Interview with Room to Read – laureate of the UNESCO 2011 Confucius Prize for Literacy

Room to Read

What did it mean to win the ILD prize and how has it helped influence your work?

Winning the UNESCO 2011 Confucius Prize for Literacy has been an incredible acknowledgement for Room to Read’s Book Publishing program. The prize is also a strong endorsement for the value of creating imaginative and instructive children’s literature. This recognition encourages us as a global organization to continue our work empowering talented authors and illustrators to leave a legacy of original literature for generations to come. Room to Read has now published nearly 900 original children’s book titles in more than 25 languages and has distributed more than nine million of those books to our network of libraries across Asia and Africa.

Vasanthy Thayavaran from Sri Lanka is one of those authors, whose first children’s book was published by Room to Read. “It’s one of the happiest moments of my life, to see my books being read, she says. “But, beyond personal fulfillment, stories have a major role in human history. In Eastern culture, grandmas sat grandchildren on their lap and told stories. But now the culture is slightly different; people don’t have time and families are separated. We need to fill that gap. We need to give the children books. Books can be their companions forever all through their life.”

Tell us about a literacy project that means a lot to you currently, what are you doing on the field?

Room to Read now publishes children’s books in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. Beyond training and hiring local authors and illustrators to source culturally-relevant books, we place a great priority on ensuring the stories in those books are engaging and imaginative enough to help the children in our libraries develop a love and a habit of reading.

One example from the field is in Cambodia where, in addition to producing Khmer-language books, Room to Read is also contributing to the rebirth of a publishing industry destroyed by years of conflict. Decades after the conflicts has ended, many gaps still remain in the tools needed for children to develop literacy, so our team is helping to fill that void.

One area where this is particularly true is in texts designed for early readers. Room to Read Cambodia has begun producing “decodable books,” simple drawings with minimal words—often just 11 new words per book—and sentences that reinforce lessons step-by-step. 

Room to Read is also publishing books that promote gender parity in the country. By utilizing what is known as the “gender lens,” Room to Read seeks to subtly reinforce the idea that students’ aspirations aren’t limited by their gender. One example is a book we published in 2011 about a girl who wishes to drive a big truck—an unconventional profession for girls in Cambodia.

An equally significant gap in Cambodian primary schools is in books about science. While children’s book publishing has increased in Cambodia, it is mostly in the area of fiction. As a first step in helping children access nonfiction books, Room to Read has translated more than 40 English-language science books into Khmer through a partnership with Scholastic, taking cultural relevance into account as well. For example, one book about hygiene contained pictures of western children in a bathtub, which is not familiar to Cambodia’s rural population, so Room to Read exchanged the photo for a ubiquitous Khmer-style water jar which children could relate to.

This is just one example of how Room to Read is impacting literacy through our work. We encourage you to learn more at


What is one number/statistic that you would like to draw attention to for ILD and why?

There are 250 million children of primary school age today who cannot read or write, whether they’re in school or not. Literacy is the foundation for all future learning and we need to work hard so that these 250 million children are not shortchanged for the entirety of their education. Room to Read’s vision is for all children—no matter where they are born—to have access to a safe, effective school that can provide them with trained teachers and the tools needed to develop literacy skills and a habit of independent reading.


What is your message/call to action for ILD?

Every day is literacy day for Room to Read, but in honor of the global holiday on September 8, we have something special planned. Investments to our work from September 5 through September 9 will be tripled thanks to our generous friends at Credit Suisse (up to USD$150,000) so that literacy buffs from around the world can take action. During this time, we will also be gearing up for Booktober, a month-long campaign in October to raise funds and awareness for global literacy, in which supporters worldwide will be hosting their own unique events. You can get involved or find more information at


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