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Stories of success — how Book Dash is reimagining publishing to get South African children reading

Stories of success — how Book Dash is reimagining publishing to get South African children reading
About two-thirds of homes with young children have no children’s books. (Photo: Supplied)

The social impact publisher will print a whopping 609,000 kids’ books this month.

Every young child should have access to books. It is this belief that drives the actions of social impact publisher Book Dash, which has embarked on its largest print run yet of 609,000 storybooks this month. The massive undertaking marks two major milestones for the nonprofit organisation: its 10th anniversary and the printing of its four-millionth book.

The Book Dash team is dedicated to addressing the severe book shortage facing young South Africans. An estimated two-thirds of homes with young children do not have a single children’s book, which means most children entering primary school have already lost out on important early learning experiences.

“Book Dash’s vision is that every child should own 100 books by the age of five because we know the impact that owning books has on children’s learning outcomes and their later literacy acquisition,” said executive director Julia Norrish.

“The month of May is significant for Book Dash because our first ever Book Dash book creation event, when we tested the model to make books in 12 hours with volunteer creatives, was in May 2014, so 10 years ago. Since then we’ve created 200 books that way. They’re online for free for anyone to read, and we work to print and distribute hundreds of thousands of those to children across the country.”

Book Dash

Preschool children receive copies of Book Dash storybooks. (Photo: Supplied)

Seeing a need

The poor reading outcomes for children in South Africa have come under public scrutiny in recent years. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2021 results showed that 81% of Grade 4 children were unable to read for meaning in any language.

The disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic set the country’s reading outcomes back by about a decade, according to an analysis by Nic Spaull, an associate professor of economics at Stellenbosch University.

The ECD (early childhood development) Census 2021 found that only 56% of preschools had access to age-appropriate children’s books. This is problematic because, when children under five years have access to books, it increases their school readiness, reading skills and overall academic success, according to Book Dash.

“When very young children read and share books with their caregivers, they develop essential skills that form the foundation of learning to read and write. They learn how to hold a book and how text works on the page. Their vocabulary grows; they start to recognise letters and sounds. They build their comprehension skills and critical thinking,” explained Norrish.

Book Dash

One of Book Dash’s storybooks, Zenande’s Helping Hands. (Photo: Jennifer Khumalo)

“Just as crucially, it builds positive association with books and reading, often called a ‘scholarly orientation’, that persists through life. But most children are arriving at school without these experiences. This makes it much harder for the education system to teach children how to read and write.”

Commercial publishing models are ill-suited to ensuring that every child has access to books, presenting problems of accessibility and affordability. Book Dash has aimed to reimagine traditional publishing processes to find fairer and cheaper ways to get books into young children’s hands. It does this in a number of ways, including bringing creative professionals, such as writers and illustrators, in as volunteers to create brand-new children’s books in just one day.

Funding for printing the books comes from donors and like-minded NGOs.

Together with its long-time collaborator Tandym Print, Book Dash prints hundreds of thousands of books at a time and delivers them in bulk to partner organisations around the country.

“It’s really important for us that all the books we send out into the world, to children and families, have support. So, they’re not being dumped into communities without guidance on how to use a book. Because it’s a very rare tool – 65% of homes with children younger than 10 don’t have any children’s books,” Norrish told Daily Maverick.

“We work with organisations in the early childhood development, healthcare and literacy promotion sectors. We provide them with the books that they use and distribute through their programmes.”

Filling a need

One of Book Dash’s partners is a nonprofit organisation called Masicorp, which operates in Masiphumelele township on the Cape Peninsula, Western Cape. Masicorp has three preschools and an early learning programme for children who attend informal crèches in the community.

Each learner in the three preschools receives four Book Dash storybooks each year. Vicki Rattray, manager of Masicorp’s ECD programme, estimated that the organisation had received about 8,000 books from the publisher since they started working together in 2018.

“Our relationship with Book Dash has been amazing… They are so supportive, giving us books and telling us when their sales are, because that’s when we buy other books… They’re reliable. I don’t know what we would do if they weren’t around. We wouldn’t be able to give our children books,” Rattray said.

Masicorp’s current aim is to ensure that children who attend its preschools from three to six years of age own 12 books by the time they leave. Each child receives two books as part of a graduation pack when they leave Grade R.

Before it partnered with Book Dash, Masicorp would mostly keep books for the children on the preschools’ premises. It was a welcome change to be able to send the books home with the learners, said Rattray.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africans are readers, but face a number of barriers

“We get the books and then the teachers read that book for one or two weeks, so that the children are very familiar with it. Children love repeating the same stories.

“When they take the book home, they’re very familiar with the book, which means they can almost start reading it to their parents or they can sit on their own and read it,” she said.

Having these books at home meant the children became much more comfortable with the idea of reading in other spaces, such as the little library corners at the preschools, she continued.

“The books are just wonderful. They’re so different – the stories are lovely; the pictures are really divine,” said Rattray. “The stories are also very relatable for our children and our staff.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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