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Windows on the world

A Book Aid project is forging links between UK libraries and developing countries. Geraldine Brennan reports.

If the quickest way to get to know someone is to look at their book shelves, the best way to create a deeper bond is to choose a book for them.

Year 1 and 2 pupils at Woodview Primary School, Birmingham, enjoyed selecting titles for Natalie, Isa and Nadin. They suggest Women and Sport in History for Natalie, who lives in Bedfordshire and is able to manage her asthma so she can enjoy gymnastics. Or Jamila Gavin's short story collection I Want to be an Angel, "because she is 10 years old and the girls on the cover look about the same age". Nadin, aged 11, who has grown up in a refugee camp on the West Bank and has few places to play outside, might like a book on how to make books, or an illustrated atlas, "because she wants to know all about the world". For sports-mad Isa, who has missed two years of school because of war in Sierra Leone, but is determined to become a doctor, they suggest A Healthy Body and books about basketball and football. He is also urged to try Jez Alborough's story book There's Something at the Letterbox, because "it's a lot of fun".

Natalie, Isa and Nadin are at the centre of activities devised by UK libraries with the charity Book Aid International, based on their profiles in the Dorling KindersleyUnicef book A Life Like Mine. The book offers glimpses into the lives of children in 18 countries to discuss how the terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are being met. The text is pitched at key stages 2 and 3, but the younger Woodview pupils had no difficulty in empathising with 14-year-old Isa in their imaginative suggestions.

Book Aid volunteer Stephanie White, a former primary teacher, points out opportunities for pupils to spot similarities as well as differences when comparing their lives with those of the children in the book. At first glance, Nadin's refugee camp, founded in 1948, looks like a slightly cramped UK suburb. She likes arranging flowers, the bedroom she shares with her sister is full of soft toys, and she has a silver scooter.

Woodview pupils are exchanging book suggestions and artwork with children at the SOS Village, which works mostly with HIV orphans in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. In March, Birmingham Central Library's Centre for the Child was twinned with Malawi's library service for a week of World Book Day activities with local schools, building on links between the two Anglican dioceses. Nine other partnerships between libraries in the UK and in the developing world were set up through Book Aid , all using A Life Like Mine.

Birmingham's guest of honour on World Book Day was George Siliya, a librarian from Malawi, who also chose books from the Book Aid warehouse in south London. "We need physics and business studies textbooks and other vocational books, and I'll take some recent children's fiction."

The Malawi library service's priorities are adult literacy (a quarter of the population aged over 25 has not attended primary school) and school libraries. As the national librarian in charge of outreach, George Siliya aims to put a library into every primary school in Malawi: "Any school can apply, as long as they have somewhere secure to store books".

There is no money for him to visit schools, so teachers have to come to one of three distribution points to collect stock. Libraries (nine branches for the whole country, plus small community libraries) are a crucial service in Malawi. Children's books are expensive, and even the wealthiest families have few books: "For parents, buying a book would be like buying a computer or a mountain bike here", Stephanie White explains. Schools regularly share two to three copies of a textbook for a class of up to 120. "Without help from Book Aid, we would not manage," says George Siliya.

He is proud of Malawi's own children's authors and captivated Woodview pupils with a reading of James L Ng'oub's illustrated fable The Pig's Mouth. The afternoon group from Year 7 at Edgbaston Girls' High School also hung on every word. "They were writing their own fables last term so this is very useful," says head of English Denise Snabel.

The Book Aid project is timely, as Denise Snabel is about to conduct a citizenship audit of her department. She used A Life Like Mine to inspire a debate about the education of girls and women worldwide, which continued throughout the library event with a contribution from George Siliya:

"Education is a question of survival. In the short term people have to survive. In the longer term they have to plan and survive."

A Life Like Mine Dorling Kindersley in association with Unicef pound; Libraries project and Book Aid: www.bookaid.orgThe Birmingham-Malawi partnership can be followed at:

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