It’s mid-afternoon and an intense, focused silence has fallen on the room containing three dozen Cape Town creatives and a jumble of empty coffee cups and half-eaten sausage rolls. A woman deftly watercolors an intricate sketch of an angry penguin while a man uses a digital stylus to add unusually long horns (even by oryx standards) to an oryx. It may not look like it now, but in a few hours’ time, 12 volunteer teams — each comprising a writer, illustrator and designer — will have created 12 children’s books in a single day.
Since their first event in 2014, Book Dash has hosted eleven 12-hour events in cities all over South Africa, creating 108 titles in the process and disseminating 230,000 hard copies to families who simply couldn’t afford to buy them. Putting just one book in a home can spawn a love of reading, says program director Julia Norrish. “A kid doesn’t know they like sugar until they’ve had one sweet.”
Several NGOs in South Africa promote reading, but Book Dash plugs a gap by addressing the shortage of affordable quality content. By condensing a process that usually takes several months into a single day and relying on the generosity of highly skilled volunteers, they have amassed a digital library of 350 titles for next to nothing. Some stories have been translated into all 11 of South Africa’s official languages; most into a handful. With the help of private and public donations and by printing high volumes, the books can be produced for less than $1 per copy.
To achieve so much in such a short space of time requires a rigid structure and a rigorous selection process for would-be volunteers.
Cheap doesn’t mean crummy, Norrish stresses. “We really believe that access to beautiful things shouldn’t be a luxury.” To achieve so much in such a short space of time requires a rigid structure and a rigorous selection process for would-be volunteers. All books are the same length and format (designers are given an InDesign template) and teams are required to submit a double-page spread every 45 minutes. Within this framework, there’s plenty of creative license but — to facilitate translation — rhyming is verboten.
While Book Dash prioritizes putting mother-tongue books in the hands of South African kids who wouldn’t otherwise own any, their Creative Commons license means people throughout the globe can do “whatever they want with the files,” says Norrish — as long as they don’t hijack the Book Dash name. There are “crazy numbers” of translations of Book Dash titles on sites like African Storybook and Story Weaver, she adds, and loads of YouTube adaptations in languages ranging from Polish to Brazilian Portuguese. Norrish gets a real kick out of receiving fan mail from folks who are thrilled to find books that feature “people with brown skin as the main characters.”
Jon Keevy, a freelance writer and dramatist who’s participated in three Book Dash events, will definitely be back for more: In addition to being for a great cause, he says, it’s “such a fun day,” not to mention a wonderful opportunity to network with “delightfully wacky creatives.” Keevy is full of praise for the illustrators who must toil hard for the full 12 hours. Writers, on the other hand, can do much of the work beforehand and thus spend the day itself “massaging the text and acting as cheerleaders for the rest of the team,” says Keevy. “The illustrators don’t get to enjoy the afternoon wine,” he notes with what seems like genuine concern.
Whatever your creative bent, if you’re worried about giving up a whole day of your weekend, says Keevy, “Don’t be. It’s so worth it.”
Get Involved: Book Dash
- Volunteer: If you’re a writer, illustrator or designer based in South Africa (or are willing to travel), join the mailing list to be notified about upcoming events. If you’d like to run a similar event in your country, Norrish will gladly send you a manual containing everything you need to know. firstname.lastname@example.org
- Donate: Book Dash uses donations to print books for less than $1 per copy. Own a printing press? Even better.
- Read: You can read all the books here. Feel free to print, translate or adapt them however you see fit.
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