Thriving with Book Dash

On Saturday the 25th of February, Desmond and I found ourselves at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg at 8.30am. It was not to attend German class however, but rather to photograph and film the Book Dash happening that day. Book Dash is an initiative that hosts events in which 12 teams consisting of a writer, illustrator and designer produce 12 children’s books in 12 hours. What’s even more exciting than this feat is that all of these books are licensed under Creative Commons. This means that they are freely available from the Book Dash website and can be downloaded, printed, published, translated and read by anyone, anywhere without needing to pay royalties or fees to access the content. This year was their 3rd year running, having published 67 books in the last 3 years, and was their first pan-African event. Individuals from 9 different Sub-Saharan African countries had been invited to be part of the South Africa teams endeavoring to create books that day. We were thrilled to have been invited to the event to document the day and make another episode for our Conservation through Education series that could double as an information video that Book Dash can use on their own platforms.

The event day began with us running around getting our gear set up and getting images of the venue prior to the participants arriving. We said hello and chatted briefly with organizers Arthur, Julia and Tarryn in between their checks to make sure that all the preparation needed for the day was done. Everything was extremely organized, with the venue ready and waiting for the day to get going. Each table was set up with a portfolio of information for the team, two pencils and an eraser. The table outside in the courtyard sported breakfast snacks, waters, juices, teas and coffees for everyone to enjoy. Prior to the Book Dash event, participants had attended a two-day workshop with internationally-acclaimed German author Kirsten Boie and illustrator Barbara Scholz. These two days provided participants with critical insight into the writing and illustrating processes behind creating a successful children’s book, as well as provide a platform for dialogue between creatives from different Sub-Saharan African countries.


That morning, participants arrived, placed all their equipment and gadgets on their team’s table and then hurried outside for chats over a beverage near the food table. Slowly but surely the venue filled up and by 9am the editors had been briefed and the day was ready to begin. The first part of the hour was spent briefing the illustrators and writers to make sure that they were equipped for the day. By 9.30 everyone was gathered back in the auditorium for a general welcome and an overview of the ‘Why, How and What’ of Book Dash and their goals for the day. At 10am, everyone was ready and rearing to go and the environment settled down into a steady murmur of sketching, chatting, writing, planning and creating of books.


At 11am the designers had put together the overview of the layout of the books on the pages provided – so that how images and words would be placed on each page had been established – and were whisked off for a brief on the guidelines and tips on how to prepare the digital files containing the completed books by the end of the day. The editors, writers and illustrators continued to bustle over their projects making sure to iron out any grammatical kinks and manifest their visions for each story. Illustrators were working in a variety of digital and paper mediums to produce image after image to accompany the story that was spilling across the book pages. Tarryn, one of the organizers, spent the entire morning running between the groups to make sure that draft and illustration mini-deadlines were being met. Each group’s progress was tracked on the wall in order to monitor their process and to make sure that they would finish on time. First drafts of the story quickly blurred into second drafts as the afternoon began. It was really interesting to float between the tables, watching each group’s dynamics and work flow as they steadily made their way toward the goal of completing a book in a single day. The collaborative spirit and talent of the individuals really shined through as they took to the challenge and pressures of the day with ease and more often than not, a smile.

At 1pm it was time for a read through of the stories. Desmond and I followed the group of writers and editors from the auditorium into the conference room where they would be reading and sharing their stories with one another for feedback and suggestions. The rain was pouring as we all shuffled through courtyards and across wet floors to reconvene in a smaller room where the reading would take place. Each writer read their book and were given warm feedback and answers to their questions by their collaborators and the book dash organizers. On a few occasions the thunder forced a reader to pause, or added a dramatic effect to a phrase, but the reading ran smoothly and was a productive environment where any final concerns or curiosities about the stories were addressed. Soon after this activity was complete, we returned to the auditorium where the illustrators and designers were still working tirelessly over screens and pages. By this point, the work of the writers was largely complete and they were delegated as supply fetching support, bringing in tiny plates of food and requested beverages to keep the creative process going.

The afternoon continued and illustration after illustration was completed and converted into files for the designers to compile into the book alongside the text they had been provided by their writers. There was a short intermission where the Book Dash organizers handed out spot prizes to each team and distributed chocolate bars to uphold a good sense of morale as the final hours descended upon the teams. Des and I continued to move around the room, getting timelapses of drawing sequences and spotting less-busy individuals that we could interview about the day. By 7pm the mood in the room had become considerably more serious as the teams moved into the final phases of cover designs and book compilation before the 8.30pm show and tell of all the completed projects.

At the end of a long and exciting day, the projector and microphone had been set up and the digital files for the books were queued to be displayed. Each team took it’s turn coming to the stage, with the writer reading the story book to the crowd whilst we got to enjoy the associated designs and illustrations being displayed on the screen. The books were varied in content; short but sweet with each one carrying it’s own flair of African culture, values, jargon and characters. To see a group of adults mesmerized by the stories being told, joining in the reading process and giggling brought a child-like sense of happiness into the room that encompassed the working environment that had characterized the auditorium throughout the day. The vision of this project is inspiring on it’s own, but to see it’s goals and practices embodied by this number of individuals who created such high-quality content in such a short span of time really represented the success and value of the Book Dash initiative. After the readings were complete, with the appropriate cheering and clapping after each one, every contestant collected their participation certificate and ‘I survived Book Dash” t-shirt to gather for the final group photo before the culmination of the event and everyone returning to their beds for a well earned rest.

As with the 48hr film competitions that Des and I have partaken in over the last few years, Book Dash really stands as an example that if there is the dedication and desire, a project that many would deem impossible can be done with ease and enjoyment. This project holds a shining torch that lights up the fact that the production of African literature, art and stories is not a pipe dream but a realistic goal that has now been completed without excuses or delays. Their focus on children’s books however, is a novel and valuable intention in order to make sure that this ethos of local creativity is subtly encouraged in the following generation. I think that what struck me most about the day is how pleasing it was to hear so many intellectual and talented adults saying that what they wanted most out of the day was to make narratives that children felt reflected themselves and their own lives and experiences. Having this much energy directed toward a mass-media production that can be used toward efforts to conserve culture, language and storytelling – whilst promoting creative and local individuals through framing reading as a practice of education about the self and the world around you – really left me with a sense of gratitude and hope toward the way technology, collaboration and open source media can become embedded within the broader African society and inspire the shape of the future.

Congratulations to all who partook in the day. Anyone wanting to download or enjoy the books made through Book Dash, please either visit their website or download the WorldReader app where their books are featured. A big acknowledgement also needs to be made to the Goethe-Institut who offered a perfect venue for the event and also assisted with both organization and funding to make this Pan-African Book Dash happen. A full album of photos from the day can be viewed on the Goethe Facebook Page.

Feel free to view and enjoy the video that we made of the day below, which also serves as the 3rd episode of our Conservation through Education video series. We hope it allows to you a peek into the success and energy of the day.

Cinematography and Editing by Desmond Bowles
Directed and Produced by Jamie Dimitra Ashton