How Book Dash nurtures South Africa’s young readers

Courtesy of Book Dash
Writers and illustrators who volunteer with Book Dash create storybooks whose PDFs are freely available on the organization's website. It also distributes copies through literacy organizations and other education charities.

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At Book Dash, a South African nonprofit organization, the answer to helping children become readers takes just 12 hours – a “dash” indeed. Volunteer writers, illustrators, and editors collaborate in a daylong creative marathon, pumping out children’s books that range from the quirky (a runaway pig, for example) to the profound: the circle of life, the importance of diversity.

It’s more than a creative challenge. It’s about social justice. Having a large collection of books at home has been shown to be a significant factor shaping children’s success at school. But in South Africa, where around 6 in 10 children live in poverty, many families are priced out of glossy picture books.

Why We Wrote This

How do children become readers? Simple as it sounds, they need books – lots of them, to explore and enjoy whenever they want. This nonprofit aims to turn that into a reality for every South African child.

“We were devastated by the idea that having a book was a luxury good,” says director Dorette Louw. 

Book Dash’s model leapfrogs many traditional costs of publishing, so it can distribute books to partnering literacy and education charities on a shoestring budget. PDFs are freely available on the website, and print copies sell for less than $3 each.

Janet Duma works at Thanda, an organization that distributes the books. “We have a library, but we noticed kids were often reluctant to give the books back,” she says. “Now anytime they want to read, they can grab a book from their shelf.”

When Thokozani Mkhize was growing up in South Africa in the 1990s, she devoured storybooks from all over the world. She read Chinese myths and Greek legends. There were Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and “Goosebumps” novels.

The one thing she never read though were South African stories.

“At the time I wasn’t really thinking, why do none of these characters look like me?” she says. “But as I grew up, I realized there was a gap.”

Why We Wrote This

How do children become readers? Simple as it sounds, they need books – lots of them, to explore and enjoy whenever they want. This nonprofit aims to turn that into a reality for every South African child.

So when a friend told Ms. Mkhize, a graphic designer, about a nonprofit organization called Book Dash, which recruits volunteers to write and design South African children’s books, she jumped at the chance to make things different for the generation after her.

Book Dash also intrigued Ms. Mkhize because of its unusual model – it challenged volunteer writers, illustrators, and editors like herself to create a full children’s book, in a single 12-hour “dash.” That allowed the organization to leapfrog most of the traditional costs of publishing and distribute more than a million copies of its books to households on a shoestring budget.

For Book Dash, like Ms. Mkhize, getting books into the hands of more South Africans has always been a question of social justice. Elsewhere in the world, having a large collection of books at home has been shown to be just as significant as the parents’ education level for determining how far a child will go in school, according to a 20-year study from the University of Nevada, Reno. Other studies have shown that having books at home correlates to not only better reading skills, but better math and technology know-how as well.

But nearly 60% of South Africans don’t have a single book at home, according to a 2016 survey by the South African Book Development Council, and 78% of fourth graders in the country can’t read for meaning – to understand a story or argument in a text  – according to a global study conducted that year. Of the 50 countries surveyed in that study, South Africa finished last. And like most inequalities in the country, literacy levels are highly racialized, due in part to a long history of separate and unequal schooling that funneled resources into white schools and deliberately withheld them from Black ones. Eighty-seven percent of students who took the literacy test in Zulu – an indigenous language spoken mostly by Black South Africans – failed, for instance, compared with 57% who took it in English.

One primary reason so few households have books, says Book Dash Director Dorette Louw, is that they simply can’t afford them. Around 6 in 10 South African children live in poverty. And the fact that so many families are priced out of the glossy picture books on store shelves in turn drives the cost up more, because printing is more expensive in smaller quantities.

“We were devastated by the idea that having a book was a luxury good in South Africa,” Ms. Louw says of the organization’s founding.

Courtesy of Book Dash
The storybook "Walking Together" was written by Jade Mathieson and illustrated by Bianca de Jong at a Book Dash "dash" for volunteer artists.

Quick creativity

Book Dash’s model is deceptively simple. The organization, started in 2014, recruits professional writers, illustrators, designers, and editors to volunteer for daylong marathon book-creation sessions.

Using only a rough idea developed ahead of time by the writer, teams of four – a writer, editor, illustrator, and designer – meet and spend 12 hours honing the story, writing and editing the text, drawing the characters, and laying out the book.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie that develops, sitting around a table bouncing ideas and helping each other work,” Ms. Mkhize says. She’s participated in four “dashes” since 2015 – including two virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic – as a designer, responsible for laying out the text and illustrations. Her favorite work, she says, is a brightly colored book called “Unathi and the Dirty, Smelly Beast,” about a girl and her adventures with her dog.

To date, Book Dash has produced more than 100 different books, sprawling across topics ranging from the quirky – a runaway pig, a sloth searching for the perfect spot to nap – to the profound – the circle of life, the value of diversity. Although the majority were originally written in English, many have also been translated into other South African languages. The country’s publishing is heavily dominated by titles in English and Afrikaans, which account for nearly 90% of all book sales here. That means few children have access to books in their first language, says Ms. Louw.  

The organization then distributes its books through literacy organizations and other educational charities. It also makes the PDFs of all its books freely available on its website, and sells print copies via an online bookstore for 40 rand ($2.80) each.

In the rural community of Mtwalume on South Africa’s east coast, a community organization called Thanda has long distributed Book Dash books to children to help encourage them to read at home.

“We have a library, but we noticed kids were often reluctant to give the books back,” says Janet Duma, who works on Thanda’s literacy programs. “Now anytime they want to read, they can grab a book from their shelf. They have books accessible to them at all times.”

Reading at home

That mission became especially urgent in March of last year, when South Africa’s schools abruptly shut down as the country went into a coronavirus lockdown. As was the case in countries around the world, parents suddenly became teachers, often without any of the online support systems available to families in wealthier communities.

“Online learning isn’t an option if you don’t have a way to get online,” says Kirstin Nash, the head of marketing, communications, and partnerships at Thanda. So Thanda, which once ran after-school reading programs for local kids, began designing at-home activities like puzzles, art projects, and treasure hunts themed around Book Dash books, and sending Ms. Duma and her colleagues to show families how to use them.

When South Africa’s second wave of COVID-19 infections crested in January 2021, Mtwalume was especially hard hit, Ms. Duma says. That month, Thanda distributed a Book Dash book called “Circles,” about a mother and son vulture pair who watch an old antelope die, and the new circle of life that begins as nature reclaims his body.    

“It’s not just our bodies we leave behind when we die,” the mother explains. “We also leave our lessons and our love and our memories.”

“It was a way to help kids talk about their grieving process,” Ms. Duma says. “And for families to have those conversations together too.”

For Ms. Mkhize, the designer, that’s exactly what she hopes her books will accomplish.

“You see yourself in these stories and these characters,” she says. “You can feel, ‘I am normal, my experiences are normal, and my stories are important too.’”

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