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Ready, steady, read!

2017-04-16 00:03
Teams of volunteer writers, illustrators and designers are hard at work to meet their tight deadlines at the Book Dash in Rosebank, Johannesburg – the ninth so far this year. Picture: Avantika Seeth

Teams of volunteer writers, illustrators and designers are hard at work to meet their tight deadlines at the Book Dash in Rosebank, Johannesburg – the ninth so far this year. Picture: Avantika Seeth

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Avantika Seeth

Outside, rain clouds tower over the Johannesburg skyline. Inside, in a large, open room packed with 12 work stations housing teams of authors, illustrators and designers, an air of intense focus is ruptured by stirrings of creative activity.

At one table, a painter mixes colours on his palette. The illustrator sitting next to him tweaks a character on his MacBook to match the new scheme. This is traditional art and technology working in harmony.

At another table, an author describes the story she is writing to her team. It is dedicated to her son, who passed away in 2015, and is about a miracle child born with a full set of teeth.

Magical creativity

Anyone stumbling across this room at the Goethe-Institut of Language Studies in Rosebank would be impressed at seeing such talent in action, especially when told of the objectives of the creative collaboration.

Called Book Dash, this association of volunteers works to create 12 children’s books in 12 hours. The finished products are then available free of charge.

This is the ninth collaboration thus far.

Book Dash was conceptualised three years ago as a call to harness the skills of professional African writers, illustrators, designers and editors, with the aim of creating children’s books for free use and distribution locally and internationally.

“Book Dash is an organisation that believes that every child should own a book by the age of five,” says co-founder Arthur Attwell.

Attwell, who is involved in the publishing industry, says one of the biggest benefits of an initiative such as this is that funders and sponsors partner with Book Dash to produce large print runs of the books, which can then be given away to thousands of children and libraries around the country.

To date, more than 120 000 printed copies have been given away, and hundreds of thousands of free online downloads have occurred.

This year, a move towards harnessing Pan-African talent has emerged.

“Today, we have books written and illustrated by people from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and other countries, which is very exciting,” says Attwell.

Decolonisation for children

Topics such as the decolonisation of literature, increased access to books and more African stories have been the forefront of public debate recently, and Attwell is a firm believer in how the Book Dash movement is helping to transform the industry.

“The bottom line is that many countries in the world, particularly African countries, suffer from a poorly developed publishing industry for reasons related to colonial issues and the consequences of colonialism, as well as the simple difficulty that books are seen as luxuries,” says Attwell.

Another primary aim of Book Dash is to make books available cheaply or free of charge, so they come to be regarded as everyday items rather than as luxury goods that can only be purchased once in a while.

“This is a goal that so many different countries share. One of the other challenges we share is that, often, the books we want for our children are imported titles,” explains Attwell.

Of the many astounding features of Book Dash is that the books can be – and are – crowd-translated, through open-source licensing, by any person or organisation which downloads them, making them accessible to an even broader audience.

“On our website we have about 200 different titles, if you add in all the languages that are available for other organisations or individuals to use,” says Attwell.

All are available in English, and you will also find multiple offerings in isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenga, Xitsonga, Afrikaans and French.

Recently, organisations from Brazil and Pakistan got in touch with Book Dash.

“The other day, we were sent images of our books, which were translated into Urdu from someone in Pakistan, and a team in Brazil was translating the books into Portuguese,” says Attwell.

Mogau has a gift

The books are created according to strict guidelines, and have a 32-page count – 12 pages are illustrated and 24 have text. “This is in order to ensure that these books can be successfully produced within the time limit of 12 hours,” explains Attwell.

Simple characterisation and storylines are conceptualised, the goal being to produce diverse, high-quality books.

Lorato Trok, who started writing from the age of eight, was one of the writers invited to be part of today’s Book Dash.

“There were hundreds of writers who applied for this. I was one of the few who was selected, so I am very happy to be here,” Trok said. Hers is the story dedicated to her late son.

“It is a personal story, called Mogau’s Gift, in celebration of my son’s life. In a nutshell, it tells of a miracle boy, born with a full set of teeth. The villagers were astounded by this boy, who came along and changed their lives. By the time he was six months old, he could walk and talk and paint,” said Trok.

“His mother took him out of the village. The two travelled and visited a village which looked exactly like the one Mogau had painted. He eventually became king of the village.”

Trok has just met the illustrator and designer she is working with.

“Writing for children is not easy, but you have to put yourself in their shoes and become a child in that sense. For me, you cannot write without first becoming a reader,” she says with a smile on her face.

- The books are free to download at

Read more on:    johannesburg


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