MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Haiti's also dealing with a literacy crisis. Just half of the adults there can read. Cultural and language issues complicate the problem. Now, a local author, with a literacy initiative, hopes a picture can help teach a thousand words. Kenny Malone reports.
KENNY MALONE: At the French-American school in Miami, Haitian-American third grader Lauren Russo(ph) is learning to read.
Ms. LAUREN RUSSO: (French spoken)
MALONE: This is from a Haitian comic by Teddy Mombrun, called "Alain Possible." Mombrun came to the Miami Book Fair International for a panel on using graphic novels in education. He says he sprinkles his pages with vocabulary words to encourage his readers to be more resourceful.
Mr. TEDDY MOMBRUN (Author, "Alain Possible"): There are some sentences when I put something to go to the dictionary so he could understand.
MALONE: In Haiti, that would be one of two dictionaries because there are two national languages, French and Haitian Creole. In his work, Mombrun intentionally uses the Creole that people speak and the French that they're taught.
Mr. MOMBRUN: Because in Haiti, they don't learn us how to read Creole. They learn us how to read French. Me, I did the combination, so everyone can understand.
MALONE: Having two languages takes a toll on literacy. Dr. Jean-Robert Cadely is a Haitian linguist at Florida International University. He says the rival languages speak to bigger social issues.
Dr. JEAN-ROBERT CADELY (Haitian Linguist, Florida International University): Creole and French have two different status in Haiti. French is considered as a bringing(ph) prestige. Speaking French in Haiti, that means you belong to a certain social class, a certain status, that you went to school. When you only speak Creole, that means you are illiterate.
MALONE: Though most schooling after second grade is in French, practically all Haitians are fluent in Creole, and it carries a national pride. In 1991, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide addressed the United Nations. He baffled translators when he said in French, I'm going to introduce a new language into the United Nations, and then switched into Creole. Again, Jean-Robert Cadely.
Dr. CADELY: It was a big moment for Haitians, because it was for the first time that the Haitian chief of state used Creole an official at something like the United Nations.
MALONE: And yet French still dominates the classroom. In spite of initiatives to use more Creole, French is still the rule in education. Peter Frisch publishes many of Haiti's textbooks. He co-owns Maison Henri Deschamps, one the country's largest publishing companies, reaching a wide array of readers. So he uses more inclusive pictures to bridge the divides.
Mr. PETER FRISCH (Co-Owner, Maison Henri Deschamps): In many areas in the country, where they don't have two-story homes, you show them a stair, and they don't know what you're talking about. So we had to replace it and put a ladder because a ladder exist everywhere. They have to use a ladder to do the thatched roof, so that they identified.
MALONE: Frisch is staking his business on teaching reading with pictures. He's betting that young people who read these comic-style textbooks will grow up to buy his other books. Frisch writes some of the history books for his company. He shows me a fifth grade text. To keep prices low, it's thin and flimsy, with little color. He opens to a page where a man in a flamboyant hat points at a map.
Mr. FRISCH: Chapter three and four is the War of Independence of Haiti, and we called it History in Pictures. It is a cartoon strip.
MALONE: Publisher Peter Frisch takes his work seriously.
Mr. FRISCH: When you hear a comic strip, you think automatically of little cartoons, which is not very educational. I prefer the French "bande dessinee," which is more technical.
MALONE: "La bande dessinee" that artist Teddy Mombrun brought to the Miami Book Fair is a serious business too. The book is written in Creole and French. the title character, Alain Possible, is a school-age prankster. Third grader Lauren Russo reads one of the French pages.
Ms. RUSSO: (French spoken)
MALONE: Artist-author Teddy Mombrun describes the scene: Alain and his father both reading a newspaper.
Mr. MOMBRUN: Alain see something that he doesn't understand, and he say to his father, Dad, what do this mean? His dad say, I don't really know. And after, Alain said to his father, what does this mean? And his dad said, I don't know.
MALONE: Question after question, panel after panel.
Mr. MOMBRUN: Alain is feeling like he is annoying his father. He said to his father, do I annoy you? No, Alain, never. Because if you don't ask me, you will never know.
MALONE: And if you don't know, Mombrun is hoping you will look it up in the dictionary. For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone.
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