Murti Bunanta

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 8:30-10:30 Room II

Speaker: Murti Bunanta (Indonesia)


30th IBBY World Congress, Macau, 20th - 24th September 2006

Reading of Underprivileged Children

The Benefit of Early Readers Books

Murti Bunanta

Children’s Literature Specialist



Working for and with underprivileged children is rewarding but frustrating also at the same time. Rewarding because with stories and books you give, you will open the window and make them fly into a journey outside the world they know and they will thank you sincerely with their enthusiasm.

It is frustrating that living in an archipelago consisting of more than 17.500 islands stretching out for over 5,000 kilometers many windows that you want to open are remain untouched. And with a population of 220 million divided among 300 ethnic groups with 800 regional languages you could only make them fly with one “wing”, the national language, which is the least you can do.

Through this presentation I would like to share with you my experience on the reading material of underprivileged children as we had the chance to visit them, to donate books which we had published ourselves or which we had bought in the bookstores. Collaborations with many institutions have been made enabling us to meet these children, in big or small cities, in the villages, and in devastated areas. But to establish a strong collaboration is not always easy because it deals with trust, and we have to maintain the same vision and mission with the same goals.

SACL Programs Activities and Book Publishing

One of the many programs of activities so far accomplished by the Society for The Advancement of Children’s Literature (SACL) is book publishing. This organization which I established in 1987 continuously expanding network of cooperating and assisting funds and forces grew into a prominent viable organization with the intention to make accessible, promote and develop children’s reading in Indonesia.

The book publishing was done for the first time in 2001 in collaboration with a business company starting with 15 titles of folktale picture books and later on in 2005 with financial support by IBBY we could publish another 7 titles. The aim of publishing folktale picture books is to provide the children of Indonesia with a well-written and beautifully illustrated folktale from each of their provinces. And since promoting reading habit is one of our main programs, the introduction to literature should first be by exposure through early reader’s books. So far 16 titles have been written. Books are distributed free of charge, only a small number can be purchased.

Books for Early Readers

Actually, books for early readers are available in the market. The problem is that these books mostly relate to education so that they are written closely to a school book with designed emphasize on reading and writing skills. Books as we publish are designed for the joy of reading and they are made as attractive as possible to bring children to books.

In distributing the books we prefer to work with other N.G.Os, needy schools, community libraries, village libraries and concerned individuals. We also frequently correlate directly to disadvantaged communities where the underprivileged children have no access to well developed schools and libraries. These children are rarely or almost never exposed to books.

Response of the Readers

Now let me take you on a visit to some places. Last January and February we visited a chinese community near the airport of Jakarta. Factually, the women there are the bread winners as the husbands are either jobless or gamblers. And if they have the opportunity to get a job it is as labours. The wives are selling vegetables or cheap food in their neighborhoods and some of them are working as servants. And even though most of the children are sent to school with financial support of donors they never reach a higher education.

On my first visit we were allowed to use a small church in the area. Both children and their mothers and grandmothers enjoyed our stories read aloud. It seemed that it was their first experience with books. The small format of the books, colorful illustrated, and the simple text encouraged the illiterate adults to also learn to read without feeling scared by printed words. And those who were literate and had finished their junior high school were encouraged to read aloud for others to listen to.

On my second visit the person in charge of the church didn’t give us the permission to use its premises but despite of this we went ahead with our reading session using another place available. More children and their mothers and grandmothers were present. The session took more because the number who volunteered to storytellers to read aloud to the eager listeners had increased. Young and old enjoyed having books in their hands and many at last experienced the joy of reading although many of them were only able “to read” the pictures. Those possessing better reading skills helped their friends.

I regret that I had to stop this program as the coordinator of the n.g.o. which supervises these communities wanted me to do a programmed learning on literacy rather than making reading an exciting and rewarding experience. (Saxby, 1997:180).

The Benefits of Early Readers Books

Anyhow from experience through my visits to these communities can be concluded that early readers books have many benefits not only for the privileged, well-educated child but also for or more so far the underprivileged children and adults with less or none linguistic and literary experience.

Illiterate adults have the same response as the beginning readers. At first they recognize the object (e.g. a carrot) then they see its picture and then they learn the printed word. We can reach adults and children joined together since they confront the same steps. Children who can read already help their mothers. This had never happened at home with their schoolbooks. Now they enjoyed together and laughed together. They just needed someone to show the way. It was a pity that the husbands and fathers were not there.

Our folktale picture books were also well-received. They liked to listen to the beautiful stories and the illustrations. But when they were given free time to read individually those who are illiterate picked easy to read books first and those who could read will help the others by reading them a folktale regardless whether they were able to read fluently or not.

Another visit at several village libraries in the remote area in Sumatra showed me also the same findings about the benefit of the early readers books. When they were given

time to choose books freely mostly they picked the easy readers books, although they were already in the 4th or 5th grade. Simple texts colorful and thin books are attracted their attention. Short novels were avoided even by those who are already in junior high school. Artistic and bilingual folktale picture books which we had produced chosen by avid readers (there were always bright children even only a few among the underprivileged).

And also when the folktale bilingual books were read aloud to them, all of them easily understood and enjoyed the stories. They were very responsive to questions and discussions and they also enjoyed the role-play we had afterwards. They participated actively in our finger puppet performance, based on the story taken from the book.

