Interview with the Book Dash Team

Book Dash Interview

Book Dash is an organisation that is committed to getting storytellers, illustrators and creative professionals together in one space, on one day, to create copyright-free books for South African children.

These books are then printed and donated freely to ECD centres, literary organizations , homes and libraries across the country. I had the privilege of interviewing the team this week.

Book Dash team:
Michelle Matthews: Co-founder and Spot-Prize Luminary
Arthur Attwell: Co-founder and Tech Wizard
Tarryn-Anne Anderson: Co-founder and Facilitator Extraordinaire
Julia Norrish: Project Director and Resident Newbie

Book DashCeleste: Tell me a little about Book Dash – how did it start, how did the idea come about, where was the first ‘gathering’…

Arthur: 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.

Julia: 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. We were registered as an NPO with the Department of Social Development on 27 November 2014.

Book Dash
Karlien de Villiers illustrates “Graca’s Dream”, written by Melissa Fagan and designed by Marike le Roux at Book Dash Cape Town, 30 August 2014

Celeste: How many events have you held so far? I know there was on in Cape Town, then JHB?

Julia: As Arthur mentions, a trial/pilot event was held with two teams in May 2014 to test the  feasibility of a Book Dash: making an entire children’s book in just 12 hours. Since then, we’ve hosted four extremely successful, full-blown (ten teams) Book Dashes: two in Cape Town, one in Jo’burg (June 2015) and one in Durban (November 2015).

Celeste: How many books have you’ve been able to put together and print?

Julia: We currently have 28 original, print-ready titles available on our website here: http://bookdash.org/see/books/. All these books can be read online or downloaded for free Print-ready files are there too, if people want to do their own printrun! Many of these titles have been translated in other African languages and these are also available for download. The books that were created at Book Dash Durban are being finalised and will be uploaded to the site as soon as possible. That means another ten original, African titles. To date, we’ve printed 13, 170 books about 90% of which have been given away to ECD centres, literary organisation, directly to kids and to libraries. We keep some stock to sell and put toward our sustainability funds. We are currently printing 7 500 more books with funding we received from the Solon Foundation and thanks to Lauren Beukes and Nando’s Art Fund, we’ll be printing 45 000 more books early next year.

Arthur: We’ve held five Book Dash days so far, which have produced 42 books. Of these, 29 are print-ready and available on bookdash.org. The rest, mostly from our most recent Book Dash in Durban, 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.

Book Dash
A Book Dash recipient at one of the Masikhule-supported ECD centres in the Helderberg reads “Bathtub Safari” created by Sarah-Jane Williams, Robert McEwan & Tracy Lynn Chemaly at Book Dash Cape Town, 2014.

Celeste: What has the response been like with the authors, illustrators and children?

Julia: We’re consistently bowled over by the enthusiasm and quality of the applicants and we think it’ll just keep getting better as our name grows. The complete selfless way in which professional writers, illustrators and designers jump into the spirit of Book Dash is incredible. We also feel that Book Dash can be a platform for extremely talented, but less-established creatives to add a notch to their belt: we’re pretty sure we’ve uncovered South Africa’s answer to Helen Oxenbury, Julia Donaldson and Emily Gravett already, and that there is only more to come.

Arthur: 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!”

Celeste: What type of skills are you looking for? Can anyone get involved?

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 is media or bloggers like you to spread the Book Dash word.

Book Dash
Volunteer creatives hard at work at Book Dash Durban, held at St Mary’s DSG in Kloof, with Book Dash’s signature bunting brightening up the room.

Celeste: A lot of my readers are from Cape Town – any news of possible doing another get-together here?

Julia: We’re waiting on confirmation, but we’re hopeful that it will be in the first quarter of 2016 and we’re expecting an overwhelming response! We send out a call for applicants two months prior to any Book Dash. To stay up to date, join our mailing here: http://eepurl.com/SsROP or following us on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/bookdash/

Celeste: Where can people find you online?

Julia: We’re on Facebook at the link above. We’re also on Instagram at @bookdash — which is great for sharing images from our books because of its visual nature — and on Twitter on @bookdash. We’ve also just launched a Medium blog site that collates reflective articles participants have written about Book Dash, particularly their experience of creating a children’s books in under 12 hours.

What is your favourite part about the Book Dash events?

Taryn: 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 so priceless. I think it’s rare to get that spontaneous, true and immediate feedback in relation to your work. Especially from your peers.

Michelle: 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.

Julia: 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 truly step up to the challenge. We don’t only create children’s books at Book Dash days, we mould young creatives.

Arthur: 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!”

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