Public speaking can be a hazardous business, but private banker Cynthia D'Anjou-Brown was both surprised and delighted by the reaction of an audience she addressed recently at a community centre in Sheung Shui.
The group was hanging on every word, clearly enthralled by the themes and subject matter, and even intent on each gesture, facial expression and modulation of D'Anjou-Brown's voice.
Beforehand, she had been understandably nervous. She wasn't sure quite what to expect, reading aloud for the first time to 20 or so youngsters aged five and up, but the experience turned out to be a real eye-opener.
"The kids followed every word and every move of your body," says the senior adviser on philanthropy and governance for HSBC Private Bank, recalling her debut performance of Going on a Bear Hunt. "They don't care if you work for a bank; you'd just better be able to do voices and entertain them."
The reaction from both children and parents further convinced D'Anjou-Brown that her group had made the right move in deciding to support the work of Bring Me A Book (BMAB) Hong Kong.
The aim of the non-governmental organisation is to promote reading and literacy by installing small libraries of children's books in community centres, clinics and schools, generally in the lower-income districts around town.
About 120 are already operating, each with 200-plus books in both English and Chinese for kids, from infants to 12-year-olds. There are also "book bags" on loan, with a selection of five books - some with CDs - for different age groups.
"It is easy to give books to people, but in terms of impact it is about teaching parents, social workers and education specialists to make reading to children a daily ritual," says Pia Wong, BMAB's executive director in Hong Kong.
"Part of the commitment for every library is to run workshops to train teachers, parents and volunteers about reading aloud. We show the science behind why it is important for brain development in children and want parents to share their reactions and form their own little groups."
Wong is only too aware of the challenges in getting this message across - from long working hours and single-parent families to the usual electronic distractions, prevailing "non-literary" attitudes, and failure to recognise how reading aloud to youngsters significantly strengthens parent-child bonding.
"We are trying to change a mindset ... little by little," says Wong. "Too often, [parents] just don't realise how important it is to nurture this interest from an early age. It is pretty basic, and you can't outsource bonding."
HSBC has given both financial and practical support, with fundraising activities, around 40 employees taking part in "read aloud" training, and volunteer readers. It is also sponsoring the Feng Zikai picture book exhibition at Central Library from mid-July to mid-August and the related award to promote high-quality picture books in Chinese.
"We like that this programme has very broad appeal and reinforces relationships," D'Anjou-Brown says.
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An international study in 2006 showed that only 26 per cent of Hong Kong parents engage with their children in pre-school literacy activity
Compared with other major cities around the world, Hong Kong has a particularly low number of books in homes and schools
Volunteers willing to read to small groups of four children on a regular basis are always welcome