A Dash to save kids' literacy / by Nick Mulgrew


Published in the Weekend Argus, 21 February 2015.

A late-winter’s morning in central Cape Town. The sun crouches stark and golden over the Grand Parade, where stallholders set up for the morning’s trade. A crowd, forty people, has gathered outside the Central Library nearby, rubbing their hands in the cold. The doors open, and the crowd rushes to the top floor. They take out laptops, tablets and art supplies. Bunting hangs from the rafters, muffins are handed out; the room hums with productivity.

There’s laughter, too – and little wonder. This is a gathering of some of the brightest writers, illustrators and designers in the city. And by the end of today, they will have started and completed ten children’s books between them – colourful, charming tales to give to children anywhere, free of copyright.

From its inception in May 2014, Book Dash has already held three meetings and produced 23 books. This veritable outpouring of literary volunteering was conceived by a trio of publishers, Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews and Tarryn-Anne Anderson. In Anderson’s words, a Book Dash is where teams “work quickly to create a high-quality children’s book in a day.” An attractive idea in its own right, but it’s one that’s also addressing an urgent need: to create a literature for South African children, and to get those children reading.

There are many interventions trying to grow South African children into readers, mostly in response to worryingly inadequate literacy rates. While it’s nearly impossible to present a coherent and up-to-date statistical picture of South African literacy – the sparseness of and discrepancies between sets of data make it more of a stained-glass window – the dysfunction is easy to see.

While literacy rates have improved since the end of apartheid, roughly a quarter of all adults in seven of the country’s nine provinces are illiterate, according to the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation’s 2013 Transformation Audit. Similarly, according to the most recent statistics from the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Equality (SACMEQ), 27% of South African children halfway through their schooling careers are “functionally illiterate” – a term defined by researcher Nic Spaull as the inability to “read a simple paragraph and extract meaning from it”.

The same SACMEQ indicators suggest that as few as 21% of South African schoolchildren have books at home. Additionally, according to child-centric literacy group Nali’bali, 51% of South African homes don’t have access to leisure books, while 85% of people live out of reach of a library. Between dropping circulations in print media and unequal distribution of bookstores and libraries, along with inaccessible internet infrastructure, millions of South Africans simply don’t have much to read.

“We can be sure that most South Africans have never owned a book,” says Attwell, himself a former Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow. “And that’s unacceptable.”

Attwell argues that each South African child should own 100 books by the time they’re five years old – a whole little bookshelf of their own. A huge ambition, but one that got its start in August at a community centre in Mitchell’s Plain, one of South Africa’s most violent townships, when 250 toddlers received a trio of privately-sponsored Book Dash books each.

“As a publisher, strangely, you rarely get to meet your readers,” Attwell says, “so it was extraordinary to hand books to these little, growing people and see their eyes widen.”

“For many, these might've been the first books they'd ever owned,” he says. “My job doesn't get more meaningful than that.”

Attwell, somewhat ironically, has a background in digital publishing; and many literacy organisations in South Africa use digital technology to deliver stories. 

The FunDza Literacy Trust, for instance, uses social networks to deliver serialised fiction to readers, mostly teenagers, on their mobile phones. According to FunDza’s Mignon Hardie, their network has reached 55 000 unique readers in the last four months alone.

Book Dash, in contrast, takes tech-inspired philosophy and applies it to children’s books, requiring that all participants contribute under a Creative Commons licence, which in essence allows free distribution of all books that result from each Book Dash.

This is significant beyond the fact that Book Dash books can be transmitted freely and in any format: Attwell argues that although “there are a lot of great literacy initiatives in South Africa, almost every single one gets their books from commercial publishers. A lot of initiatives use philanthropic money to buy intellectual property – and that’s a waste.”

But cost and coverage aren’t the only issues in creating a children’s literature and closing the literacy gap – content is just as much of a concern. “It’s not enough that there are books,” says Anderson, “but that the books are relevant, too. A lot of children’s books in South Africa are imported – but children need to see their own realities reflected.” The stats back this up: members of the Publisher’s Association of South Africa reported receiving a paltry turnover of R43 230 (US$3 930) from local children’s fiction in 2012, in comparison to R63 861 (US$5 812) for imported books.

Partly in response to the dearth of suitable children’s non-fiction, the third Book Dash resulted in ten new biographies of iconic South African women, including anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu, and humanitarian figurehead Graca Michel, the former First Lady of both South Africa and Mozambique.

And it is perhaps politicians who can help the drive for reading in South Africa gain better purchase. Arabella Koopman, a former publishing director and current materials developer at Nali’bali, argues that government has to pro-actively back literacy initiatives.

“None of us receive government funding, while the reality remains that the government is the biggest buyer of books in South Africa,” she says. “That isn’t going to change anytime soon unless government creates the conditions in which initiatives can be more fruitful.” And that’s urgent, she adds, because “creating a South African children’s literature will help acculturate children to know what it is to be South African; what it is to be human. But creating a children’s literature is a process, not just an event.”