If there would be one thing in South African literature – one book, one writer, one initiative – that I could tell everyone 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 children's book, which is then printed out and given to children for free. Free, original, African storybooks.
The Book Dash aim is to make sure every child in South Africa has a personal library of one hundred books. Their idea is that 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.
Pipedream-y? Maybe. But a huge book deficit can only be challenged by ambition.
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. Places where it snows at Christmas.
How do you change that? You can't rely on traditional publishers or bookselling. You need to take a radically different approach.
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 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 currently 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.