Books break down literacy barriers

Distributing books to children is key in tackling literacy issues.
Distributing books to children is key in tackling literacy issues.

Flooding the country with high-quality African books is the key to tackling South Africa’s literacy crisis.

This is the objective of non-profit organisation Book Dash, who is reaching out to assist children, one story at a time.

With their overarching strategic objective to send an abundance of beautiful, culturally appropriate books to children who may not have been book owners before – the organisation has also published all its books online where they are free to read via their website or mobile app.

“The 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study results indicated that 78% of the South African Grade 4 children could not read for meaning in any language (Howie, 2017). Although this is a complex issue, with many contributing factors, research clearly indicates that children who grow up in households where there are many books, and where they are often read to from a young age, have higher literacy levels than their peers,” says Book Dash director Dorette Louw.

Louw says exposing children to books at home is beneficial to their education.

“Unfortunately, we know that many South African children grow up without books in the home: a reputable study by the South African Book Development Council found that 58% of households in South Africa don’t own any leisure books, and this lack of reading resources at home exacerbates the existing inequalities and the literacy crisis,” says Louw.

The extended lockdown and school closures have only worsened the crisis.

“During the Covid-19 lockdown period it was starkly highlighted how important it is that children have books at home that they own, and that are shared with them by the adults in their lives,” says Louw.

The organisation was founded in 2014 as a vision project among friends.

Their aim was to pool their collective skills in the publishing industry and flood the country with new, high-quality, affordable African storybooks, says Louw.

“They realised that a very small minority of children in South Africa would ever be in the position to own books, because books are so expensive. In an unequal society like ours this means that books are an unaffordable luxury for families living in poverty,” says Louw.

She adds that the first Book Dash events were held in May and June 2014 in Cape Town.

Heartened by the quality of the books and the enthusiasm of the creative volunteers, co-founders Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews and Tarryn-Anne Anderson established Book Dash as a registered not-for-profit, voluntary association with the aim of continuing to create, print and distribute more books to children – and to prove that high-quality books in many languages can be affordably produced and distributed.

The Book Dash model cuts down about 80% of the normal publishing costs by harnessing the power of creative volunteers and condenses the traditional publishing model – which stretches over many months – into a 12-hour day based entirely on volunteer time, skill and passion, says Louw.

Volunteers are not paid, nor do they get writer’s fees, illustration fees or design and editing fees.

“No-one is paid for their time at a Book Dash event – everyone regards their contribution as a gift to the world, and this enables Book Dash to break down the barriers to literacy by publishing incredibly affordable books where the only cost is printing. Because of this extreme reduction in production costs, we can offer our books at only R10 a copy to our partners who fund large print runs,” says Louw.

Since then, there have been 16 Book Dash events where 146 original African children’s books have been created.

“We know how important it is to be able to read books in the language that you are most familiar with, so the 146 stories have been translated into the official South African languages to build up a library of almost 500 titles,” says Louw.

During lockdown, the organisation has continued printing and distributing books. For 2020 alone, 400 000 have been distributed, with the organisation printing its one millionth book this year.

“Distribution had to be different, with our distribution partners finding innovative ways to continue supporting the families they work with,” Louw explains, adding: “This is an amazing milestone, but because we know how big the need is we are not slowing down – instead we are picking up the pace to print and distribute many millions more in the years to come.”

Additionally, their books are often part of support packs that are given to families and include food and educational materials.

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