October 27, 2020
Ensuring children and families around the world can protect themselves and those around them from COVID-19 starts with providing them essential health and hygiene messages in their own language.
That’s why All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD) and the Global Book Alliance, through their Begin With Books prize, funded SIL LEAD, eKitabu, Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute of the Deaf (RIT/NTID), and The Asia Foundation to create or adapt accessible, early grade storybooks with COVID-19 health and prevention messages in 12 languages to support children in Fiji, Indonesia, Laos, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, and Somalia.
So far, books in eight underserved languages (Enga, Hiri Motu, Lomwe, Lao, Tamang, Tok Pisin, Tumbuka, and Yao) are available on the Global Digital Library (GDL), a web-based platform of free, high-quality early learning books and resources usable on the web, mobile, or for print. Books in two additional languages—Soninke and Sénoufo mamara (minyaka)—will be added in early November.
“We hope children and their parents read and learn things that they can act on to protect themselves and those around them from COVID-19 because they hear it in their own language,” said Paul Frank, executive director of SIL LEAD.
In Laos, Nepal and Papua New Guinea, The Asia Foundation and local language communities—compelled by the belief that storybooks could have a positive impact on reducing the spread of COVID-19—formed teams to begin translating the books into five languages.
“It’s been thrilling to be able to create brand new books about COVID-19 that allow children to feel empowered in their own worlds,” said Kyle Barker, associate director at The Asia Foundation. “We hope through these books that children will feel more in control of their own lives and realize that they can contribute to their own safety and that of their family and communities through simple actions. The realization and simple encouragement of self-agency is a powerful idea.”
The books created and translated by The Asia Foundation, available on both the Global Digital Library and The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read platform, have been accessed even beyond the borders of their target countries. “The far-reaching and immediate impact that these books have had, because they are in digital format and have open licenses, has been a welcomed and validating insight,” Barker said. “We’re excited to see the books have an even greater impact being part of the Global Digital Library.”
Additional books on COVID-19 prevention are being developed in Jakarta (Indonesian) Sign Language, Somali Sign Language, and Filipino Sign Language. “Hands that Save Lives,” a book being developed by RIT/NTID, incorporates the deaf experience in the age of COVID and was written by deaf team members.
The Begin With Books prize also supported the development of COVID-19 prevention books in two bridge languages – English and French – to facilitate easy translation and localization of the books into other underserved languages.
eKitabu, which developed or translated the English books, as well as titles in Tumbuka, Yao and Lamwe for children in Malawi, said its greatest challenges and learnings were in discovering a solution for local language books that could serve the needs of children with disabilities amid the pandemic.
“The impact we are targeting with these accessible digital books is first of all for children with disabilities to learn to read at home and at school,” said Will Clurman, CEO of eKitabu. “And second, to build their confidence as well as awareness of COVID-19 health practices. We aim to do this by embedding social and emotional learning themes in beautiful and engaging storybooks in local languages, and weaving in COVID-19 health messages that align with guidance from ministries of health in the countries where we work.”
Launched in October 2019, the Begin With Books prize challenged global innovators to assemble cost-effective packages of high quality, accessible titles in more than 30 underserved languages, supporting regions of the world where children have little or no books for preschool through the early grades in languages they use and understand.
The COVID-themed books are the first funded through the Begin With Books prize to be uploaded to the Global Digital Library. Over the next 18 months, more books will be uploaded in stages, resulting in thousands of additional books in 19 underserved spoken and signed languages. Many of the early grade books developed will be the first-ever children’s books available in those languages.
“Storybooks are so important for children’s development in the best of the times, but they are absolutely vital during trying times such as the current pandemic,” Barker said. “These storybooks allow for an inviting, encouraging way for children, parents, and families to talk not only about the pandemic and the practicalities of what the pandemic means for them personally, but just as importantly, it offers a means for children and families to talk about their emotions and take the time to listen to each other.”