This is Kusumadewi “Dewi” Yuliani. Before she joined the Room to Read Accelerator Project she was a school teacher. Now, she is a school teacher and a writer.
I was very moved by Dewi’s story and her experiences from the Room to Read Accelerator Project in Indonesia. The lack of appropriate reading material in local language is one of the challenges the project is addressing, aiming to raise early readers into lifelong learners.
In addition to establishing school libraries and training teachers, the project engages writers, illustrators and publishing companies to produce and distribute children’s books. For an early reader to really engage in a story, to the level of finishing the book and wanting to read more, he or she needs to be able to relate to it. Books from other countries or cultures can be hard to understand, and characters difficult to identify with.
Dewi tells me she was working as a primary school teacher when she got the opportunity to join a workshop for writers, arranged by Room to Read and their local partner ProVisi Education. As she had written and drawn for her students before, to compensate for the lack of proper reading material, she jumped at the opportunity to try it out professionally.
The writers were tasked to develop story ideas and concepts for new titles. With the contribution of selected illustrators, the stories were then turned into published books, especially adapted for the children’s reading level and need for engaging stories that spark imagination and help them develop a habit of reading.
When Dewi talks about her experiences in the project she does it with a strong sense of pride. She says she was nervous about meeting the representatives from IKEA. But knowing that she is contributing to an important cause, where she can see the results every day in her own classroom, she speaks with true dedication and confidence.
She says the writing process was very intense and sometimes tough, with tight deadlines and continuous feedback on her work. Her determination and resilience was also put to the test; not only was she developing quality story ideas, she was also doing it according to a method that was new to her, and at the same time she was developing her own professional writing skills. To create something that is simple is often a difficult thing to do, and a simple story is the most difficult one to write. “An inspiring and engaging story in only 12 sentences—that’s a story for children,” Dewi says.
She tells me about how she struggled to manage her daytime job as a teacher and at the same time deliver her material on time. Her dedication and engagement to the cause is truly inspiring. “We do it for the kids,” she says with a big smile. She describes the joy of seeing the reactions from the children reading her finalised and printed book: “That’s the happiness of being a writer, when children enjoy my book! Looking at the book in the hands of the children is like rain after a long summer.”
We talk about how the experience from the project has changed her, as a teacher but also personally. “I bring what I have learned into my teaching, the process of how to write and the attention to detail. The children say I’m much more fussy now,” she laughs. “And as a person I’m much more confident.”
During the project, Dewi has written two books that have been distributed to local schools in Indonesia. One of them has been awarded with the Samsung KidsTime Authors’ Award*. I ask her if she will continue writing. “Yes, that’s what I plan to do when I retire from teaching,” she smiles.
After meeting Dewi, we visit local schools where her books are being used. When I see the joy and pride in the children’s faces as they are reading together, I can see that they have understood how important reading is for their future. We also meet the parents, who are thrilled about their children’s reading development. They tell us that the results in other subjects, like math and science, have improved since the start of the project. The parents also discuss how they themselves can contribute to adding new books to the school library and tell us that the kids actively choose to spend time in the library also after school.
The teachers who are trained through the project, together with Dewi and the other writers and illustrators, are giving these children a far better chance of finishing school with good results and of using their education to make a positive impact to their local community. It is an absolute joy to see so many dedicated people investing in these children and their future.
*The Samsung KidsTime Authors’ Award (SKTAA) is a joint initiative between the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) and Samsung Electronics. This award seeks to turn both published and unpublished picture books from countries within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) into digital apps for the Samsung KidsTime platform, so that local and regional content in its native language can reach a much wider audience.