An Ode to Book Dash / by Nick Mulgrew

If there would be one literary thing – one book, one writer, one initiative – that I could tell the entire world about, it would be Book Dash.

A Book Dash is when teams of three literature and design professionals – one writer, one designer and one illustrator – give up a whole Saturday to produce a beautiful children's book, which is then printed out and given to children for free. Free, original, African storybooks.

More than just that, however, the Book Dash aim is to make sure every child in South Africa has a personal library of one hundred books. That's right: each child in this country should grow up owning one hundred books, to read and from which to be read; in their own language; to reflect their realities, their world; to inspire and help them form their identities.

Sounds pipedreamy? Maybe. But a huge book deficit can only be challenged by ambition.

Books in South Africa are the domain of the privileged. Book Dash challenges that.

Books in South Africa are generally the domain of the privileged. Libraries are found mostly in wealthy cities or suburbs; good libraries, even more so. Books for South African children are even harder to find. Go to any given school library or book store (which are even less accessible than libraries for most South Africans!) and you'll find that most children's books reflect European or North American realities: white protagonists, stories only in English, deer and foxes and red-breasted robins. My mum reads to schoolchildren in a relatively poor part of Durban every week, and she finds children have difficulty accepting that, in the books they read, it snows at Christmas!

How do you change that? Well, you can't rely on traditional publishers or bookselling. You need to take a radically different approach. That's what Book Dash does, and why it's so successful.

By using Creative Commons copyright, Book Dash books are free to print, distribute and translate. With creative professionals essentially gifting their time and work, Book Dash books are cheap to print. Modest corporate sponsorships can translate into hand-outs of thousands and thousands of books, for children to own, thus creating a habit of book-ownership and book-reading.

I'm currently sitting at my fifth Book Dash, working for the first time as a writer, along with a designer (and my fiancée) Jennifer Jacobs, and homeboy illustrator king Wesley van Eeden. Every time it is a challenge to produce a high-quality children's book in 12 hours. But every time it is a pleasure, and to see children get their hands on your book.

I'm surrounded by the most fantastic writers – Mohale Moshigo, Fred Strydom, Diane Awerbuck, Bongani Kona, Alex Latimer, and so on – and creative professionals from all over the country. I'm writing a book about a little girl and her pet bird. At Christmas-time, little girls all around the country will be reading this book, thanks to a sponsorship from Woolworths and Shine Literacy.

Even with no pay for this work, even with little professional exposure, even with a full day's work on a Saturday... as a writer, there's very little that's worth as much as that knowledge.