How Book Dash nurtures South Africa’s young readers

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When Thokozani Mkhize was growing up in South Africa in the 1990s, she devoured storybooks from all over the world. She read Chinese myths and Greek legends. There were Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and “Goosebumps” novels.

The one thing she never read though were South African stories.

“At the time I wasn’t really thinking, why do none of these characters look like me?” she says. “But as I grew up, I realized there was a gap.”

So when a friend told Ms. Mkhize, a graphic designer, about a nonprofit organization called Book Dash, which recruits volunteers to write and design South African children’s books, she jumped at the chance to make things different for the generation after her.

Book Dash also intrigued Ms. Mkhize because of its unusual model – it challenged volunteer writers, illustrators, and editors like herself to create a full children’s book, in a single 12-hour “dash.” That allowed the organization to leapfrog most of the traditional costs of publishing and distribute more than a million copies of its books to households on a shoestring budget.

For Book Dash, like Ms. Mkhize, getting books into the hands of more South Africans has always been a question of social justice. Elsewhere in the world, having a large collection of books at home has been shown to be just as significant as the parents’ education level for determining how far a child will go in school, according to a 20-year study from the University of Nevada, Reno. Other studies have shown that having books at home correlates to not only better reading skills, but better math and technology know-how as well.

But nearly 60% of South Africans don’t have a single book at home, according to a 2016 survey by the South African Book Development Council, and 78% of fourth graders in the country can’t read for meaning – to understand a story or argument in a text  – according to a global study conducted that year. Of the 50 countries surveyed in that study, South Africa finished last. And like most inequalities in the country, literacy levels are highly racialized, due in part to a long history of separate and unequal schooling that funneled resources into white schools and deliberately withheld them from Black ones. Eighty-seven percent of students who took the literacy test in Zulu – an indigenous language spoken mostly by Black South Africans – failed, for instance, compared with 57% who took it in English.

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