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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A Dashing Day: the magic of making books for children

Dueling Darth VadersSpend a day creating children’s books, and this is what you might encounter. A platinum blonde with electric bunny ears. Two poets in Darth Vader masks duelling each other with fairy wands. A little boy in a scarlet petticoat and ladybird wings. A trio sporting fake eyebrows and moustaches. And that’s just the people making the books.

At long last, I got to attend my first Book Dash day yesterday. The impetus: South African (and African) children don’t see nearly enough of themselves or their stories on the pages of books — or if they do, the books are commissioned with the education market in mind, often worthy/preachy, poorly designed and illustrated, and about as light as poured concrete. Besides, for poor families, spending money on a child’s book for recreational reading is out of the question.

The brains (and great big hearts — Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews, Tarryn-Anne Anderson, Julia Norrish) behind the Book Dash concept believe that it’s vital for very young children to have access to books, something borne out by decades of research on early childhood development. So they make it happen through a truly genius system: they ask teams of three (writer, illustrator and designer) to give one day of their time to create a book for free. Teams are supported by editors, tech advisers and logistical crew, and provided with vast amounts of delicious food and drink.

All the books are licensed under a creative commons agreement, so that anyone can download or print out the books for non-commercial use. This means they can be translated into any language in the world — for free. So no royalties or copyright fees.

The infrastructural costs of running a Book Dash day, at a central location (itself often donated), are met by corporate sponsors. (Yesterday’s marathon was sponsored by Decorland: muchas gracias!) Fundraising campaigns aim to meet the single biggest expense — printing. (See here for Lauren Beukes’s brilliant means of raising enough money to print 50 000 books. Yes, that is the correct number of zeros.) Structures such as NPOs and educational initiatives that have the capacity to distribute the books are identified. Et voila, little children get to own their very first books.

I arrived both stressed and excited: how was I going to provide editing support to three teams for stories that still had to be written? I needn’t have worried. When, for instance, I told poet and storyteller Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa that her 800-word folktale source needed to be a maximum of 120 words for this age group, and its rich assembly of characters needed to be cut to three, she sat down and knocked out a perfect story in an hour. I fell upon her neck, proposing marriage.

Maya Marshak, the artist on the team creating Katiita’s Song, had flu, but still painted delicate, empathetic panels before being sent home to bed, with designer Kirsten Walker stepping into the breach and making sure we had something exquisite to present at the end of the day. Philippa composed a song that Maama sings to her little daughter, Katiita, and performed it for us, complete with growly gorilla voices, at the Show and Tell session — this might be Book Dash’s first audio-book.

I mostly just hovered appreciatively around “my” other teams: The Best Thing Ever, created by Melissa Fagan (writer), Lauren Nel (illustrator) and Stefania Origgi (designer); and Little Sock, created by Chani Coetzee (designer), Lili Probart (artist) and Jon Keevy (writer who should be doing stand-up, if he isn’t already). The Best Thing Ever is about Muzi, a small boy who discovers the magic of found objects on a trip to his Gogo. I was so busy clasping my hands in delight over the charm of the story and the paintings Lauren Nel was doing, I only registered the subtle messages about the environment, imagination and transformation later. Likewise, the story of Little Sock was essentially “The Odyssey, but with a single sock” — the kind of story that delivers both to adults and littlies. It was funny and quirky, off-the-wall and underground, and I loved it.

It’s impossible to describe the atmosphere of a Dash Day. Part of the magic is that people who give this kind of time to make children’s books are special. I’ve long known that anyone, esp in SA, who cares about and creates children’s lit deserves a special place in heaven. Then there’s the feeling of being in a huge adult kindergarten. State of the art tech shares space with pastels, crayons, craft paper, paints. Writers tell their tales, an artist picks up a paintbrush and an idea blooms on a page, in colour. It’s lump-in-the-throat stuff, especially when writing for this particular age group (yesterday’s efforts were for 3-5 year-olds). Make no mistake, it’s hard writing for kids: they can’t be fobbed off with cheesy, preachy or boring.

Everywhere I looked, there was something truly wonderful happening. Jacqui L’Ange wrote a story about a shongololo’s disappearing shoes that had layers of wit and heart. Martha Evans, wearing an author instead of an editor hat, said of working in tandem with an illustrator and designer: “It’s like that moment when you get a perfect cover — but over and over.”

The shrewdly planned catering involved an endless supply of delicious goodies, featuring masses of protein, no refined carbs or sugar until after the 3pm slump (at which chocolate was introduced into the mix). Endless tea, coffee, Red Bull (I had my first: cherry liqueur meets Iron Brew — yuk, but what a caffeine rush), with wine broached at 5pm. The cheerleading and support staff were also amazing: special thanks to Noélle Ruby-Mae Koeries and Tarryn-Ann Anderson for cups of tea, TLC and well-timed hugs.

I’m glad Philippa spoke about the elephant in the room: the preponderance of white (and female) faces. She was disappointed, but it was partly circumstantial; seven black would-be participants couldn’t make the specified date. Then there are the factors that should be obvious, but often aren’t: asking people to work for free for a 15-hour day (if you include travel) takes a middle-class layer of resources, as well as ease of access to a central urban location. And in spite of being a small sector of the population, white Saffers have a dense concentration of specialist skills by definition, because of the affirmative advantages our education and access have bestowed on us. But there are plans afoot, including attracting funding so that Book Dashes happen in other African countries.

IMG_4518There was a moving moment when Maya showed us her painting of the character, Maama: we were exclaiming over the beauty of both the artwork and the character, when Philippa said “I’m not used to seeing my face — a black woman’s face — rendered as a model of loveliness and goodness. We’re presented with so many Western ideals of beauty that it’s a pleasant shock when I see a representation of myself as someone beautiful, a heroine.”

And meanwhile, the fairy-dust kept swirling in the air: I made new friends, learned new things, and bopped with two Sams — one of whom, Sam Wilson (of Zodiac fame), helped co-create a book without words or text — tricky, but invaluable for this age group — and presented the book to an appreciative audience via interpretive dance. But to get a taste of the energy, colour and zing of the event, look at the photos.

To my delight and surprise, I won a prize for being Book Dash’s Number One Fan. But believe me, taking part was the prize. I can’t wait to do it all again.


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