Palo Alto teen up for global award for African literacy work

It started with a book stand in Palo Alto.

Tatiana Grossman sat behind a table waiting for supporters of her bat mitzvah project to drop off children’s books, to be sent to Africa to help create libraries.

Grossman, then an introverted 12-year-old, was hoping to collect 1,000 books and raise about $500 to ship them to youth in Botswana, and was happy when a few people stopped by her stand to donate.

Before she knew it, she had collected approximately 3,500 books — and discovered an inner confidence.

“Back then I was really shy and didn’t like speaking to people,” said Grossman, now a sophomore at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. “When I did the book stand, it was a leap out of my comfort zone. And I wasn’t afraid anymore because I was speaking for the good of others.”

Tatiana Grossman

Grossman’s continued efforts to collect books with the African Library Project Network, a Portola Valley–based organization that mobilizes volunteers nationwide to start libraries in under-developed countries, earned her a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

On Nov. 13, the KidsRights Foundation, an Amsterdam-based international children’s aid and advocacy organization, announced the finalists during the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Hiroshima.

Grossman is the first American finalist for the monetary accolade, which will be awarded Nov. 29 in The Hague, Netherlands by 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum. The winner will receive $140,000.

“I was really surprised,” Grossman, 15, said of the distinction. “There are tons of kids doing great things in the world all the time, but this award will bring attention to the need for literacy around the world. And it was awesome to have my name read aloud by Nobel laureates.”

Chris Bradshaw, founder of the African Library Project, nominated Grossman for the prize. Through Bradshaw’s organization, Grossman helped to start 18 libraries that serve an estimated 25,000 people in 78 schools and villages in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Her perseverance is impressive,” Bradshaw said. “A lot of kids will do the work and say, ‘Great, I’m done and that was a lot of work.’ Tati says, ‘That was a lot of work and I’d like to do it again.’ ”

In October 2008, Grossman and her family traveled to Botswana to see how her libraries were coming along and to meet their young patrons. She also spoke in front of thousands at a literacy conference there, reflecting on how she learned to read and the importance of doing so at a young age.

“Our partners in Africa were extremely moved to think that an American child would go to all this trouble for children about the world who she had never met,” Bradshaw said. “At the end, they said ‘If Tati is doing that for us, we must do that for ourselves.’ ”

But perhaps the highlight of Grossman’s three-week trip was seeing the students who use her libraries, makeshift rooms with shelves for books with corners for reading.

“It was amazing,” recalled Grossman, whose picture is on the library’s wall. “Once we drove into the school, the kids ran behind the car and said, ‘I love you, Tati.’ They were so warm, welcoming and appreciative.”

When Grossman started collecting books before her bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, she had no idea that her efforts would continue into her life in high school.

She loved to read and was surprised that so many kids in Africa went without one of her favorite activities. The cause of spreading literacy became the center of her bat mitzvah project. 

Today, she is getting her message out through Spread the Words, a project to inspire other kids to create libraries, and to offer suggestions on how to stay connected with and support the libraries they’ve established.

Grossman has also taken on the challenge of finding a cost-effective way to deliver digital textbooks to classrooms without computers, or even reliable electricity, in under-developed nations.

“I’m proud of how successful I’ve been,” Grossman said. “And that I’m a role model for kids in Africa. I think kids are more excited to read because of me, and I’m proud that I had an effect on how their lives will be in the future.”