Their libraries are actually stocked with many books but these are poorly chosen. It is a pity that no one shows the children how to get inspired by the books. The problem is that kindhearted adults who give up a space of their home for a library and are in charge of the library are also inexperience with children’s books and need to be trained and enlightened. Besides since most of the books are no quality books the children become reluctant to read and came only to browse. They are hungry but no one to feed them. And if they were asked to read they apparently can read the books fluently but without pace, tone nor stress points or dramatic moments. They just read because they are able to read and only a little understand about what they have been reading.

It is proven that the other benefit of the early readers books is, that these kind of books can extend “the world” of the disadvantaged children if there is no one to lead them the way. A simple example was a book about the names of colours in English that actually designed for pre-school children who attending schools with English as language instruction can amuse children from 4th or 5th grade in the remote areas. They were proud that they now can name grey, purple, green, etc. They also enjoyed that they now could name fruits in English. Therefore early readers books should be available in many topics both in fiction and non fiction.

Learn together Grow together

It is worth to note that our program with the chinese communities was not designed to provide adult literacy program as suggested by Tom Sticht and Barbara MacDonald through their strategy called: “Teach the Mother and Reach the Child”, which practices the idea of intergenerational transfer of literacy and other cognitive skills from parents, especially mother, to their children (1990).

Our program was a reading promotion program directed to children and parents. In fact the mothers who were involved were coming with their own initiative. Since the majority of the mothers are illiterate, so mothers are also our target. And by using the early readers books the outcome is we can attract mothers to also to love reading and to read. Therefore I would like to call this idea: “Learn together, Grow together”. Children and parents are in the same level. They encourage each other. They transfer enjoyment to each other.

Similar programs done at the chinese communities can be practiced widely, any where and every where (at least in Indonesia) with the same situation. And if I may adopt the name of the idea called: “Women – positive programs” raised by Castle, Attwood and Smythe (2001), I would like temporarily to name the program described above: “Children and Parents – positive” program. I must admit that a much longer observation and research should be further done to exercise the idea.

Children’s Literature for the Underprivileged

Now, are there children’s literature especially for the underprivileged? In my experience these children just need adults who will act as guides and mentors who know about children’s books and read to them with enjoyment. Adults who want to make the journey together. The underprivileged children are just less able and less experienced readers and their pace are slower. They are not reluctant but disadvantaged readers. They don’t need special children’s book designed particularly for them.

Many cases proofed that the underprivileged children who are fortunate because sent to well develop schools usually have more ability to choose books relevant to their age. In general the biggest problem in Indonesia is we still face many difficulties due to the fact that among others public libraries couldn’t yet be considered as an institution that disseminate the reading habit among our society, almost never organize programs for young children and have no cooperations with school libraries. Besides this out of 2000 public school libraries only 5% are qualified in their function as a library.

Motorbike Libraries

To reach as many areas as possible, along with books bought from the market SACL publications are also distributed via five motorbike libraries that have been operated in devastated areas and needy schools in a small town. Three of them were financed by IBBY. Children at schools and refugee camps flock to the motorbike library when it comes. The motorbikes are equipped with a jingle which invites children to read.

Reach the Disabled Children

Both SACL publications, covering the folktale picture books and the early readers books are also well received at schools for deaf children. A report from the school mentioned that the teacher use the early readers book to raise the children’s vocabularies and language skills. The books are also used to guide children in their speaking skills. Meanwhile the older children are fond of the folktale picture books as they learn about other existing culture through their country by reading these stories.


It is obvious that teacher training for working with books, committed staffs who are also readers of children’s literature, dedicated caregivers, the concerned n.g.o. about the importance of reading are the key to open the mind and spirit of the children to books. And in a situation where no big books are available, no overhead transparencies can be afforded, no other visual aids are ready to use, so early readers book even presented in a small format, provided written in good quality and covering a wide field of topics, can arouse interest and enthusiasm to start reading. These books can help children with disadvantaged situation.

I am convinced the publication of this kind of books should be subsidized, so that more people can afford to buy the books and should be sponsored to enable to give the books freely and distribute widely to needy communities. And because of their attractive looking children will feel prestigious to have them in their hands -- every child’s hand -- even though the books are inexpensive. And it is challenging for young writers and illustrators to start their career by writing this kind of book. Also by using early readers books we can create a model of program which involve children and parents with beginning reading level.

As my closing remark, I should bring forward that early readers books are actually not the only book to use for underprivileged children. They are just a tool to begin with and as we live in so called a developing country we must find a way to open the “world” of many children. This presentation is a preliminary observation and therefore it needs a further research to draw a firm conclusion.


Jakarta, August 2006


Bunanta, M. (2003) Indonesian Folktales. Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited.

Castle, Jane, et al (2001) “Are Women–Targeted Programs Women–Positive?” In 2001

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Saxby, M. (2000) Books in the Life of a Child, Bridges To Literature And Learning.

South Yarra: Macmillian Publishers Australia Pty LTD.

Sticht, Thomas (1997) “The Power of Adult Literacy Education” from “Functional Context


Sticht, Thomas and McDonald, B. “Teach the Parent, Reach the Child [AAACE-NLA]”. nla/2004/000799.html