The challenges of promoting literacy…


Recently co-founder Nick Johnson conducted an interview with fellow literary blogger Zoe Toft of Playing by the Book.  We thought supporters / readers might like to read more about the Pelican Post’s philosophy and objectives on all matters pertaining to better access to children’s fiction…

Tell us a little about Pelican Post and how it differs from other charities which send books to schools and communities.

I guess the key differentiating factors is that the Pelican Post is primarily focused on the relevance of appropriate reading material as opposed to the numbers game.   

For us, it’s not about getting a million books out to some region of Africa for blanket distribution to schools in that area, but about ensuring that the books delivered will have an immediate and sustainable impact.  That is why we focus only on delivering stories that children can relate to, and identify with. 

We want to be able to engage and inspire young minds to discover that reading can be a pleasurable experience and not to be viewed purely as something one must learn to improve one’s chances in life.   Few children that learn to read at school in Africa go on to continue their education past primary level.  Books and children’s stories are therefore vital in establishing a child’s own sense of self worth as well as providing the impetus to fuel a child’s imagination, and aspirations once their leave school.

And what better way to awaken a child’s imagination than reading the same story together in the classroom.  We often take our education for granted but for many schools throughout the developing world, not only are books generally in short supply but multiple copies of the same story are almost unheard of.  

That is why we aim to deliver enough copies of the same book so that teachers can practice shared classroom reading and children can discover the joy of sharing the reading experience together as a class.

Our other key objective is to try and personalise the experience of supporting a particular cause by providing that individual connection with a scheme and its aspirations.

We believe that social media will play a far greater role in the future of charitable giving than is  currently realized. 

Our aim is to provide the network infrastructure in place to enable individuals to make informed decisions and personal connections about charitable giving; to create global online communities dedicated to support a specific cause, community or a project, and for individuals to be able to personally assess and measure the collective impact that their very specific and targeted contribution has had on a specific recipient community.

Why have you adopted this very personal, direct approach? what are its advantages and disadvantages?

I don’t think it’s really about advantages and disadvantages but more about aligning with the future of charitable giving in general.  The current global economic crisis has resulted in greater competing pressures on charities for the same sources of funding, as well as greater scrutiny on how funds are allocated.  But it also has resulted in the general public becoming more conscientious about where their money is actually going and in particular a lot more cautious about supporting some of the larger charitable organizations who seemingly spend large amounts of money on marketing campaigns and have substantial overhead costs to maintain.

However, far from being in ‘difficult times’, we strongly believe that opportunities exist for those charities perceptive to this shift in people’s perceptions and expectations and the power of the internet which will ultimately transform and dictate the ways charities will be structured and operate in the future, and that can only be a good thing.

Who chooses the books on the wish lists, and on what basis are they chosen?

All books featured on the scheme have been selected in close consultation with other charities, supporting publishers, authors and partner organisations.  The current selection of books are all in English but are culturally appropriate for African children.  Many of the picture / early learner books also provide further educational content at the back of the book that relates to the particular story in terms of geography, history, language, culture and wildlife from which the story has been taken. 

Photo: Nick Johnson with Fiona Ross, Community Events Manager with partnering Publisher – Barefoot Books at their Oxford studio.

We are currently exploring further opportunities (and funding) to develop local language imprints of some of the books featured.

How are the schools you work with chosen?

Through past experience, schools are selected where there is strong support from a charity working to support a particular community within a clearly defined region. 

Selection criteria is also based upon those charities that can show a demonstrable commitment to advancing education, and where mission statements and values are in keeping with the Pelican Post’s objectives to advance literacy uptake, promote education and support sustainable development.   We also select charities that support schools where either the teaching syllabus is similar to that of the education system in England and / or where English is taught in the classroom.

Photo:  Reading lessons at Atse Fasil Elementary School, Gondar, Ethiopia

We also prefer to select small scale charities to support.   Because of the constraints in terms of funds and resources, and the high cost associated in purchasing, storage and shipping books, most charities focus on the funding and supply of other resources and in maintaining / supporting ongoing daily school life.  Reading materials and especially brand new and unread copies of children’s fiction rarely feature in fundraising projects.

What inspired you to set up Pelican Post?

It originally went on a life-changing expedition to Uganda with the youth development charity Raleigh International and with whom I am now a Global Ambassador. 

