'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Charity Book Initiative: The Boy and the Crocodile

KBR is thrilled to welcome the wonderful Martin Hughes, Publisher at Affirm Press, with this enlightening and important guest post on a new charity book initiative - The Boy and the Crocodile. Please enjoy every moment... you will be moved.

As a reader of Kids Book Review, you might find this fact incredible: just an hour from Australia, there are kids of all ages who don’t know how to use books. I don’t mean they don’t know how to appreciate books; they literally don’t know how to turn the pages.

This I discovered on a recent visit to East Timor, our northern neighbour and a developing country of just over a million people. Formerly a Portuguese colony, it was occupied by Indonesia for almost quarter of a century and in 2002 officially declared nationhood after a long and traumatic struggle for independence. 

The effects of this struggle are still keenly felt, and internal rivalries and tension have slowed the healing. Nobody feels this trauma more than the orphans of independence, kids who lost their parents during the violent birth of their country. I was in Timor to meet some of them, at the Hope Familia orphanage in Gleno, about an hour into the hills outside Dili.

Their stories are horrific; many have suffered trauma beyond our wildest nightmares. One boy bears the scar of a machete attack on his forehead. But the psychological scars of being left for dead amid the bodies of his slaughtered family are much more serious. Now a teenager, he is the size of a boy half his age, his growth stunted by the ordeal of that experience.

That is a slice of the darkness of East Timor, provided only to help define the colour and light today, and of this orphanage in particular. When I visited Gleno, I was amazed at the joy and conviviality and optimism of the place; it’s certainly not what you’d expect from the words ‘developing world orphanage’. These kids have their sights set firmly on the future. Like East Timor itself – which will farewell the UN in 2012 – many of them are approaching an age when they’ll have to start fending for themselves. And we’d like to give them a hand. 

In 2007 we co-published a children’s book called From Little Things Big Things Grow. We got Gurindji children from Kalkaringi in the Northern Territory (Vincent Lingiari’s mob) to illustrate scenes from Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s iconic song and turned it into a kid’s book. We raised more than $150,000, all of which is being pumped back into the community and has helped establish an art centre there. 

This time, the children from the Familia Hope Orphanage are illustrating a story called The Boy and the Crocodile, which is the legend of Timor itself about how the island got its long slender shape. It’s a parable about the kindness of strangers, and perfectly matches our ambition.

The first idea was that we’d sell the book in Australia and raise funds for the orphanage but the kids at the orphanage wanted the book to benefit other East Timorese kids, not just them. While there, I was taken to visit a library that had been set up by a group of Australians. It was hugely impressive, until it was pointed out to me that the number of children’s book in Tetum (the de facto lingua franca of East Timor) took up barely half a shelf. 

More than half the adult population of East Timor is illiterate (with the rate even higher among women), and it was at this library I witnessed the sight of school-age children pinching the pages of a book, grabbing at what, to them, were fascinating but foreign objects. 

There is virtually no culture of books in East Timor, and access to basic education is a major challenge. But perhaps the greatest challenge for East Timor is how to unite the people of 13 ethnically and culturally distinct districts under one flag and create a national identity.

Many things divide this disparate and sometimes desperate nation, but three things bring them together – the language of Tetum, a lack of education and the legend of East Timor itself. And this book can help address all three needs.

Out of the money raised to cover the production of the book, we’re going to print thousands of copies of a Tetum version that we’ll distribute for free to children around East Timor. How many thousand is up to you. Until 15 July, we’re pre-selling the English version of the book (for half-price) to raise funds to print more Tetum versions. For every book we sell now, we can print another five in Tetum.*

Everyone who gets on board will have their name printed in the books. I have this romantic idea that a book produced by orphans of independence and supported by an Australian book-buying public can ignite in East Timorese children an interest in books as well as pride in their own legend. It has the potential to support not just fledgling young adults but also a country trying to find itself.

If you’d like to find out more, please visit our blog at theboyandthecrocodile.com.au or join us on facebook at facebook.com/theboyandthecrocodile

*All proceeds from sales of this book go to the Familia Hope Orphanage. Affirm Press has raised funds to cover production costs and will not take any money from the revenue generated.

KBR warmly encourages you to either purchase a copy of The Boy and the Crocodile, or spread the word to others. Stay tuned for a review of the book once it is released, right here on KBR.