Worldreader: ebooks for kids in the developing world

I've recently lent my support to Worldreader, an innovative nonprofit program that distributes ebook readers to children in the developing world and then exposes them to a large library of donated texts from writers from across the world, as well as newspapers and other materials. I was delighted to give them access to all my books (of course), and put them in touch with a large group of other kids' and young adult writers who were happy to do the same (including my hero Daniel Pinkwater, who travelled in and wrote about Kenya and has a real love of Africa).

WR: What advice do you have for kids in developing countries who are just beginning to read and only have recently gotten access to books because of technology advancements?

Cory: I have a couple of pieces of advice about reading. One is that the most dangerous thing in the world is someone who has only read one book. The great thing about reading is that you can triangulate your ideas among lots of different authors, different times, or different place. When you read widely and broadly it shows you that everything is relative. It shows that there is a lot of ways of looking at things, and often times, problems can become solutions if looked at creatively.

The other piece of advice I would give them about reading electronically is to not allow their collections to be tied to one device or platform. Devices come and go, but data can live forever. The only way you can maintain access to them is if you insist on the ability and the right to move the books into any format or any platform you want to.

Writers Changing Lives: A Chat With Cory Doctorow


  1. This sounds like a very commendable program. Those who read a lot seem (but not always) to have somewhat of a more complete picture of the world. And a grasp of written language is always helpful. I’m confused though at the target age of these children – are most of them brand new readers or does the age bracket run from toddlers to teenagers? I only ask because you mention that kids should not tie their collections to one device or platform. I’m wondering why a child in Kenya (who’s never read a book) would have to worry about that? I’m also a bit uncomfortable with referring to books (even eBooks) as “data” – too clinical for me. Like I said, this sounds like a wonderful program. Congratulations.

  2. Yah Cory, awesome books for awesome kidz!!!
    (no, I have never met C.D. altho I do know R.C. And C. R.)

  3. Seriously? Your best advice to kids in developing countries is to not “allow” DRM ebooks? They’re not selecting an e-reader from a wide selection of options, they’re getting one donated and I’m sure they don’t have a ton of leverage over which one they receive! This sounds like a fantastic program, but you need to get some perspective.

  4. *shrug* DRM is often easy enough to crack on a lot of e-readers.

    And heck, worst comes to worst they an torrent them from someone who already cracked it.

    If anything, I think a kindle 3 is a commendable piece of hardware for this task, since with wifi disabled, it’s got a battery life of nearly a month between charges. It’s also well designed for reading in direct sunlight.

  5. I’m amazed at the resistance to ebooks. Yeah some books are better as physical books, but most lose nothing by being digital. Words are words. If you can bring the cost down and get more books in the hands of more people- that is a good thing. And unless you have a photocopier a physical book is DRM’d too.

  6. Yeah, what kids in the developing world need are ebook readers free of DRM. What’s wrong with, you know, books? If the book tears, it’s still readable. But a gizmo that needs electricity to recharge and has sensitive electronic equipment inside…

    Geeze, this is the kind of charity work that makes me cynical about charity work. It’s a lot more about pushing our own tech-savvy agenda on the developing world than actually helping them develop on their own terms.

    1. That was my first reaction too. They say that they will preload hundreds of books; good, but that only works for the ones that you’ve sorted out licensing issues for, i.e. very few that anyone would want to read. Also, their argument that ebooks are cheaper than paperbacks is only true for old stuff that is out of copyright, like Tolstoy’s complete works that Amazon sells for like 2 bucks for the Kindle. Books that are still under copyright very often are NOT cheaper as an ebook, for reasons that Cory is all too aware of; in fact, due to Amazon’s discount practices, paperbacks often end up being cheaper than ebooks. I bet that used paperbacks are even cheaper in Accra (since they use Ghana as an example). There are no doubt more than a hundred that can be bought for the price of one Kindle.

      However, they may have a point when it comes to actually getting books to rural areas — as long as people have an Amazon account with a credit card behind it, which I very much doubt is the norm. Even Worldreader admits that the folks they give devices to will have to buy most books if they want to read them. Seems like they have to rely on some sort of central repository of non-DRM ebooks that they can distribute locally. No idea how feasible this is over the long term.

      What got me excited though is the prospect of people in the sticks having relatively easy access to business periodicals. That alone is great if they can keep it up.

  7. I’m glad at charitable acts generally, but… my skepticism itches.

    Why e-readers instead of paper books?

    How many pulp books (including, if you like, cost of shipping/storing) = the cost of the e-reader and underlying data transmission/power services?

