Q & A with Book Dash


I once posted on Facebook, explaining how privilege had manifested in my life… Or more specifically, white privilege. Let’s just say that things got heated. I guess that what I was trying to illustrate, is that privilege does not mean you have not had to work for what you have, or that you have been born with a silver spoon in your mouth…

For me, the most important example I used was of Saturdays spent at the library with my grandfather. Every Saturday morning, my beloved grandfather would take me to the main library, where he would wait patiently as I deliberated over the choices available to me. Some Saturdays, we left with Moomin. I was also especially fond of a children’s adaptation of Shakespearean tales. Most times, after hours of thought, we left with the Adventures of Mrs Pepperpot. Many of us, as children, love to hear our favourite stories over and over, and as for my grandfather who read to me, bless his endurance.

This, I am certain, was my greatest privilege. It was something that set me up for life.

If you can read, if you grow to love reading, the world more often than not, avails itself to you in ways of untold beauty. You learn empathy. The mind expands. You live a thousand lives in one lifetime. You travel beyond your wildest dreams.

So, please, my Christmas wish this year (set aside as it always is with milk stout and cookies) is that we consider our privileges in life, and pay it forward.

On that, note here is a little Q & A with the team from Book Dash who are doing just that… And here’s the best part, you can help too!

The Team

MM: Michelle Matthews (Co-founder and Spot-Prize Luminary)

AA: Arthur Attwell (Co-founder and Tech Wizard)

TA: Tarryn-Anne Anderson (Co-founder and Facilitator Extraordinaire)

JN: Julia Norrish (Programme Director and Resident Newbie)

HP: When was Book Dash launched? 

JN: The first draft of a constitution was signed by all three co-founders at Arthur and Michelle’s house — and also the home of little Aidan Attwell, who played a huge role inspiring Book Dash — on the 24 August 2014, but the idea had been simmering for months already, with the pilot Book Dash day happening on May 10th 2014. Book Dash was registered as an NPO (non-profit organisation) with the Department of Social Development on 27 November 2014.

HP: Fill me in on the brains (or creative minds) behind Book Dash? How did you all come up with the concept and get it off the ground? 

AA: Book Dash is a careful mix of other people’s brilliant ideas. We’d [Arthur, Michelle and Tarryn] all been working in book publishing for years, and were really frustrated by how hard it is to publish children’s books in South Africa viably, despite the immense and desperate need. 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. And it turned out better than we ever expected, and kind of addictive.

Our name is also a nod to Book Sprints, whose founders first showed me it was possible to compress a high-quality publishing process into a matter of hours.

HP: What have been the greatest rewards of the work you do? What helps to motivate  you guys to keep keeping on with the organisation?

JN:  Obviously the end result of children with our beautiful, locally-produced books in their hands is incredibly rewarding, but there have been many other triumphs for Book Dash, I think: wonderful partnerships within the early childhood literacy community, demonstrating the power of creative commons  materials in South Africa and also showing the world what amazing things are possible when people volunteer what skills they have, just for a day.


HP: What do you think a child is missing if they are not afforded the opportunity to accessible reading material?

AA: My heart knows that stories help us make sense of the world, which makes us happier people. My head knows there’s also loads of science showing that children’s brains develop better — especially in the critical first thousand days of life — if they have lots of books. This is not because books themselves are magical. Rather, books provide the perfect way for caregivers and children to share attention, and shared attention is one of the critical ingredients in healthy brain development.

JN: Books encourage empathy — the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes — and I think that is one of the most important things we should be teaching young children growing up in the world today.


HP: What do you try and promote in the literature you make readily available for children? In other words, what do you think makes for a good children’s story?

JN: We try not to produce stories that have too much of a “moral” behind them. While stories are an incredibly powerful medium for education, our purpose is to create books that encourage a love for reading and we believe that children learn this best while truly enjoying a story and not feeling that they are being taught a lesson: I still remember the books from my childhood that made me laugh the most.

We also give writers brief guidelines about how to write for different age groups (number of words, type of words, genre, etc.) but not so much so that they feel constricted.

Our simple aim is to balance quality and quantity in such a way that we produce a vast amount of high-quality African children’s literature so that there is something for every child, and in that way communicate to them that reading is fun.


HP: In her TEDTalk, The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about her experience as a child in Nigeria, without access to books that described her way of life and literature that was truly representative of the experiences of her and her peers… Do you think this is something you try and address in the literature you create and make available to a young and diverse South African audience?

JN: I wasn’t around in the founding months of Book Dash, but when I heard about the initiative, Chimamanda’s TED Talk was one of the first things that came to mind. We absolutely aim to create books that are both exciting, entertaining and relevant to a young, African audience. We encourage writers to consider the majority population in the stories they write.

AA: Yeah, it’s nearly impossible for commercial publishers to invest time and money in developing local literature, because no one can afford to pay for all that work. Since our volunteers do the work of publishers, we’re in a unique position to create the literature that ‘the market’ just can’t.

So you’re doing great things, but how can the public jump on board and support Book Dash in future endeavours?

Book Dash: At each Book Dash, there are approximately 50 participants, each of them an experienced professional in their field: ten writers, ten illustrators and ten designers make up the ten creator-teams. Five editors help the teams refine their story as it becomes a beautiful book. An Art Director acts as a sounding board for illustrators and designers. There’s a Technical Director who can assist with anything tecchy such as scanning, design and computer issues. The Host and Facilitator make sure the day goes smoothly, with the help of a few Logistics Wizards.  A Story Teller, Photographer and Videographer capture this beautiful, creative marathon and share it with the world using the hashtag #bookdash.

In between events, we’re always looking for funding partners to work with, beneficiaries who need books and anyone in media, the public or bloggers like you to spread the Book Dash word!

AA: We keep a list of ways to get involved on our site here: http://bookdash.org/how-to-get-involved/

Finally, in this, the season of giving, what Christmas initiative do you have on the go to bring some cheer into the homes of South Africa’s children this December?

JN: Christmas is such a busy (and expensive!) time so we don’t like to push donations on our supporters, but  we do offer a beautiful, personalized gift certificate for any donations we receive throughout the year. This means you can donate money to us in someone’s name and we’ll send you  a certificate that you can print and give to them as a present! All donations enable us to create, print and freely giveaway more storybooks for African children.



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