School near the base of Mt. Everest, the very same school started by Sir Edmund Hillary in the 1960s for the Sherpas.
I partnered with a middle school force-of-nature and good friend, Phoebe Coburn, who collected hundreds of books through local book drives in Wilson and Jackson Hole, WY. That first year, we brought thousands of books up to Khumbu, the valley at the base of Mt. Everest, by yak and porter up to 12,600 feet to the Khumjung school.
That was 6 years ago. We now have 7 libraries in 7 villages in Nepal, all above 9,000 feet and at least a day’s walk from the nearest airstrip. Some take 4-5 days to reach, forgotten corners of the Himalaya where children are eager to learn. One school, a girls’ school in the village of Tsarang, has embraced the library so heartily that library time is integrated into their curriculum.
There is one library, though, that is on the brink, an experiment of sorts to get children to actually step foot in an abandoned school. Here, 3-4 children make up the entire student body of the government school, even though there are plenty of school-age kids in the village. The children just don’t show up at school, partly because the teacher is rarely there but also because the school is one of the most grim spaces I’ve ever stood in. Our agenda is to entice the kids to step inside by way of a free library of colorful books and educational toys so long as the teacher shows up and gives them daily access to the materials and books we bring. We’re returning there this spring and I’m anxious to learn whether the experiment is proving fruitful. We’ll have a medical doctor with us to determine if the kids aren’t going to school due to health issues.
We also donate books to existing libraries in need of more books. Each year we’ve travelled back, often with volunteers who work tirelessly to shelve books in a newly-acquired room. Each library is simply a room to read, filled with thousands of books, many in Nepali, now that we’ve partnered with Room to Read, the largest publisher of children’s books in Nepal. Their dual-language books are written by local authors and as they gain more funding, they commission more Nepali stories to be written about the many cultures in Nepal.
Children use the libraries every school day (all of our libraries are situated at or nearby the local school) and we know they love the books and are gaining literacy skills with the assistance of the dedicated librarians. Fu Doma in Phortse tutors the kids on my old laptop that we gave her, loaded with Nepali-English interactive learning software designed by the innovative startup OLE Nepal. Pasang Lhamo in Thame reads to the kids in the Thame school while all the students at the girls school in the village of Tsarang have taken the role of “librarian,” each child caring for the books as if they were their own.
What do our Magic Yeti Libraries have to do with Trash Backwards? If I hadn’t started pulling books out of the little container at our local dump and saving them for my children, I wouldn’t have learned how happy people are to pass on their own children’s books to other children in need. These books should never be “trash” but many are headed to landfills simply because families can’t find easy alternatives nearby for donating their books.
At Trash Backwards, we try to connect you with the nearest charity that could use your books. If you want to give to the Magic Yeti Libraries please box up your books and send them to the following address where The Asia Foundation will then place the books in shipping containers that go by boat to India and then by truck to Nepal and by yak or donkey to their ultimate destination:
The Asia Foundation
Books For Asia
Magic Yeti Libraries — Nepal
2490 Verna Court
San Leandro, CA 94577
Carbon footprint? This one might just be worth it, helping to increase literacy in the parts of the world that need it most. Especially the girls of Nepal.
My children, husband and I will happily take your children’s books up to the high villages where kids can’t wait to read more stories and learn about the world that is just beyond their reach.
We could also use your support in the way of funding to pay for the carrying of books up to the libraries and for the programs we’re implementing there. We provide library supplies, too, and would love to give each librarian a laptop to share with the kids. It’s easy to donate through the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, our mother foundation aiding us in doing the literacy and village waste reduction work we do.
Another way you can help is to use our Trash Backwards app. If there’s a solution or inspiration in the app that you are able to do, click on the “I Did It’ button so we can gauge whether we’re helping change people’s behavior by reducing, reusing, repairing, regifting, and recycling the everyday things in their lives. If you give books to our libraries or to another cause, click on the I Did It button and you enable us to do more good, too. Our future funders will want to know if our efforts are bringing about change.