BookDash – Creative Commons Stories For Children

I’ve recently been uploading quite a few books from BookDash, a South African Non-Profit organisation that is as passionate about getting books to kids as we are.

If you’ve wondered like me how they manage to create all the wonderful books, and make them fly free on the internet, as creative commons contributions, here below is some Questions and Answers from the creators that tell us more about this.

BookDash Q&A

MM: Michelle Matthews (Co-founder and Spot-Prize Luminary)

AA: Arthur Attwell (Co-founder and Tech Wizard)

TA: Tarryn-Anne Anderson (Co-founder and Facilitator Extraordinaire)

JN: Julia Norrish (Programme Director and Resident Newbie)

1. What and who is Book Dash?

AA: Book Dash gathers professional creatives – writers, illustrators, designers, editors – who volunteer to create high-quality children’s books that anyone can freely download, translate, print and distribute. Most of the work is done on a Book Dash day, when small teams work for over twelve straight hours, each producing a new book. Those days are the heart of Book Dash. Then, between Book Dash days, we help funders print and give away thousands of books to children. We have a tiny, mostly volunteer team coordinating everything: Julia Norrish, Michelle Matthews, Tarryn-Anne Anderson and me.

2. What is your vision?

AA: At BookDash we believe every child should own a hundred books by the age of five.

3. Fill us in on the brains (or creative minds) behind Book Dash? How did you all come up with the concept and get it off the ground? (And when was Book Dash launched….)

AA:​Book Dash is a careful mix of other people’s brilliant ideas. We’d [Arthur, Michelle and Tarryn] all been working in book publishing for years, and were really frustrated by how hard it is to publish children’s books in South Africa viably, despite the immense and desperate need. I knew about projects that created children’s books by volunteers, like Pratham Books and the African Storybook Project, and about others that created books in one-off hackathons, like Book Sprints. So we called a bunch of our creative friends, and spent a day making children’s books together. And it turned out better than we ever expected, and kind of addictive.

Our name is also a nod to Book Sprints, whose founders first showed me it was possible to compress a high-quality publishing process into a matter of hours.

JN: ​The first draft of a constitution was signed by all three co-founders at Arthur and Michelle’s house –and also the home of little Aidan Attwell, who played a huge role inspiring Book Dash — on the 24 August 2014, but the idea had been simmering for months already, with the pilot Book Dash day happening on May 10th 2014. Book Dash was registered as an NPO (non-profit organisation) with the Department of Social Development on 27 November 2014.

4. What have been the greatest rewards of the work you do? What helps to motivate you guys to keep keeping on with the organisation?

JN: Obviously the end result of children with our beautiful, locally-produced books in their hands is incredibly rewarding, but there have been many other triumphs for Book Dash, I think: wonderful partnerships within the early childhood literacy community, demonstrating the power of creative commons materials in South Africa and also showing the world what amazing things are possible when people volunteer what skills they have, just for a day.

5. What do you think a child is missing if they are not afforded the opportunity to accessible reading material?

AA: My heart knows that stories help us make sense of the world, which makes us happier people. My head knows there’s also loads of science showing that children’s brains develop better — especially in the critical first thousand days of life — if they have lots of books. This is not because books themselves are magical. Rather, books provide the perfect way for caregivers and children to share attention, and shared attention is one of the critical ingredients in healthy brain development.

6. What does BookDash try and promote in the literature you make readily available for children? In other words, what do you think makes for a good children’s story?

JN: We try not to produce stories that have too much of a “moral” behind them. While stories are an incredibly powerful medium for education, our purpose is to create books that encourage a love for reading and we believe that children learn this best while truly enjoying a story and not feeling as though they are being taught a lesson: I still remember the books from my childhood that made me laugh the most.

We give writers brief guidelines about how to write for different age groups (number of words, type of words, genre etc) but not so much so that they feel constricted. We’re very upfront with all our creative volunteers (no matter their own background) that we are creating literature for the average South African child and that characters, names, landscapes should be diverse and relatable.

Our simple aim is to balance quality and quantity in such a way that we produce a vast amount of high-quality African children’s literature so that there is something for every child, and in that way communicate to them that reading is fun and that they are valuable.