One particular project involved building a dormitory for the growing number of orphans (from the aids epidemic) and school girls that were attending a school we were working with.  Some of the children would come and help on the construction site and I became particularly good friends with one fourteen year old boy called George.  In the heat of the midday sun we would down tools and read the books that we had brought with us under the shade of a banana tree.  George had been watching me read intensely I realised afterwards, and when I finished, he asked me if he could have my book.  At the time I thought nothing of it, save there would be extra space in my rucksack, but the subsequent reaction by the school was overwhelming.  This random act of kindness which did not seem anything major to me, resulted in the whole team being invited to a local royal wedding as guests of honour, and it was only then that I realised that the school did not have any books.  As author Alexander McCall Smith who supports the scheme once said “Throughout much of Africa, a book is precious and therefore getting hands on a book is very important to people.” 

I realised that I wanted to do something further to improve children’s access to books but at the time didn’t know how.  It took the internet and a chance meeting with Body Shop founder Anita Roddick many years later to sow the seeds of the Pelican Post.  At the time she told me if you could get round the cost of shipping and storage, you may have an idea.  I told her that I did and she gave me her details to contact her as she said she would love to talk further.  Sadly I never did get the chance to talk with her again but out of that one meeting, the Pelican Post as an idea was born.

Pelican Post co-founder Nick Johnson

Have you thought about getting UK schools to link with Schools in the Pelican Post scheme? Schools could club together to send a parcel of books to a “twinned” school in Africa, perhaps?

Most definitely.  We are currently piloting a number of school based initiatives and based on feedback (which has been very positive), available resources and funding, plan to develop the model further later in the year.  That said we are definitely very keen to hear from as many schools out there as possible.  So if anyone is interested in learning more, getting involved or signing up to the shared reading schools link scheme we are developing, please email and get in touch.

What are your plans for the future?

For one, the schools scheme is something we are actively looking to develop and the website needs updating to reflect publisher involvement as well as the growing reading list of books and schools that we are supporting but for that we need to get further funding (and website expertise) which sadly takes time.

All the people currently involved in the scheme also have full time jobs so it’s quite exciting to think what we may be able to achieve if we were able to dedicate more time and resource to developing the scheme.  In that respect, we are also very keen to hear from anyone who would like to get involved and are always on the lookout for volunteers and administrator support.

Of the books on the wish lists for schools linked with Pelican Post, which are your personal favourites?

That is such a difficult question mainly in part because so many of the books featured on the reading list especially in the intermediate and more advanced reads were written by authors who were compelled to write their story based on their own personal experiences, making for me the stories they tell that more vivid and real.

Journey to Joburg by Beverley Naidoo (the very first author to endorse the scheme) is probably the most infamous in this respect as it based on the authors own personal experience and despite being a children’s story, was banned as propaganda during the apartheid era in South Africa.  

Another moving story we have recently added to the list is Gorilla Guerrilla by Nick Taussig which is based on Nick’s own encounter with a boy soldier in Uganda.  I also love Alexander McCall Smith’s fun packed series of adventure stories for boys about Akimbo – the son of a Game Park Ranger, partly because there are so few good books available at this level of age range and reading ability.

On a more introductory level, I think Mama Panya’s Pancakes by Mary Chamberlin should be on every primary school reading list!  What is especially nice about this story is that although it is set in Kenya, the story is universal in its appeal with a strong message to young and early readers about the importance of generosity and community.

Back in the Young Adult range, I can’t recommend enough The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird.  Based on her own personal experiences and with a message by one of the street children she met at the end of the book, this uplifting tale should be read by children and adults alike and I guarantee will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.  Everyone I have personally introduced this book to has loved reading it, so you can’t get much better praise than that.

What are your favourite books (for adults or children) written by African authors?

In terms of books on the Pelican Post reading list, I have already mentioned Beverley Naidoo  – Journey to Joburg, but another book in the Young Adult range is The Interview by the Journalist and Author Patrick Ngugi.  Again this is great uplifting tale set in Nairobi about a young man’s dream job which seemingly is lost when he does a good deed on the way to the interview.  This book deservedly won an award in the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa in 2002.

On a personal note, I have just finished reading deserved Orange Prize winner – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s moving portrayal of Nigeria’s civil war in Half a Yellow Sun.  Another supporting and inspiring Author – Ellen Akuu has just been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Best Book Prize for her teenage story ‘Patchwork’.  One intended legacy of the Pelican Post is to inspire today’s children to achieve their own ambitions whatever they may be. Hopefully for some, this may lead to follow in the footsteps of great writers such as Chimamanda, and Ellen and become the next generation of  talented authors.

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