A hackathon for children’s books in South Africa

Book Dash
South Africa (Cape Town)

“We have this big vision that we would like every child to own a hundred books by the age of five” – Arthur Attwell


What do you get when you lock creative teams of authors, editors, illustrators and designers, in a room for twelve hours? You get beautifully-illustrated, world-class children’s books ready to be published, translated, and distributed – wait for it – for free across South Africa and the world.

This wild idea that the Book Dash co-founders tried out in 2014 has turned into a whole literacy movement, with their one millionth book printed in 2020 and plans for distributing up to three million books and maximising digital reach by 2023. It started as a grand experiment in addressing the South African literacy crisis and evolved into regular hackathons (called Book Dashes) where, within 12 hours, ten teams comprising talented writers, editors, illustrators and designers, create ten brand new children’s books for those who most need it. 


With stubbornly low literacy and book-ownership rates among South African children – in 58% of households there’s not a single leisure book to be found (SABDC, 2016) – the co-founders Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews, and Tarryn-Anne Anderson wanted to address the book-ownership gap. Not only did they want all South African children to fall in love with reading, but also to have their own books. And for the books to reach the right (little) hands, according to Arthur, they’d need to be able to “print them cheaply, share them widely, and translate them easily.”

For Julia Norrish, the Executive Director, there’s “nothing more satisfying than seeing those scenes of children with books in their hands and the look of joy because the book is theirs to own.” This wouldn’t be possible if you follow the traditional publishing route (which relies on costly teams of freelancers and many months to produce books), so they created a different publishing model without sacrificing on quality. But how could they make incredible books available for free? Gratis, nada, gratuit, mahala . . .

Their win-win-win model keeps everyone coming back for more. Publishing professionals generously volunteer their time and share their skills on a Book Dash day as their “gift to the world”. The Book Dash funding partners are eager to support such a worthy cause by sponsoring the creation, translation and printing and distribution of the books to children. Director Dorette Louw says, “the distribution partners are literacy promotion organisations across the country distributing the books to the children.” 

These partners are eager to support a research-based social project yielding long-lasting impact ensuring that children in the most remote areas are reached. Book Dash books are almost always the first ones they can give to the young children they work with to take home and own. They’re a key part in the movement turning children in underserved communities into book owners and readers. 

The final – and most important  – “win” is that loads of brand new storybooks land directly in the hands of the children who need them most, for free. All partners report on the positive impact the books have on the children. Julia explains that they’ve received “feedback that the kids love the books so much that they put them under their pillows before they go to sleep and that just lets us know that the books are valued and what we’re doing is making a difference.”

Not only do Book Dash and its partners make sure South African children get these books, but they also share their work through an open license and free digital distribution. “Everything Book Dash creates we share with the world, so we licence everything under a Creative Commons licence. All the books go onto our website for free, anyone can read, download, print, distribute, or whatever they like to do with those books.” And over a hundred organisations have been doing exactly that. They re-use and re-share the Book Dash content, achieving significant results through what Book Dash calls the “Power of Open”.

Seven years, seventeen events, and 156 (or over 1000 including their worldwide translations) brand new children’s books later and everyone wants to be part of the movement. Mignon Hardie, from the FunDza Literacy Trust is proud to be a Book Dash distribution partner and says that “Book Dash offers an innovative solution to growing generations of book-lovers, wordsmiths, and creative thinkers.” Thokozani Mkhize, the designer of Unathi and the Dirty, Smelly Beast and Sindi and the Moon said “I wanted to become part of this because… I really just want to give back to the community and have my name on something so cool”. It’s easy to understand why everyone wants to join the movement when you open the award-winning Tortoise finds its home or any of the other books available in 11 South African languages. All these wonderful books are accessible to everyone, so you can read, download, and share them widely.

AtlasAction: To join the revolution, download the app, read the books online, and spread the word far and wide. For every €10 donated to Book Dash, ten beautiful books make their way into little hands. To make sure this can continue happening, you can donate or get involved in many other ways.

Images: Michelle Jones

Written by

Zanri Kritzinger (03 June 2021)


Book-lover, sustainability-seeker, plant-eater, and curious learner. Manager of social impact projects and author of children’s books.

Project leader

Julia Norrish, Executive Director


This project has been selected as part of CultureFutures, a storytelling project that maps creative and cultural projects with a social mission – and the artists, collectives and entrepreneurs behind them. Atlas of the Future is excited to join forces with Goldsmiths Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and the British Council Creative Economy.

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