NABU helps kids learn to read with stories that speak their language

Mother-tongue books from organizations like NABU connect kids with stories that reflect their own languages, cultures, and lives.

By Stephanie Walden — February 1, 2023

Some of our earliest childhood memories are centered around the well-loved storybooks our parents read to us or we paged through on our own or listened to in read-aloud sessions in kindergarten. You probably still remember your first favorite book — maybe you’ve even passed a copy along to your own kids such as Goodnight Moon? The Snowy Day? The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Where the Wild Things Are?

Now imagine: What if those childhood books were written in words in a language you didn’t hear at home, one that you didn’t even dream in? How would that have shaped your associations with books and reading in general?

For around 40% of children globally, this is an all-too-familiar experience. Millions must learn school curricula in a language they don’t speak at home, creating the difficult and disorienting experience of learning to read and write while also simultaneously learning a new language. 

Books written in mother tongue languages — the languages children in indigenous, immigrant, and refugee families grow up speaking with their families — and multilingual instruction can make a difference. Research suggests that access to mother tongue reading material can make it easier for children to learn to read and write, and also to learn second languages. In other words, teaching literacy in a language that children already understand can have a lasting impact on their lives.

“We know that access to mother tongue books in early life is associated with higher earning potential and better health outcomes, and all of this leads to greater opportunity and equity,” says Tanyella Allison, co-creator and CEO of the nonprofit organization NABU. Beyond academics, research from Scholastic points out that reading and writing also help kids develop logic and inference skills and even make friends. 

Organizations like NABU, Pratham Books in India, and the Indigenous Literary Foundation in Australia are working to address these disparities by giving more children access to original and translated reading material in their primary language. 

A girl reading to a class full of children and NABU employees at the Masoro Learning and Sport Center in Rwanda


Children at the Masoro Learning and Sport Center in Rwanda with NABU employees, CEO and Co-Creator Tanyella Allison, Creative Director Michael Ross, and Reading Ambassador Ricardo Tuyishimire.

Bringing books to people where they are — on their phones

When Francoise Beaulieu Thybulle became the general director of the National Haitian Library in 2012, she estimates only 5% of books available in the country were written in Haitian Creole, despite the fact that it’s the primary language of most of Haiti’s population. Beaulieu Thybulle has long been on a mission to promote children’s literacy in Haiti, but in the face of concurrent humanitarian crises caused by political turmoil, gang violence, and a series of natural disasters, few resources are available for things like libraries.

So, Beaulieu Thybulle was thrilled when NABU reached out to her for help developing its Haitian Creole story collection. Established in 2013, NABU creates culturally responsive books accessible via app and written in mother tongue languages to bridge the literacy gap for children around the world. NABU has worked with local artists to create hundreds of stories for children in Haitian Creole — all available for free on the NABU app. NABU has also partnered with a variety of organizations to offer physical print books to children in the most rural areas.

“When the opportunity came to give kids quick access [to books] without having a library — bringing the books to the people where they were — I was very happy to be part of it,” Beaulieu Thybulle recalls.

“We know that access to mother-tongue books in early life is associated with higher earning potential and better health outcomes, and all of this leads to greater opportunity and equity.”

— NABU co-creator and CEO Tanyella Allison

Allison first had the idea for a free, low-bandwidth app while providing humanitarian aid in Haiti in 2010. She noticed mobile phone technology was ubiquitous, which sparked the idea to create books that could be delivered digitally. More than a decade later, the NABU app (download here or here) is available globally in more than 15 languages.  

To create the app’s content, NABU collaborates with local authors, storytellers, illustrators, and other community stakeholders, plus they offer a Bridge to Literacy program, which encourages local ambassadors, teachers, community leaders, and partners to guide families through using the app and tracking progress. NABU also partners with technology companies like HP to create physical, tech-equipped labs where writers and illustrators can work together on-site or remotely. 

