Book Dash – an Innovative Approach to Children’s Literacy

Chloe Rushovich is a current MPhil student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in Children’s Literature. She previously studied English Language and Literature and Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town, and is happy to return to academia after having worked as a harried Historical Studies tutor, and an enthusiastic archivist for the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative.

I am from South Africa. This is something that people learn about pretty much as soon as they meet me. The accent usually gives it away, but I am also rather prone to talking about how much I love and miss South Africa (probably to annoyance of everyone around me). However, when choosing to embark on my postgraduate studies, I felt that I had to leave South Africa in order to be able to study Children’s Literature, as, currently, there is little space within South African academia in which to do so.

In addition to this lack of South African academia focusing on children’s literature, there is also a general absence of children’s literature made by and for South Africans. The books that I read as a child were primarily written by British and American authors. When I did read texts by South African writers, they tended to be highly didactic, highly moralistic books, seemingly written for the express purpose of being used for teaching in schools. One year I was forced to read two separate books, one in English and one in Afrikaans, in which the main character’s brother died after having contracted HIV. Like me, countless South African students have grimaced their way through book after book about the dangers of drugs, guns, and STIs. The South African literature that I grew up with was laborious and boring.

The lack of exciting, interesting literature written by and for South Africans is a problem which itself lies alongside an even greater and more concerning issue: the majority of the country has insufficient access to children’s literature. Several factors contribute to this lack: the cost of publishing locally written books is high and the cost of purchasing books that have been locally produced and published is high. Many people simply cannot afford to buy their children books to read for pleasure. The books that are available also tend to be written in English or Afrikaans, which means that there are innumerable children who do not have access to books written in their own languages (South Africa has 11 official languages, of which English and Afrikaans are just two). There is also a lack of a reading culture in some areas of the country, owing to the multigenerational effects of the poor and discriminatory educational standards of the Bantu schooling system under the Apartheid regime.

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Photo credit: Chloe Rushovich

This is where initiatives such as Book Dash come in. While there are many NGOs in South Africa who work to promote literacy amongst both the young and old, Book Dash stands apart in that they are actively encouraging the production of fun and engaging, locally produced books, for cheap. The way that Book Dash runs is innovative in its simplicity. The organisers run an annual event in which volunteers gather together in various cities across the country to produce new works of children’s literature in the space of 12 hours. On top of the fact that the volunteers offer their time and talent for free, Book Dash receives donations, and prints their books in high volume to lower costs. This means that the books they produce are not only cheap to make, they are cheap to purchase.

However, the organisers make every effort to ensure that, even though the books are cheap, they are of high quality. They carefully select their volunteers, who are split into groups of one designer, one author, and one illustrator per group. The core groups of volunteers are supported by a team of editors, technical. The groups are given a specific structure to adhere to, and they are required to hand in a double spread page once every 45 minutes. To facilitate translation, rhyming is not allowed. Translation is one of the key goals of the organisation. Many of the Book Dash books are either originally written in or translated into at least some, if not all, of South Africa’s official languages. All of the books exist under a Creative Commons license, which allows for broader translation to happen across the world, with the proviso that Book Dash, and its authors, designers and illustrators, maintain credit for their creative output. These books not only help remedy the dearth of books written for children in many of South Africa’s official languages but provide children with books written in their first language which feature characters who look like them and who are from places that they recognise.

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Photo credit: Chloe Rushovich

Book Dash works with early-childhood and literacy organisations to give away free books in print-form to children across South Africa. These books are also available, cheaply, in bookstores. But they don’t just stop there – all of their books are available in print-ready PDF form online, as well as in e-book or e-reader format. All of their online resources are completely free. This approach allows for a far more wide-reaching effect.

Initiatives like Book Dash show us a potentially different avenue of children’s literature publishing, one which privileges childhood literacy and reading over profit. It is a bit extreme in its execution, and there are obvious creative and literary limits to the short time frame in which these books are produced. However, I think the work undertaken by Book Dash is important, and serves as inspiration for us when we consider children’s literature publishing and its outputs. Sitting in Cambridge, studying lofty theories of narrative and form, it is often easy to forget that many children don’t have access to any books, let alone books that are written in their own languages, about people who look like them. This kind of representation matters. Access to books matters. Access to good books matters even more.  And, despite its flaws, initiatives like Book Dash are a good starting point to helping children throughout the world discover that thing that we all relish; the joy of a good book.

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