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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - City reading room a hit with budding bookworms

City reading room a hit with budding bookworms

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Like kids in a candy store, Tuth and Sokheng, both 6 years old, wander their way through the hundreds of books, games, puzzles, maps and all sort of learning materials on the shelves at Open Book.

C
ambodia's elders have long taught tales of morality through the

ancient art of story telling. Madame Pich Proeung, no stranger to teaching, is now

giving the art form an upgrade for the 21st century.

Nestled between the European cafes and stylish boutiques of Street 240 sits a room

full of colorful books where local children can discover the world of Cambodian folk

tales.

Each day, up to 30 children wander freely through the door of the reading room, known

as Siovpheu Pekhouk, or Open Book in English.

Catherine Cousins, Open Book's founder, says the children live locally and there

are up to 10 regulars sitting on the cushions every day, engrossed in the pages,

their brows creased in concentration.

"It is not like school," says Cousins. "There is no real structure.

We don't tell them which books to read. We try to get them to discover for themselves."

She says it's a secure haven for them that has hundreds of books in Khmer, English

and French to choose from. It's a welcome change from their school classes, where

up to 80 students crowd into one room and lessons are hampered by a severe lack of

resources.

With adult literacy rates in Cambodia about 68% - near a world low - the Open Book

reading room seeks to foster a love of reading, making it fun and interesting.

World maps and alphabet posters adorn the walls, and puzzles are scattered among

the spines of classic children's titles.

At a Thursday afternoon reading session, about 20 children - ranging from 2 to 14

years - arranged themselves on a mat.

Madame Pich Proeung, 65, the "grandmother" of the reading room sits at

the front, settles them down, and then begins to read one of her folk tales.

The day's story is "Progne", a fable about a proud and conceited man who

eventually suffers from his vices.

"Books with a message are the goal," Cousins says. "The Cambodian

folk tales have messages of good and bad values."

Proeung, a retired elementary school director, wrote down the Cambodian folk tales

that were once passed down through an oral storytelling tradition before years of

war interrupted.

"[The folk tales] allow Cambodian children to imagine and to dream about their

own culture," Proeung says.

Proeung's stories are published under White Elephant publishing and are translated

into all three languages.

She has written two series of stories: the first is a collection of specifically

Cambodian folk tales, the second a set of universal folk tales.

Proeung's first book, The White Elephant, has sold all 40,000 copies of its sixth

reprint. She is determined to keep the book's price at 1,500 riel and says, for now,

printing costs are too high to print a seventh edition.

The expense of printing is one of the main barriers to the revival of books in Cambodia,

Cousins says.

She opened the reading room in 2002, with 300 books in English, 200 in French and

100 in Khmer.

Now there are more than 800 titles on the shelves, as well as a section of books

for adults relating to Cambodian history, the environment and education.

The ultimate goal for Open Book is to have all the children's books translated into

Khmer.

At present, Cousins, her daughter Kim, Proeung and Open Book's manager Theang Som,

work together to translate the books, pasting laminated slips of Khmer script onto

each page.

This brings classic foreign titles such as "Tin Tin" or "The Hungry

Caterpillar" into the realm of Cambodian children.

Dahney, 8, visits five times a week and, lifting her nose from an Asterix title,

"The Son of the Viking elephant," she says she also loves reading the Khmer

folk tales.

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