7. In her TEDTalk, The danger of a single story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks about her experience as a child in Nigeria, without access to books that described her way of life, literature that was truly relatable and representative of the experiences of her and her peers… Do you think this is something you try and address in the literature you create and make available to a young and diverse South African audience?

JN: I wasn’t around in the founding months of Book Dash, but when I heard about the initiative, Chimamanda’s TED Talk was one of the first things that came to mind. We absolutely aim to create books that are both exciting, entertaining and relevant to a young, African audience. ​We do encourage writers to consider the majority population and writes stories

AA: Yeah, it’s nearly impossible for commercial publishers to invest time and money in developing local literature, because no one can afford to pay for all that work. Since our volunteers do the work of publishers, we’re in a unique position to create the literature that ‘the market’ just can’t.

8. So you’re doing great things, but how can the public jump on board and support BookDash in future endeavours?

Book Dash: At each Book Dash, there are approximately 50 participants, each of them an experienced professional in their field: ten writers, ten illustrators and ten designers make up the ten creator-teams. Five editors help the teams refine their story as it becomes a beautiful book. An Art Director acts as a sounding board for illustrators and designers. There’s a Technical Director who can assist with anything tecchy such as scanning, design and computer issues. The Host and Facilitator make sure the day goes smoothly, with the help of a few Logistics Wizards. A Story Teller, Photographer and Videographer capture this beautiful, creative marathon and share it with the world using the hashtag #bookdash.

In between events, we’re always looking for funding partners to work with, beneficiaries who need books and anyone in media, the public or bloggers like you to spread the Book Dash word!

AA: We keep a list of ways to get involved on our site here:

JN: We also offer a beautiful, personalized gift certificate for any donations we receive throughout the year. This means you can donate money to us in someone’s name and we’ll send you a certificate that you can print and give to them as a present. You can also buy our books from us for R100, a price that includes a donation. All donations enable us to create, print and freely giveaway more storybooks for African children.

9. How many events has BookDash done so far? And how many books have been made?

AA: We’ve held six Book Dash days so far, which have produced 52 original books and many have been translated, too, from our own funding or by partner organisations such as Nal’ibali or the African Storybook Project. Of these, 49 are print-ready and available for reading and download on and the Book Dash Android app. The rest are being finalised. The finalising involves gathering a few last illustrations, high-end scanning, proofreading, and publishing admin like adding ISBNs and barcodes. Once the books reach our site, they are as professionally produced as anything you’ll find in a bookstore.

10. How does BookDash match writers, designers and illustrators into awesome book-making teams?

JN: The selection process is pretty rigorous. We send out a call for applications two months before the event and give a month or so for the word to spread and for creatives to apply. The application form is very short and simple, but requires a link to some form of portfolio or evidence of work. Once we have this, we shortlist applicants while keeping in mind that we require ten designers, ten illustrators and ten writers for each event as well as five editors, logistics wizards, a tech director, art director and a photographer/videographer. It’s a lot to ask from one city which is why we tend to stick to Cape Town, Jo’burg and now Durban.

Once we have selected who we would like to participate, we begin to match teams together: one writer, illustrator and designer. We’ve already had a look at their portfolios so we have a pretty good “feel” for their work. We look at writing, illustration and design style far more than gender, age or race. That’s the beauty of Book Dash: everyone unites under the common goal of getting beautiful, African books to kids who need them.

AA: It’s a big, tough job to finish a book in a day, so it’s critical that every volunteer is very experienced, and very good at what they do. It’s also very important that we have diversity in the room, so that we don’t all make the same kind of book. We need great talent in a range of languages, backgrounds, ages and genders. We find out as much as we can about every participant before we set the teams. Most of them have never met before, and it’s critical that every team has great chemistry. Often we just get really lucky!

AA: It’s really important that creatives puts lots of examples of their work online. If we can’t find someone’s work online, we won’t take a chance on them. Once or twice, we’ve risked including someone with a tiny portfolio, and then discovered at a Book Dash that they are really incredibly talented. And I always think, “Hey, put more of your stuff online! People should know about you!”

TA: We do a LOT of research (read: stalking) of people online. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to know a participant directly or indirectly, and have a sense of who they would work well with. We have been lucky that all of our pairings have worked out well thus far. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that any person who is willing to donate 12 long hours of their day is probably a genuinely lovely human, and we’re lucky to be putting all these lovely humans in one room together.

