Literacy, Community, and the Biblioburro

Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guests: 1) Sister Rosemary Dowd, and 2) Monica Brown

When author Monica Brown first read about traveling librarian Luis Soriano, she felt inspired to write a children’s book about him. After all, this was a man who braved attacks by snakes and armed bandits so he could carry books to poor children in rural Colombia on his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto. Promoting literacy and education to the younger generation – especially those with little access to books – continues to be his goal.

Monica combined her considerable writing talents with John Parra’s beautiful illustrations to create “Waiting for the Biblioburro,” a book which has won a Christopher Award this year in the ‘Books for Young People’ category. I recently interviewed Monica on Christopher Closeup. Here’s an excerpt:

TR: One of the main characters in Waiting for the Biblioburro is a little girl named Ana who loves to read. Is that character element autobiographical in that respect? Were you always someone who loved to read and learn about different people, places and stories?

MB: Absolutely. I loved books from when I was a little girl. They were a great escape during difficult times. Even if I was bored or restless, I turned to books and they just sparked something in my imagination. I made a whole career around literature, as both a teacher, an English professor and as a writer – and before that I was a journalist. So words have always been very important to me.

TR: Tell me about Luis Soriano, the man who inspired this book, and how you heard about him.

MB: Luis Soriano is amazing. I first learned about him by reading an article in The New York Times by Simon Romero called “Acclaimed Colombian Institution Has Four Thousand Eight Hundred Books and Ten Legs.” And then I came across a film, “Biblioburro: The Donkey Library” by Valentina Canavesio. I did some research and I ended up contacting Simon and Valentina, and I got Luis’s contact information because I wanted to really better understand him and the work that he does. I knew that talking to him would inspire me to tell a story worthy of his endeavor.

So I found his number and talked to him in Colombia. I personally supported his efforts with lots of my own books being sent there, and interviewed him in multiple ways, through e-mail, through Valentina, courier, and on the telephone. He was amazing, and I decided to not try to speak in his voice, but instead to tell a story, a fictional story about a life that he changed, about a little girl who might have been like me, who loved books, but unlike me, who wasn’t privileged and had no school or libraries! In so many of these rural villages in Columbia and in Peru, where my family’s from, it’s a challenge to even have schools, much less libraries. One of the really special things about this book is that my publisher agreed to allow Luis’s Biblioburro Foundation to benefit from some of the profits of the book. So myself, and I know John too, we took smaller advances for this work and that was another thing that was pretty special about it.

TR: Do you know what motivated Luis in his background to take on all these challenges because it’s rough terrain?

MB: He is a teacher and in part, he’s self-taught. But he just saw the lack of access to books and the lack of literacy, and Luis has a vision. He thinks that when you teach children about being citizens through critical literacy, that they can say “no” to violence. That’s his ultimate goal. He says that he wants the town of “La Gloria,” where he’s from, to be glorious. He sees a connection between literacy and democracy and exercising positive choices for community.

To hear my complete interview with Monica Brown (as well as my interview with Sister Rosemary Dowd about her 40 years of ministering to prisoners), download our podcast:

Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guests: 1) Sister Rosemary Dowd, and 2) Monica Brown

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