by Alisha Niehaus Berger, Global Literacy Program Manager
I recently joined Room to Read as the worldwide manager of our book publishing program. I come from a background in children’s publishing at some of the big houses in New York: Simon & Schuster, Dorling Kindersley, Penguin. I was thrilled to join this organization--so thrilled that I’d be able to use my skills to help provide books for children who don’t have any. I don’t think I really understood what that meant, however, until I was recently in the field, training new authors and illustrators in South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.
I had a lot of questions about improving our production quality, and was definitely looking at the process with my critical professional publishing glasses. I had some really fruitful conversations with our team in Zambia about increasing trim size so books are easier to read and the pictures more engaging for a little person; we talked about offering our illustrators higher quality paper and replacing their student watercolor sets and basic markers with the kinds of materials that reproduce beautifully. We talked about the process of reproduction, and how to plan for scanning that prints well. And as I talked and talked about all these ways we could continue to improve, I realized it was all with ONE person—that’s right, a Zambia publishing house of one. A typical professional publishing house would have one person to handle each and every part of the process; sometimes more than one. At Room to Read, we have one dedicated and passionate individual handling EVERYTHING, from author and illustrator training, to editing, to art direction, design, printer selection, quality control, scanning, distribution and follow up—and that’s just their responsibilities for our book titles. What’s more, our timeline for developing a book is just one year. In New York, a picture book takes at least three years to produce even with plentiful budgets. My point? Each book Room to Read produces is a small miracle.
But it wasn’t even realizing what our authors, illustrators, and teams do within such limited resources that humbled me most—it was entering a library in rural Zambia and seeing that the titles we have published were the brightest and most enticing things on the shelves. And they were some of the only selections in Chinyanja, a local language. Left alone in the library for a few minutes, I began to ponder. I thought of the libraries that inspired me as a child and I thought of how much incredible work Room to Read has done and how much we still have to do. And then Dabora came in.
A little girl of about six, she scampered over to the shelf and grabbed a bright green book. Njala Nkalombo: Hunger is a Monster. The book covered a topic that Dabora often dealt with in her life. Then she opened the book, looked bright and wide-eyed as she put her finger next to the first word and began to read.
She could read every word. Her voice fluctuated with the words as she told the story. Here was a little girl—a true reader—reading for pleasure, engaged by a story that was relevant to her life. Without this library and these books, she’d have NOTHING TO READ. They are beautiful stories, made for her and her classmates, and we are working with all our hearts to make them even better.
In that moment, I felt so humbled and so proud to work for Room to Read. I wanted to make sure that you could share in my experience in Zambia—because books like Njala Nkalombo would not exist without your generous support. Dabora is going to gobble up books as fast as we can provide them to her, and my charge, our charge, is to bring her books as quickly as possible. Given how my personal habit of reading has made my life incredibly rich with new ideas, worlds, and possibilities, it’s hard to conceive of being Dabora, with not nearly enough books to feed her. Right? So I want to make 40 new books for her next year—and I hope you’ll want to join me!
All my best,
Alisha Niehaus Berger