A few key players at Book Dash reflect on what they’ve learnt over the last 12 months of the coronavirus pandemic and the impact in the worlds of publishing, representation and social impact.
The significance of diversity and representation in what we read
2020 has taught me that in the midst of so much chaos, confusion and hurt in the world, it is important more than ever to instil love and inspire acceptance into the hearts of everyone we can. A perfect place to start is with our children.
As a child growing up in South Africa, very little if at all, that I read and saw in the media represented my reality. There was no white Christmas nor was there a subway like the one in Manhattan or yellow cabs to get me from point A to point B.
What became clear though as I grew older, was that the media I consumed used examples drawn from totally different set of life experiences. No one “out there” looked or sounded anything like me. The subtle message I received was that my own life experiences didn’t matter.
Today as a parent and writer, I have a responsibility to children to make sure that no other child feels like they do not belong or matter. Thanks to Book Dash that we can strive to create a world in which all children can see themselves represented in the pages of a book while also making these books accessible to them in their home languages.
Mathapelo Mabaso is a brand strategist and volunteer writer for Book Dash
The necessity of physical reading material in the home
There is consensus that in 2020, most children worldwide spent too much time in front of screens as families under lockdown tried to keep children occupied and stimulated, while parents worked from home. Although online resources were a godsend, the pandemic also highlighted the importance of having printed books in the home.
Firstly, there is the scientific argument: the research is clear on the advantage of printed books over screen time for preschool children. A child’s brain develops the most rapidly in the first 5 years of their life, and reading printed books helps to increase and organise the brain’s white matter, setting the brain up for optimal learning going forward. “When it came to screen time, kids who used screens more than one hour a day had poorer emerging literacy skills, less ability to use expressive language, and tested lower on the ability to rapidly name objects. In contrast, children who frequently read books with their caregiver scored higher on cognitive tests.” This is the conclusion of clinicians at the Cincinnati Children’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center.
Secondly, there is the reality of many South African that are excluded from using online resources because of issues around digital access, the high cost of data and the low penetration of smart devices. Printed books play a crucial role in supporting preschool children’s development and preparing them for school, and never more so than during lockdown when many of Book Dash’s ECD distribution partners managed to keep sending our books home to the children in their care. The consistent feedback from families is that these books have been a refuge for children and adults alike, creating a spark for a shared, fun activity that strengthens emotional bonds and increases feelings of security.
Dorette Louw is a Director at Book Dash
The poignancy of generosity and an “open” approach to resources
If there were ever a time to consider generosity as a doctrine, it was 2020. As Arundhati Roy said in an interview in April, “This virus has worked like an MRI or like an X-Ray on societies & countries and exposed their barebones … amplifying all the weaknesses, all the injustices…” Individuals, organisations and countries were forced to recognise rampant inequality and make a choice: Some doubled-down and stockpiled resources for themselves, while many chose to share what they had in the hopes of creating a more equal experience for all, enacting the adage “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”
A large number of institutions, especially those in education chose to reduce barriers to their content this year — embracing a spirit of sharing that for-profit businesses don’t often consider in their models. Snapplify opened their library of local educational materials for free access and Tanzanian-based children’s edutainment powerhouse Ubongo chose to reclassify all their content from copyright-protected to Creative Commons licensing. They joined a league of organisations worldwide who create and share and advocate for high quality “open educational resources” (OER).
At Book Dash, this doctrine of “open” has defined our approach from the start: We always knew that an open license would enable exponential impact for our beautiful African picturebooks to travel unbounded, even when we can’t. This means the books are free to read, download, adapt and print. We were inspired early on by organisations leading the way and we were lucky enough to present alongside some at celebrations of “open” like the Open Publishing Fest, hosted by leaders in the industry at the Coko Foundation. I’d love to see this spirit of generosity continue past the current time of the pandemic-induced crisis, truly believing we’re all richer when resources are shared.
Julia Norrish is the Executive Director at Book Dash
Online reading practices and the importance of digital accessibility
At the beginning of what promises to be another challenging year, what is clearer now than ever before is the importance that agility, grit, and a collective response plays in overcoming the new and existing challenges faced in learning and literacy, globally.
Accessibility to digital tools and content was imperative to continued learning this year, and it’s encouraging to see how these have been embraced. Book Dash’s website visits alone increased by 500% compared to 2019. Hundreds of thousands of young readers are now interacting with digital reading and learning tools, daily. Many of them are using these tools for the first time, and in situations where they have far less support than they would have had ordinarily. Through this, we’ve learned that access to digital content and tools is not enough. We’ve also seen how important engaged and empowered teachers, parents and other care-givers are to building reading communities – whether these are facilitated with hardcopy or digital books.
Coming together, listening to each other, and adapting to change quickly and effectively is crucial to establishing successful online reading practices, regardless of whether you are building the tools, implementing them, or using them day-to-day.
Tarryn-Anne Anderson is a founding member of Book Dash and the Growth Director at Snapplify.
The importance of agility and adaptability in social impact businesses
While the social sector is accustomed to, even built for, turbulence, 2020 was a shock. Funding streams that seemed secure were suddenly diverted – rightly so – to COVID19 relief efforts and usual channels to communities were severely disrupted.
Social enterprises were met with mixed messages – some funders wanted an immediate pivot to dealing with COVID issues, while others praised organisations that promised to stay true to mission while drastically cutting back on staff and projects. It was a difficult environment in which to keep your head, as the obvious and drastic needs of communities, the frantic reprioritisation by funders, the restrictions on movement and commerce, and the general psychological stress merged in a pressure cooker.
Despite this, many organisations managed to react with grace, courage and imagination. They made tough decisions, drew on reserves (financial and emotional), initiated collaborative conversations with funders, sought out new partners, redesigned programme delivery, and reimagined the value they could bring to the people they serve.
Many organisations – early childhood development centres are an example – simply couldn’t respond in this way. And movements have built up around them to try to claw back what has been lost this year. If there is any silver lining, it’s the widespread realisation that services like these and the impact they have on children’s lives cannot be underestimated.
Social impact businesses have learned valuable lessons this year: that agility and adaptability are necessities, that resilience and mutual support are critical, and that they are stronger and more essential than they ever knew.
Michelle Matthews is a founding member of Book Dash and Director of Product at Viridian