Readers’ club: Book Dash is a nonprofit organisation determined to get South African children to read stories that reflect who they are. Picture: SUPPLIED
Readers’ club: Book Dash is a nonprofit organisation determined to get South African children to read stories that reflect who they are. Picture: SUPPLIED

Book Dash is a non-profit organisation on a mission to make sure every child in SA owns at least 100 books by the age of five.

"My co-founders and I had all been in book publishing for years and were frustrated by how hard it is to publish children’s books in SA viably, despite the immense and desperate need," says its chairman Arthur Attwell.

"I knew about projects that created children’s books by volunteers like Pratham Books and the African Storybook Project and about others that created books in one-off hackathons, like Book Sprints.

"So, we called a bunch of our creative friends and spent a day making children’s books together. It turned out better than we ever expected and kind of addictive."

At the first Book Dash day in May 2014, two teams made two books at Attwell’s Cape Town office. A few months later, after a successful 10-team Book Dash at the Cape Town Library, the founders decided to make things official and formed the nonprofit organisation in August that year.

"Book Dash is founded on an ethos of giving," programme director Julia Norrish says. "To this day, everything we and our volunteers create is a gift to the world. When we started, many gave their time for free because they believed in our vision. That got us to a point where we had digital files of beautiful books accessible for free online, but we’ve always maintained that printed books in homes and in hands are the real way to inspire reading.

"Our first ever print run of physical books was made possible by a crowdfunding campaign. We raised R80,000 and printed over 4,000 books. Three years later, we’re sitting at 180,000 books printed."

Book Dash gathers professional creatives – writers, illustrators, designers, editors – who volunteer to create high-quality children’s books that anyone can download, translate, print and distribute.

Most of the work is done on a Book Dash day, when small teams work for more than 12 hours, each producing a new book. "In those 12 hours, we are condensing the month-long publishing process without skipping any steps.

"For instance, writers and illustrators create story outlines and rough character sketches before the day; we use clear roles, rules, guidelines and templates, while still allowing space at the heart of each book for spontaneous creativity," Attwell says.

"We also care about every single minute: if you see our Book Dash manual, the timeline for the day is specific. Even the food is chosen to keep energy levels high," Attwell says.

Book Dash encourages its teams to create stories for children, aged six and younger, who don’t normally see themselves in books. The hope is that there’s at least one book within its growing catalogue that appeals to a child.

"Each child is unique, so if we want them to be able to see themselves in a book, we need to keep making lots of beautiful new ones," Norrish says.

"We want to see all South Africans who work hard but don’t necessarily have spare money for books using this amazing free resource to enjoy with their children. We also aim to translate the books from the original language into each of SA’s official languages so that they are truly accessible: pricewise, context-wise, and languagewise."

Because its open source licence means that anyone can use or adapt its content without permission or notification, it’s impossible to say how many readers or downloads Book Dash has had.

But the organisation knows that its books are used across several free reading platforms such as StoryWeaver, African Storybook Project, All Children Reading, Vodacom Digital Classroom, Snapplify, FundZa, Bloom Digital Library, and Worldreader. There have also been translations by other publishers around the world.

"Through these various platforms, our downloads are in the millions," Norrish says.

"Our app has 50,000 downloads and a 4.4-star rating; it was developed by volunteer Rebecca Franks, who believes in what we do.

"We’ve produced 85 unique titles, plus about 200 translations and distributed 150,000 copies of these books, with 30,000 more currently on the press.

"We’ve worked with 10 or so major funders to do so, plus hundreds of distribution partners and literacy organisations who often buy books from us at a 50% discount," Norrish says.

It’s also impossible to say which books have been the most popular. But when Book Dash does big print runs and asks its partner organisations which titles they want for their children, the answers are always happy surprises.

"Everyone has a different favourite, which must be influenced by many different factors," Attwell says.

"We’ve also seen groups of children choose between books, and it’s amazing to see how they consistently choose the books whose characters look like them. Children love to see themselves in their books, and it’s special that we make that possible."

Attwell describes Book Dash’s first crowdfunding campaign as a huge milestone because it marked the first big print run and let the organisation test economies of scale. Another was teaming up with novelist Lauren Beukes and food franchise Nandos to raise money for a big print run.

Attwell says Book Dash is constantly refining its processes. "We’ve made a conscious decision to grow in impact but not in staff. Once you start seeing success, opportunities queue up and you have to constantly turn them down if you want to stay good at what you do."

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