11. At BookDash events you are condensing the months-long publishing process into 12 hours without skipping out any steps. How do you manage it?

AA: There are dozens of tiny tricks we use to make this possible, and with every Book Dash we refine and improve them. For instance, writers and illustrators create story outlines and rough character sketches before the day; we use clear roles, rules, guidelines and templates, while still allowing space at the heart of each book for spontaneous creativity. We also care about every single minute: if you see our Book Dash Manual, you’ll see the timeline for the day is very specific. Even the food on the day is specially chosen to keep energy levels consistently high.

AA: Traditional publishing processes get dragged out by inefficient systems, incompatible workflows and software, competing interests, learning curves, financial admin, physical distance, and a lack of urgency and common purpose. Book Dash is designed specifically to avoid these gremlins, and I don’t think we could have done it if we hadn’t been seen them hundreds of times before.

TA: What Arthur said, plus a little bit of magic.

12. What is your favourite part about the BookDash events?

TA-AA: My favourite part starts early on, when the team gets together at the beginning of the day. Despite often never having met their team members before, they are excited and keen and gushing about how much they loved the story/initial sketches. It’s so great to see that energy and excitement let loose. And it’s amazing to consider that it’s enough to keep them going the whole day. There’s also a moment at the very end of the day, when we do show-and-tell. When a team reads out their story and the other teams gasp at the illustrations, or laugh in the right place of the story – the look on the writer, illustrator, and designers’ faces are priceless. I think it’s rare to get that spontaneous, true and immediate feedback in relation to your work. Especially from your peers.

MM: There’s a point, around mid-afternoon, when the story has been edited and at least four or five illustrations are done, when I can suddenly “see” the final book: That’s when I get really excited! It’s about the same time that teams hit their stride and team members really start to bond: I love seeing those friendships form.

JN: For me, it’s seeing junior creatives getting to work alongside some of their heroes – as equals. Everyone is really in it together on the day and the less-experienced participants step up to the challenge. We don’t only create children’s books at Book Dash days, we mould creatives.

AA: The day is full of highs, but I always get trippy around 11am when illustrators’ first finished art starts appearing, and suddenly everyone is glancing around, thinking ,”Holy moly, we’re making world-class books here, we really are!”

13. As a team you have a fantastic way of keeping up morale, encouraging the teams and guiding us all through the process. Your enthusiasm is catching. Do you have some philosophy on how you approach volunteers?

MM: Our approach? Lots of food, lots of empathy and lots of (friendly) pressure! We want Book Dash volunteers to have an awesome time, but also feel they’ve got something to show at the end of the day, so we have to balance the fun and the goals for the day. Book Dash is like the “Comrades of Creativity”: Lots of highs, perhaps a few lows, but a terrific sense of accomplishment at the end.

TA: Regarding the energy: we are all quite mad in our own special ways. We’re just very lucky that it meshes so well together!

14. BookDash partners with some amazing organisations to make sure the books are utilized, translated, printed and distributed. Tell us a little bit about these other organisations.

ASP​: The African Storybook Project translate many of the stories created by Book Dashers and publish them on their website. We’ve had stories translated into all of the eleven official South African languages, but also into French, Kiswahili, Luganda, Lugbarati, Lunyole, Yoruba, Amharic, German, Ng’aturkana and Oluwanga – it’s pretty awesome. You can see their website here: (The books aren’t credited to Book Dash, but rather to the creator-team so if you search their surnames you should find some Book Dash books!)

Masikhule​: Masikhule works with about 1800 children across the Western Cape, mostly by supporting day-care centres and schools. When we have lots of books to give away, they coordinate a range of grassroots organisations who put the books into children’s hands.

Shine​: Shine runs literacy-development programmes through their Shine centres, chapters, parents-training and book-buddies initiatives. Shine use our books in different ways: for volunteer training, reading groups, parent training and also to give to the children they work with.

Wordworks: ​Wordworks also help us get our books to children. They run programmes with parents, volunteer tutors and home visitors to help children learn to read and write successfully. We’re excited by how innovatively Wordworks are using our books. Not only do they use them in parent workshops, but they also give them to their home-visitors who take literacy to the most rural and unreachable parts of South Africa. Another initiative they run is to sell the books very cheaply to women who sell them at a small markup to other parents and teachers. This is an awesome way to spread literacy while encouraging female entrepreneurship.

