Monday, September 1, 2008

A world without books is closer than you think

Like many countries around the world, Australia has its 'first people'- the indigenous people collectively known as the Aborigines. The disadvantages faced by this minority group (which constitutes about 2.5% of the Australian population) are a matter of record, and arise from many factors - social disadvantage, geographical remoteness, lack of appropriate educational and health infrastructure, and so forth.

One of the many challenges Aboriginal children can face is a lack of basic English literacy. An Aboriginal child may speak several indigenous languages and yet struggle to achieve competence in English, partly because they often have no access to books. That's right, thousands of children with no access to books in a first world country.

A few years back one Australian bookseller - Suzy Wilson of Riverbend Books in Brisbane - decided to do something about it by starting a reading challenge to raise money for indigenous literacy. Kids paid money to enter the challenge, and then read 10 books during a designated period to complete the challenge. The money raised went to purchase books for disadvantaged Aboriginal children.

The following year, Riverbend included adults in the challenge and then went national a year later, as booksellers across the country took to the idea.

Two years on, and this year (today in fact), Australia is celebrating its second national Indigenous Literacy Day. Supported by both the Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Publishers Association, the Day will see Australians encouraged to buy books from participating booksellers, who will give at least 5% of their income from the day's trading to the project. A national program of events will help to raise awareness, and last week booksellers were invited to the home of our Prime Minister, The Lodge in Canberra, for an audience with the PM's wife, Therese Rein (who I guess is Australia's First Lady, or as near as we come to one). This year's event will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As a first world country, you'd think this is the least Australia ought to be doing, and you'd be right. But at least it's happening, and all thanks to one visionary bookseller.

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