Organization donates many books to children in poor areas to help locals turn a new page, Yang Yang reports.
Fourteen years ago, when Wu Jingxun started visiting villages in the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture, Southwest China's Sichuan province, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country, the volunteer teacher visited families to see what books the children read.
To his surprise, in the Baidiao Miao autonomous town, he found not a single book in the house of any family, but at the house of the headmaster of the local primary school, there were three－one about ideology and morality, one periodical on education and a Reader's Digest magazine left by some tourist.
"The kids knew enough words and the parents also understood the importance of education, but there was no other reading material apart from those, the covers of which had been worn out," recalls Wu, 46, who's from Foshan, South China's Guangdong province.
After that, Wu and his colleagues at Friends Camp, a volunteer organization, donated many books, including picture books that won the Caldecott Medal, to the primary school.
One year later, in 2007, when they revisited the school and conducted a survey among students about their favorite books, they were shocked to find the top three choices were Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, Boonie Bears and Snow White. The first two Chinese picture books have spawned immensely popular TV adaptations which entertain children throughout the country.
"The survey showed that children in the village were not interested in reading and did not know how. Even if you put great books in front of them, they just leafed through the picture books without them making much of an impression," Wu says.
This experience urged Wu and his colleagues to promote reading and to teach children how to read, especially in poor villages.
"The gaps regarding reading and vision are among the growing differences between children in urban areas and those in the countryside," Wu says, based on 15 years of volunteer teaching in poor areas in Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu provinces, and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Without proper guidance, the gap will grow even wider, he says.
"In some good primary schools in Foshan, grade-three students can finish reading 15 books a year and, in some cases, even more. But, in poor areas, grade-six students barely know 1,800 Chinese characters, which they may not understand when used in texts," Wu says.
In the long term, those who don't read regularly usually have poor comprehension skills, which will influence their understanding of math, history and biology, he says.
As a result, 99 percent of the children in the countryside will go to work after finishing middle school, he says.
"If they can take up reading as a habit or a hobby, they can benefit more. They can read in their free time rather than watching TikTok on their phones," he says, adding "if they have kids, they will also buy books for them".
Wu, who was born and grew up in the countryside, started reading novels extensively in college.
"What's best about reading is that one can experience the different lives portrayed in the novels," he says.
Now he focuses on picture books and science as he volunteers to teach children how to read.
In September, Wu registered at Foshan Library as a member of the N-Library program, which also seeks to help children in poor areas. Launched in 2018, the program has been inviting ordinary families to build small "neighborhood libraries" at home that allow relatives and friends to borrow books. When approved, a family can borrow 200 books from the public library in Foshan and keep them for one year.
"In this way, public resources can be better used by citizens," says Zhang Meng, an associate librarian at Foshan Library.
So far, more than 1,130 families have registered for the program. Apart from the lending services, families are also required to host various kinds of activities. One of the "neighborhood libraries" regularly hosts activities according to seasons, with themes of poetry and gourmet cooking, inviting kids to their homes to make dumplings.
Foshan, an important manufacturing hub, has been developed quickly over the last 40 years. In 2019, the local GDP surpassed 1 trillion yuan ($153 billion).
To better meet people's needs, the local government has been attaching importance to the development of public libraries.
Since 2004, Foshan has been building a public library service network and, in 2015, it started a library alliance project led by Foshan Library. So far, 342 public libraries have joined the alliance, meaning that, on average, 24,000 people in Foshan share one public library, exceeding the goal of one library for every 30,000 people set by the International Federation of Library Associations.
"An ideal library is one that residents in the city can be happy with," says Huang Baichuan, chief librarian, Foshan Library.
A poll among 8,566 residents in Foshan showed that in 2019, on average, people read 9.59 paper books and 9.80 digital books. In comparison, the national level over the same period was 4.65 books.
In 2019, there were more than 1.44 million readers registered at the 342 public libraries in Foshan, and more than 42 percent of the registered readers were from outside the city. In 2019, the city's public libraries hosted a total of 5,938 events, involving more than 1.8 million people, according to Foshan Library.
The key to the N-Library program is that the "neighborhood libraries "know more about the needs of their users, so they can provide customized services, Zhang explains.
"Foshan Library used to be a provider of public cultural services, but now it has become a platform where people play their roles as providers of services to each other," she says.
Some families who have taken part in the program often gather together and borrow books from each other. When some parents go to pick up their children from the kindergarten, they carry books in the trunks of their cars for other parents to browse and borrow.
"They all have their strengths, so many of them can do better than public libraries," Zhang says.
Another advantage of the program is that it does not need much investment in building public spaces or human resources, she says.
Every year, Foshan Library assesses the work of the "neighborhood libraries" to see if they are qualified to continue another year. In July, the program won the International Federation of Library Associations PressReader International Marketing Award for 2020.
For decades, Foshan has been helping poor areas with financial and cultural support. One of the fruits of this labor is the first "neighborhood library" in Muli, Sichuan's Liangshan, which Huang recently visited. Foshan Library has donated 5,000 books to the branch.
Wu and his team went to the Muli library to host the first picture book reading event to teach both parents and children how to read. Twenty villagers attended.
At their Friends Camp N-Library in downtown Foshan, there are mainly books aimed at students from grade one to grade eight, including picture books from home and abroad, and science books about oceans and quantum mechanics. The library is mainly for students in poor areas, such as those in Muli.
"We hope the books that we donated to Muli and other poor places can help the locals in their poverty-alleviation efforts," Huang says.
Wu says he believes that even when children become delivery people or migrant workers when they grow up, if they keep reading, books will help them to live a better life.