Nal’ibali: ​Nal’ibali is a national reading-for-enjoyment campaign – they’re amazing and their website is full of resources that can be used to encourage literacy. Every week, in partnership with national and local newspapers, Nal’ibali publish a newspaper supplement that aims to make literacy fun and accessible. They have used six of our Book Dash stories for these supplements! All the supplements are bilingual, and Nal’ibali has arranged those translations, and contributed them back to us. This is hugely helpful because paying a professional translator can be expensive. ​features our books and some of them have up to 148 000 downloads!

Bookdash-Books on FKB

15. What creative pursuits do you do to keep yourself charged and ready to inspire others?

AA: I’ve run a small publishing-innovation company for ten years, and there I write and design and code and experiment. But I reckon the most creative thing I get to do is spend time with our three-year-old son Aidan, especially when I’m reading to him. I don’t think Book Dash would exist if I hadn’t seen, first-hand and up close, how a child’s brain develops and how amazing it is to share books together.

JN: We’re all naturally creative people, I think. I have an academic background in French and English Literature and Art History and a practical experience in Early Childhood Education (children are the most creative beings!). I read too much, fulfill my (and everyone else’s) quota for going to live music gigs and doodle on my bedroom walls.

TA: I love stories and I fill my brain with them from many different sources (from websites, to news articles, to TV and books). I’ll talk endlessly about character arcs and plotlines with anyone who will listen. I write a bit, and draw when the mood hits me (a glass of wine is usually involved).

16. What are your favourite children’s books: titles and authors that were read to you as a child and/or you enjoy reading to the kids in your life?

TA: I read a lot of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton growing up. Julia Donaldson is great to read to kids, and Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men books, too.

JN: My absolute favourite book as a child was “Mortimer” by Robert Munsch. I would make my parents read it to me endlessly. As I got older, I loved to read Winnie the Pooh and then the Animal Ark books.

Now, my favourite books to read to kids are Dr Seuess’ because it’s a challenge to see how fast I can read without making a mistake and we usually all end up in fits of giggles.

AA and MM: Aidan absolutely loves “I Want My Hat Back” by Jon Klaasen and the humour is so clever that it’s one of our favourites, too!

17. What is Book Dash most proud of in terms of the great things the organization has provided to society?

We’re most proud of the fact that over 60 000 beautiful Book Dash books have been distributed to children since we started Book Dash in 2014. This has been mainly through donor funding, but also sell books to libraries and individuals. We’ve also really prioritised translations into all South African languages as it’s so important for children to be reading in their mothertongue. Book Dash events build up the industry as well — we provide basic training and the connections made between creatives are significant — and that benefits future book-making in South Africa as a whole. We’ve also given many young creatives the opportunity to publish their first ever children’s book. We’re also especially proud of worldwide developments that come about because of our open license on all our content: for example, our books have been adapted into Urdu and are used by a literacy organisation in Pakistan to spark a love for reading. The open-license meant that they didn’t have to pay for our content at all, they could just get straight to making a difference. Our free Android app also has over 1 000 downloads and a stellar 4.7 star-rating, and we’re very proud of that!

18. Has the vision changed since Book Dash was first being created until now? Has there been shifting of priorities and/or mission statement?

Our ideas around how to implement the ambitious vision have changed and shifted (as they always need to do as any organisation grows), but our vision of every child owning 100 books by the age of five has remained consistent and it has guided us through a lot of difficult decisions! We truly believe in starting and leaving a legacy. Our huge vision requires us to give away millions and millions of books; we know that it may take a long time, but it’s important to think big and many years into the future.

19. What is in store for the future of Book Dash?

We’re constantly seeking to better and improve ourselves and our processes in order to wrk towards that vision: We’d like to have at least 100 different titles published (there are currently 49 on our website), that are translated into all 11 official languages and made freely available to children under the age of five via a variety of platforms, physical and digital.

Editor: This is a very inspiring tale, those out there with books, think about giving back by putting them into creative commons, and if you like send them to us to publish and let them ‘fly free on the internet’.

Look out for more great picture books from Book Dash at Free Kids Books soon. 


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