“We want African stories to be truly accessible to all South African children” – a Q&A with the masterminds behind Book Dash
Carla Lever recently conducted a Q&A with Book Dash co-founder Arthur Attwell and programme director Julia Norrish for Nal’ibali’s weekly column, as published in the Daily Dispatch and Herald. The three discussed fulfilling gaps in the indigenous language storytelling market, the accessibility of African stories, and how you – yes, you! – can get involved with creating a storytelling nation:
You aim for every SA child to own 100 books by the age of five. That sounds overwhelmingly optimistic, but in just three years you’ve already printed over 180 000 books with a price point of R10/copy. What’s your superpower?
Julia: Our superpower is peoplepower! We ask professional writers, illustrators, designers and editors to volunteer their time to create new, high-quality, African children’s books. We waste no time, and we pay no wages. The only cost is printing, and we do that cheaply, too, by working with great printing companies.
You make a point of making your books available in isiZulu, isiXhosa and Sepedi, which means you’re fulfilling a vital gap in the indigenous language storytelling market. What’s the response been like?
Julia: The response has been incredible: we’re thrilled when people request languages other than English, and equally chuffed that we can provide these! We must thank our translation partners for this, most notably Nal’ibali. Of the 183 963 books we’ve printed, 56% have been in English, so it still dominates, but that means there are 79 381 more African indigenous language books in kids’ hands than there were in 2013.
Arthur: Most children’s books published in South Africa are effectively cross-subsidised by textbook sales to government schools – that’s why there are so few. In 2013, of R312 million in local trade publishing revenue, only 0.5% came from books in indigenous languages. The value of mother tongue learning in the early stages of a child’s life has never been as well proven as it is today, and yet the books we’re publishing still aren’t reflecting that. We want African stories to be truly accessible to all South African children.
Your books are all available for free online and through your free Android app. Are they getting widely distributed that way?
Julia: Book Dash’s digital books are particularly powerful because anyone can freely use, translate or adapt the content. Our downloads are in the millions – from as far afield as Turkey, Afghanistan and South America – so we’re having great impact from digital. We’ll always print and distribute physical copies of our books directly to children, though. The authority and power that a print book has is irreplaceable, especially when trying to create avid readers.
How can writers, designers, translators and editors get involved?
Your giveaway events sound like huge fun! Can you tell us about some of the most memorable exchanges with children and educators that you’ve had?
Arthur: My most memorable giveaway is still the first one, at Jireh Community Centre in Mitchells Plain. We gave each child three books that day. One boy, who must have been three years old, took his first book and walked off, so we had to call him back to get another, which made him very happy. And then he walked off again! When we called him back for his third book his eyes were as big as saucers. It’s really important for everyone to start thinking big numbers when it comes to giving books away.
What role do donors and sponsors play in your operation?
Julia: They’re invaluable and we’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the most generous and insightful organisations out there. Our first ever print run was made possible by crowdfunding and we’re still so grateful when people choose to donate. People can also support by purchasing copies of our books from various retailers or directly from us at www.bookdash.org.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to enter its national multilingual storytelling competition, ‘Story Bosso’, running this September, visit www.nalibali.org.