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Sophie Ali, producer

Sophia Ali has learned about the power of reading aloud to children and put it into practice in a unique way. Sophie, the daughter of a Pakistani father and American mother, grew up in Pakistan but went to college in the United States. Following graduation, she went to work as a production assistant for an Italian film company, and from there she moved to California where for fourteen years she worked as a film and television producer for Orion, Paramount, and Universal studios. In 1998 after the death of a close friend, she began to question the direction that her life had taken and decided she wanted to do something with her talents that would give something back to the world. Leaving Hollywood behind, Sophie went back to Pakistan and found there were no programs for children on Pakistani television. Sophie set about producing a show for children similar to PBS's Sesame Street and Storytime. Trying to get funding was a real problem, as most companies who might sponsor the program did not believe that there was a market for children's television. In addition, she faced a military coup and a US embargo on funds. Spending most of her own money on materials and sets, Sophie found a core of volunteers who helped her produce a pilot of Kahani Corner (Story Corner).
The Human Rights Education Program (HREP) gave her enough money to fund a pilot program and eventually Shell Oil Corporation and the British government provided funding for thirteen half-hours shows.

Sophie chose 26 picture books from around the world. She had these translated into Urdu and, after another battle to get permissions from publishers, she was ready to film. To host the program Sophie enlisted the help of a well-known Pakistani star, Marina Khan and a puppet named Cheeko. In each episode Marina read two books to an audience of children, both boys and girls. After each reading the children enthusiastically discussed the books with Marina and Cheeko. The show was a huge success in Pakistan and throughout the region. In order to provide the broadest possible coverage to Pakistani children, Sophie produced a radio version for those areas of the country that did not have access to television. During the broadcasts Sophie was always worried that Pakistani censors would object to the books she chose, which had subtle themes about peace and understanding. She was also doing something subversive in giving young girls equal weight with boys on the show. She surmises that the show was ignored because it was for children and they were just not taken seriously.

In 2000, Sophie returned to the United States where she received a Master's degree in Child Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her thesis, which dealt with the psychological effects of war on Afghan refugee children, led to a new project. Encouraged by the reception of her Kahani Corner, Sophie is currently seeking funding to produce a Story Corner for Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has now given permission to produce the show and to film in Kabul, and Sophie hopes to get funding for twice as many shows, to be broadcast on both television and radio. This time books will need to be translated into both Pathto and Farsi. Sophie also plans to use an Afghan film crew in order provide technical training in film production that will stay in the country.

Through her courageous struggles to bring good stories to children who have been previously denied access, Sophie Ali has clearly demonstrated the power of reading aloud. By choosing picture books from around the world, she links the important human themes that cross all borders. Furthermore, in providing children the chance to respond to these stories on camera she subtly demonstrates that good books can break down the barriers of gender, culture, and class.

Huck: Child LitOnline Learning Center

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