AiW Guest: Nard Choi
This week, AiW Guest Nard Choi continues our journey into African children’s literature.
One of the biggest challenges for academics and educators working for young readers on the African continent is that there are simply not enough books, both in the classroom and the home. Although there is a growing presence of smaller publishers striving to make books more affordable for children on the continent, the high costs of printing and distribution present an ongoing challenge. A number of entrepreneurs and literary organizations have taken up this problem by turning to technology—namely, e-books. The rapid advances and diminishing costs of digital technology combined with the increasing ubiquity of mobile connectivity on the African continent has sparked a flurry of initiatives to develop e-reader programs and digital libraries for children to access easily. Worldreader, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco and co-founded by former Microsoft and Amazon Executive David Risher, is perhaps working at the biggest scale, which has already distributed over 20,000 Kindles and 3 million e-books to children in 15 sub-Saharan African countries.
The question of quality, however, still remains. It is all too easy for organizations to develop e-books for children using simple html formats and minimal illustrations. Whereas these initiatives can fulfill the issue of quantity, children may not necessarily be receiving good quality stories that cultivate a love of reading.
Cape Town-based Book Dash strives to fill some of these gaps by creating contextually relevant e-books for young readers. Book Dash works by gathering creative professionals to volunteer to create African storybooks, often through 12-hour book-making marathons called ‘Book Dash days’. And the results are stunning high-quality storybooks that can be freely downloaded, translated, and distributed by anyone through an open license-publishing model. A unique feature of Book Dash is that they provide print-ready versions of all the storybooks as well as app-friendly versions, making it easy for schools, libraries, and even parents to affordably print and assemble the books themselves. Besides the professional layout and finish of the books, the emphasis on print-ready storybooks means that the pages are filled with vibrant illustrations that will capture a child’s imagination both on the page and the screen.
As Book Dash primarily aims to create storybooks for ages 1 to 5, many of the books feature easy-to-read storylines. The celebration of diversity is a reoccurring theme through the storybooks. Lara the Yellow Ladybird by Catherine Holtzhausen, Martha Evans, and Nadene Kriel and Rafiki’s Style by Audrey Anderson, Louis Greenberg, and Wesley Thompson convey the message that being different is something to be embraced—despite the pressure you may feel to conform to be like everyone else, there will always be someone who appreciates your uniqueness. The seemingly simple texts come alive when set against the luminous, full-spread illustrations that employ a wide range of artistic styles, often incorporating mixed media and collages.
All of the storybooks seamlessly incorporate aspects of South African culture, images, and words that will resonate with their audience without delivering the kinds of overt cultural lessons that are commonly found in multicultural books published in North America or the UK. For example, in Shongololo’s Shoes by Megan Lotter, Jacqui L’Ange, and Marteli Kleyn, the text never explains that ‘shongololo’ means millipede and instead launches straight into Shongololo’s search for his many lost shoes. Similarly, in Sindi and the Moon by Zanele Dlamini, Thokozani Mkhize, and Wesley van Eeden, the text does not give an aside to define ‘Gogo’ as grandmother but rather retains its focus on Sindi’s fears and worries about starting school for the first time. The story gives voice to the anxieties than any young child may feel before the first day of school, while the elements of setting conveyed through the text and illustrations comfortably situates this universal experience within the specific context of South Africa.
Lastly, there are also several non-fiction books in the collection about prominent African figures such as Zanele Situ, Graca Mandela, and Wangari Maathai, that may be more suitable for independent readers or for adults to read aloud to young children. Liesl Jobson, Alice Toich and Nazli Jacobs’ Together We’re Strong: The Story of Albertina Sisulu traces the journey of one of South Africa’s most important anti-apartheid leaders from her childhood to her political involvements as an activist. The story starts with Nontsikelelo’s birth where her mother already perceives that her baby “was a special girl, a fighter.” Nontsikelelo, affectionately known as Ntsiki, already has a strong independent streak from a young age. When Ntsiki goes to school, the Presbyterian teacher tells her that she has to choose an English name. While Ntsiki wonders why that is the case, she nevertheless chooses Albertina: “Al-ber-ti-na! The name had rhythm. Al-ber-ti-na! The name had bounce. Albertina was a name you didn’t mess with.”
While Albertina is portrayed as a determined, intelligent young woman, the story also reveals that her resolve and courage developed through times of hard work, loneliness, and vulnerability. Her hard-earned entry into high school means that she has to journey far from home and work during the holidays. While she studies and works, Albertina wonders, “Who was telling her brothers and sisters funny stories? Who wiped their eyes when they cried?” Her dreams take her even farther from home, all the way to the big city of Johannesburg, where she studies to become a nurse. The story focuses mostly on Albertina’s development as a character, not delving very deeply into the details of her later life as an activist with her fellow activist husband Walter Sisulu, but instead highlighting the deeply rooted strength that Albertina’s upbringing provides. The last page poignantly depicts Albertina sitting in a desolate jail cell at night, scared and lonely, but still courageously singing the song that her mother used to sing over her: “Be strong, little one. Winter’s not long. Be brave, little one, Together we’re strong!”
In summary, Book Dash offers easily accessible, professional-quality, good storybooks that can suit a wide range of audiences and interests. It is rare to see such a high caliber of storybooks that are freely offered for young readers on the African continent. Book Dash’s storybooks show that yes, it is important to strive to reach as many young readers as possible, but that does not mean quality should be compromised.
Nard Choi is a PhD candidate studying Children’s Literature and Education at the University of Cambridge. Nard completed her Master’s degree focusing on African children’s literature at Cambridge in 2014 and her current doctoral research focuses on the literary experiences of young Tanzanian students in school libraries. She has also worked for several years in urban and rural settings in Tanzania on various educational projects, including the opening and running of a primary school library, co-directing a new pre-school, curriculum development, and teacher mentoring.
Book Dash is a volunteer organization in South Africa working to put 600 million free books into the hands of children who could never afford them. Please visit their website to learn more, including how to volunteer and download free storybooks.