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Book Dash strives to make books more accessible to South African kids

In a world full of screens, parents may wonder how they can cultivate a healthy love of reading in their children. The answer is to make sure that there are plenty of books at home for your kids to flip through.

According to a 20-year study from the University of Nevada, Reno, the level of education parents receive is a significant factor in determining how far their children are likely to go in school, but other studies have shown that having a book collection at home is linked to better reading skills as well as better math and technology skills.

However, books aren’t always accessible, especially for underprivileged communities and countries. In South Africa, for instance, getting books into the hands of their citizens is a question of social justice. According to a 2016 survey by the South African Book Development Council, almost 60 percent of South Africans don’t have even one book in their homes, and according to a global study also conducted in 2016, 78 percent of fourth-graders in the country aren’t able to glean meaning from a text.

There were 50 countries included in the global study, and out of all of them, South Africa finished last. The literacy levels in South Africa, like in many countries, are racialized due to a long history of segregation and unequal schooling that favored white schools over Black ones. Today, the main reason why so few households in South Africa have book collections is that they simply cannot afford them.

South African non-profit organization Book Dash, which launched in 2014, is hoping to turn this reality around with its innovative model that recruits volunteers to write and design South African children’s books. Book Dash Director Dorette Louw says, “We were devastated by the idea that having a book was a luxury good in South Africa.” So they came up with a method of providing books to South African children for free or at an affordable price.

The concept is simple. The organization recruits professional writers, illustrators, designers, and editors to volunteer for a 12-hour book-creation “dash.” The organization separates the volunteers into groups of four that include a writer, an editor, an illustrator, and a designer. The writer develops a rough idea for the story ahead of time, and the rest of the team spends 12 hours to complete the entire book.

This allows the Book Dash to circumvent much of the traditional costs of publishing and gets over a million copies of its books to households all while staying within a tight budget. Since its launch, Book Dash has produced more than 100 different books that cover an array of topics from a runaway pig, a sloth searching for the perfect place to nap, the circle of life, and the value of diversity.

Most of the stories are originally written in English, but several have been translated into other South African languages, giving children an opportunity to read something in their first language. The organization distributes the books by partnering with literacy organizations and other educational charities. On their website, the PDFs of all the books are available for free, while the print copies are sold for 40 rands (or $2.80) each.

One of the organization’s volunteer designers, Thokozani Mkhize, recalls the stories she used to read while growing up—and notes that she never felt represented through the characters in the books. “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.”

On top of working to reduce the literacy gap between underserved South Africans and their more privileged counterparts, Book Dash also offers creators an opportunity to spark conversations and write stories that South African children can relate to.

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

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