If You Build It,
They Will Read

One organization’s quest to improve literacy and foster the imaginations of people all over the world


El Transito is a fishing village that hugs the Pacific Ocean on the coast of north-central Nicaragua. Home to about 2,200 people, it’s reached only by an hour-and-fifteen-minute rumble along a dirt road from Managua.

Although relatively unexplored by tourists, the village has a crescent-shaped beach and world-class waves that are attracting more and more surfers, who stay in lodges by the water. At dawn on a typical weekday, a bus horn pierces the quiet, calling those who travel to Managua for work. During weekends, the town livens up as young people flirt and loud music plays through the night and into the morning. The power may cut out intermittently, but that never stops the party.

There aren’t many job opportunities in El Transito; the most common work is fishing for men and domestic service for women, who are paid the equivalent of about six dollars for an eight-hour-plus day. The 2013 high school graduating class had twelve kids, of whom just two went on to further education. Conditions are less than ideal at school; the teachers get only one copy of the main textbook for each subject, and children rarely get to see it. Instead they might see black and white copies of a few pages.

Though books are generally in short supply in El Transito, there are over 1,700 of them at the library in town, a cheerful, well-lit place that tries to have at least one copy of most of the kids’ textbooks so that they can do their homework and research assignments.

This resource was created under the auspices of Traveling Stories, a San Diego–based charity that establishes libraries around the world in places that have limited or no access to books.

Traveling Stories is the brainchild of Emily Moberly, an outgoing and articulate 28-year-old woman who started the organization with $1,200 she raised through Facebook in a week’s time. As a teacher of English in Honduras, Moberly witnessed her students’ joy in reading for pleasure, an experience that most of them had never contemplated. She decided to make that experience possible for more children, and today approximately 1,200 kids in four countries and in San Diego read books provided by Traveling Stories.

One of those kids is Jessica, a 13-year-old girl who lives in Tecoloste, a village of about forty families five miles down the coast from El Transito.

With shoulder-length curly brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, Jessica’s initial shyness masks a mature, stoic self-confidence. She lives with her mother, who works as domestic help, and four brothers, one older and three younger. They have a two-room house in a compound where her extended family lives.

Jessica is the only female at home while her mom is working, so most of the household duties fall on her—two or three cooked meals a day, dish washing, manual clothes washing, ironing, and cleaning house. She works at these tasks for several hours daily, even when she’s ill from using tainted water. In spite of this and the fact that family members seem indifferent to her education, she does her best to attend school. When she can’t go, she gets assignments from her teacher and tries to make up the work.

Hannah and Scott Key, an American couple from Houston, brought El Transito to Traveling Stories’s attention as a possible library location in 2011. Hannah was committed to volunteering at the El Transito Arts Center for the summer and, after reading about the area’s lack of printed materials, was looking for a way to support literacy in the town as well. Scott contacted Traveling Stories, and together they raised money for books and supplies and spent the summer converting an old Arts Center storage space into a library, making their idea a reality.

Jessica heard about the El Transito library when she was ten. To get there, she had to walk for more than an hour along a barren dirt road, but it was worth it. From the moment she stepped inside, Jessica was awed by the rows of books neatly displayed on apple-green shelves sitting against bright white walls. Coming from a place as remote as Tecoloste—where even newspapers are a rarity—it was first time she’d seen anything like the cornucopia of reading material that lay inside the 10-by-20-foot space. Jessica would take a seat on a stool next to the shelves and absorb it all.

For her, a colored storybook was a thing of exotic beauty;
to hold it in her hands was enthralling.

The trek to the library in El Transito became a weekly tradition for Jessica, who was usually accompanied by her aunt. Sometimes she would ride La Pippa, a one-eyed gray-and-white horse who grazed on a farm next to Jessica’s house. The horse was lent to her by Julie Sim Edwards, an American woman who is the founder of the Arts Center.

The library in El Transito is one example of the kind of partnership Traveling Stories makes with organizations around the world in order to set up their libraries. The library builds practical literacy skills, while the Arts Center helps residents not only to express themselves creatively, but to discover new opportunities in artisanal work as well.

At the library, visitors have over 750 titles to choose from; in addition to picture books, there are the Harry Potter and Twilight series, which are in high demand, as well as cookbooks, crafting books, novels, and the works of Nicaraguan national heroes such as the poet Rubén Darío. Jessica checked out Azul, a book of Darío’s poems and prose.

Noticing Jessica’s weekly pilgrimage, the library staff came up with an ambitious plan to create a mobile library so that more children would have access to books.

As with many projects where resources are scarce, it wasn’t a simple endeavor. They had to set up transportation, enlist volunteers, and secure funding from Traveling Stories for fuel and supplies. Volunteers drove to meet excited children at Jessica’s school with boxes of books and art projects.

While the mobile library was popular, it was hard to sustain adequate transport and staffing, so it’s been discontinued until regular drivers can be recruited. However, the team at the library recently arranged for the Tecoloste school kids to receive twenty new books rotated every couple of weeks, delivered by one of the Tecoloste teachers who lives near the library.

In addition to their El Transito location, Traveling Stories has established libraries at orphanages in both El Salvador and South Sudan and at four shelters for girls who’ve escaped the sex trade in the Philippines. One of the ways they’ve been successful in their endeavors is to garner community support beforehand. To that end, they have an application process wherein their partner in the country must get ten community members to sign the application.

“We need to help cast a vision for what a library is and what benefits it can bring to the community,” said Moberly.

So far, the charity’s efforts have paid off: They’ve shipped over 5,000 books overseas and have 1,000 waiting to be shipped once more funding becomes available.

According to Moberly, Traveling Stories is careful to provide not just books but also someone who is enthusiastic about reading — a librarian on staff — as well as an atmosphere that is conducive to reading. “Without access to books it’s almost impossible to fall in love with reading, so providing access it the practical first step,” said Moberly. “But the most important part is actually helping kids bond with books. Once a child begins to fall in love with reading, it will be a romance that does not end easily.”

The main library in El Transito is thriving; its supply of books is growing, and it has moved into a brand new classroom space that the El Transito Arts Center donated and built for it. On any day you can enter the library, feel a breeze coming through an open window, and see kids doing their homework or exploring the Internet at a big round table in the middle of the room. Children are often sitting in the corner on brightly-colored chairs, squealing with laughter at a funny picture or story. A librarian might be reading Where the Wild Things Are to a group, helping them dream up their own monster based on the book.

It’s been a while since Jessica has visited the library, but she is still reading, a practice that has helped to kindle passion for other subjects such as math. She plans to be an attorney when she grows up, and to live in Tecoloste. In the meantime, she’ll continue to enjoy favorite books like La Caperucita Roja (Little Red Riding Hood)—the story of another determined young girl.



Illustrations by Celine Loup


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