Empowering local creators with cutting-edge tech

This month, a NABU HP Creative Lab will open in Miami, aimed at creating mother-tongue books for the local Haitian community — Haitian Creole is the third most commonly spoken language in the state of Florida. Having operated in Haiti for more than a decade, NABU already has a significant collection of Haitian Creole stories, so opening a lab in Miami, which has a population of more than 300,000 people of Haitian ancestry, is a logical expansion.

Kate Wanjira pointing to enlarged NABU book covers while speaking to an audience at the HP NABU Creative Lab.


Kate Wanjira, a Nairobi, Kenya-based editor and writer, speaking at the HP NABU Creative Lab.

The new lab will feature HP technology including touchscreen laptops, stylus pens, and other devices that help authors and illustrators bring their creative visions to life. The initiative is the second of its kind from NABU; the first lab opened in Kigali, Rwanda, last year, and a third is planned to launch in the Philippines later in 2023. 

“These labs enable us to reach a more diverse pool of writers — not everyone has access to a laptop at home where they can write and edit,” says Allison. “It’s part of our overarching goal to remove structural barriers that might stop someone from being able to share their art, their voice, or their perspectives.”


Watch the  livestream of the grand opening of the NABU HP Creative Lab in Miami on February 2nd at 10am Eastern Time.


Allison says that in addition to the launch of the NABU HP Creative Lab, an upcoming partnership with Scholastic will help disseminate the Haitian Creole collection to a wider audience through the New Worlds Reading initiative in Florida — a literacy program that mails a free book to eligible K-5 students every month. 

“We have to keep pushing ourselves to innovate and not rest on our laurels, because it is such a big mission,” she says. “But on the other hand, it's a solvable challenge. By creating the books and then partnering with the right groups, we can really have a huge impact.”

Vibrant illustrations of NABU book covers written in Haitian Creole.


NABU books written in Haitian Creole.

Making an impact beyond words

Books produced by NABU and other non-profits concentrate on culturally relevant themes that are more likely to keep kids engaged with the material, including environmental concerns, women’s empowerment, and diversity. 

Kate Wanjira, a Nairobi-based author who has written multiple books in Swahili for NABU’s Kenyan collection over the past two years, notes that themes like environmental conservation are prevalent in her work. One of her stories features a fish who encounters obstacles like plastic pollution and even navigates a run-in with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“Climate change is very relevant right now in Kenya, with the different weather conditions that we’re facing,” she explains. “It was really important for me to spread this message to children. They need to understand it’s not only a national problem, but a worldwide problem.”

In NABU’s Haitian collection, Beaulieu Thybulle points to a story that depicts the journey of two young girls who pursue their dream to play soccer, and ultimately lead an entire girls’ team to play against the boys. “Haitian society really did not give much opportunity to girls for a long time — maybe 50 years ago, girls didn’t even go to school. Now, it’s a revolution,” Beaulieu Thybulle says of the impetus for this particular tale. 

Members of the the creative team at the HP NABU Creative Lab smiling as they unbox HP devices.


Unboxing HP devices to be used by the creative team at the HP NABU Creative Lab.

NABU also works with local universities and partner organizations to identify up-and-coming authors and artists who want to participate in what NABU calls Authentic Book Creation (ABC). “We find creatives from culturally diverse backgrounds within a country, and then we connect them together, either physically or remotely, to share ideas, explore new ways of writing, and critique each other’s work,” explains Allison. 

For Wanjira, this practice has not only provided a way to give back to her community, but it has also expanded her own artistic perspectives and capabilities, thanks to regular Zoom meetings with writers and creators across the country. “We hold discussions about where our stories are, and where we are stuck,” she says. “We do it as a team.” 

Beaulieu Thybulle says the importance of having reading material available in Haitian Creole can’t be overstated. “If you understand the nature of Haiti’s story, we were slaves that came from Africa to work in a French territory. We came from all kinds of different countries and had to create a new mode of communication — all the different dialects melted into what became Creole,” she explains. 

“While just 12% of Haitians today speak French, 100% speak Creole. This mother tongue is an important motor for disseminating language and literacy.”


READ MORE: Read how HP and the YMCA team up to bridge the digital divide