April in Laos is a very wet time of year. Not only is it the start of the monsoon season and the time when farmers start planting most of their crops, it’s also Bpee Mai or Songkan— the Lao New Year—the most important celebration for Laotians worldwide. The festival, like the weather, is replete with water. On April 13, the first day of the celebration, water is used to clean houses and the village. The second day represents the day in between the old year and the new year. Strictly observed as a day of rest, only fun activities are allowed, the most popular of which is dousing friends and unsuspecting passersby with water.
The New Year officially starts on April 15, the third day of the festival. Young people prepare scented water with flowers and visit their grandparents, parents and elders. They rinse the elders’ hands with the water and ask for their blessing and forgiveness for any wrong-doings in the past year. At home, prior to enjoying a large feast, families engage in a special ceremony called "Baci" in which participants take turns tying blessed white strings around each other’s wrists to wish them good luck and prosperity for the new year. This tradition runs deep among Laotian people as an homage and blessing that upholds the value of life, and of social and family bonds.
Room to Read’s Lao New Year is a colorfully illustrated children's book about this annual holiday. The drawings, by Laotian artist Sikko Milakong, show the many elements of the New Year celebration, including families participating in the Baci ceremony and having fun splashing water on each other.
One of several oversized books published by Room to Read, Lao New Year’s large size makes it even more enticing to eager young readers. Room to Read started publishing “big books” in Vietnam in 2008 as a tool to help teachers and librarians interact more effectively with young children, many of whom are just learning to read. In addition to the books, Room to Read also provides supplemental instructional materials, such as teacher’s guides with questions and activities that further engage the children in learning.
Adding cultural relevance to our books allows children to predict words or easily familiarize themselves with them because they know what the people in the illustrations are doing and already possess the vocabulary that naturally accompanies the pictures. It also makes it easier for them to learn from activities they perform themselves, such as visiting the temples with family members to sprinkle water on Buddha statues.
As a global organization, we honor and respect the cultural traditions of our friends and colleagues worldwide—and we try to incorporate them in our materials so that children not only learn to read, but also learn that their traditions are respected by those outside of their local communities.
To our Lao friends and colleagues, all of us at Room to Read send a virtual bucketful of water and a warm "Sabadee pimai!" or "Happy New Year!"