    Not unhappy about the prospect of huge libraries of public domain works & freely donated open works, just curious at the cost difference & practicality of delivery.

  8. I love my Wikireader. It’s the entire text of the english Wikipedia ( ), runs on 2 AAA batteries and costs less than $100. Plus I have wikiquotes and wiktionary loaded as well. That is with an 8gb microSD card. If you put a 16gb card in you can also install project gutenberg with 33,000 ebooks.
    Something rugged like this, that doesn’t need constant charging, seems more 3rd world friendly.

  9. i like the premise (so long as they have access to reliable electricity for recharging– and a country suitable adapter), but your DRM warning for charity recipients is asinine… it’s like telling the starving they should avoid donated food that’s not “organic” (in the arbitrary popular sense, not the common chemistry sense of organic vs. inorganic)

  10. This is an interesting idea. I have been wondering, as ebooks seem to take over the global north, if the eventual lack of paper books being produced/donated/sold/etc. is going to hit education rates in places where people can’t afford Kindles, internet, batteries, or even electricity. I imagine that there is a huge trade in secondhand books in, say, Africa, and a lot of poor people all around the world (in America, too) probably learn to read via secondhand paperbacks at the Goodwill, or whatever is donated to their schools via a charity. I don’t think people are gonna donate their Kindles yet, and if you’re in some place where it takes six hours to get from town x to town y by hitching a ride on the back of the bus that goes by once a week, if you have a paperback, the dust and rain won’t really hurt it, but you won’t have anyplace to recharge your Kindle even when you get to town y because your aunt’s house where you’re staying the night doesn’t even have electricity yet…

  11. Just a thought, let’s say the type of Kindle they use costs them $200 apiece including infrastructure. Let’s also say there are 20 children at one location that receive them. Thats $4,000. How many paperbacks could they ship to them that they could actually share with each other unlike the Amazon ebooks that they’d get? (Again, I assure you that there are plenty of cheap mass-market paperbacks in urban Ghana. Even developing countries have bookstores that stock all the classics you think are important to have read.)

  12. This program is absurd. The only thing innovative about it is the director’s ability to fetishize literacy, technology and philanthropy at the same time.

    “Data can live forever.” Hrumph. Maybe in the convenient analog pulp-and-paper format. Digital files are fragile, and it is not like these kids who are being given a kindle are going to have access to a computer to back it up… in fact if they had access to a computer, they could read all of that anyways. So their generously donated “library” is sitting on a hard drive connected to a screen and a power supply each with a considerably shorter life expectancy then any given book. This “library,” is easily broken, stolen, or corrupted. They might have 30,000 titles, but all their eggs are in one basket. Lose one book and lose them all.

    These kids and communities would be better off with books. REAL books. Illustrating once again that e-books are the solution still looking for a problem.

  13. Paper books are great. But if you want to get kids reading, you’ve got to give them choice, and make it easy. Some kids like dinosaurs, some kids like astronauts, some kids like poetry. That’s what e-books offer: easy, fast choice.

    In Ghana we’ve seen amazing and sobering things. Many of the classrooms where we operate don’t have a single book in them. Some that do have a nice assortment of books nobody else wanted (“The History of Utah” comes to mind.) Meanwhile, the students and teachers in Worldreader’s program have access to a growing library of local textbooks, local story books, and international books. (For lists of the books available, check out– scroll down to “Browse our Books.”) And that’s not even counting the hundreds of samples and free books they’re downloading– on average one a week.

    On issues like theft, that’s something we’re monitoring closely, and there’s a good reason we work so closely with communities– read here if you want to know more, and follow the blog entries to information about our pledge. So far, theft really hasn’t been a problem. As one of our students said– perhaps naively, but so far accurately in Ghana– “Thieves don’t steal education.”

    E-readers aren’t perfect: they’re expensive (though prices are dropping quickly), they’re a bit fragile (though we put them in donated cases thanks to a partnership with mEdge, and are working with e-reader manufacturers to toughen them up), and yes, they do require power (though mobile phones have really paved the way for us… it’s not nearly as big a problem as it would have been 10 years ago.) But think of the opportunity they provide to do something that’s never been feasible before: to put the world’s literature into the hands of people even in the world’s most remote regions.

  14. The opportunity for children to READ is far more important than the device. Mobile phones are already far more prolific than ereaders and should be one of the first places to distribute content (altho I am not advocating one over another – just that every available device should be used – and the (already most) prolific should get focus). Brilliant project and place to start

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